An important chapter in Santa Fe history ended in 1968 when Loretto Academy closed its doors. The school began in 1853 as part of an educational mandate by Archbishop Jean Baptiste. The Sisters of Loretto arrived in Santa Fe in covered wagons on September 26, 1852, to start a school for girls. It was the first of several schools in the region that were founded by the sisters. For 115 years, the school provided thousands of girls and young women with a high-quality education and spiritual guidance. In 1969 their student body became part of St. Michael’s High School.
Santa Fe’s Loretto Academy came into existence forty years after the founding of the Sisters of Loretto religious community. In 1812 founders, Mary Rhodes, Ann Havern and Christina Stuart, began teaching children on the Kentucky frontier. They sought the guidance of Father Charles Nerinckx, a Belgium missionary priest who served the area. As a result, the Sisters of Loretto at the Foot of the Cross came into existence. The first academy established by the Sisters of Loretto was built in 1824 in Nernix, Kentucky, where the Loretto Motherhouse is still located. Loretto had a tradition in teaching not only the traditional disciplines of art and science, but also the creative arts and social justice.
The Santa Fe school was located one block south of the Plaza, where the Inn and Spa at Loretto is today. Loretto Chapel, which became a private museum after the school closed, is the only original building facing Old Santa Fe Trail. The school and convent were torn down to make way for the construction of the hotel, which began in 1974.
For more than a century Loretto Academy was a part of the historical fabric that many Santa Feans still remember. No one is more well versed in the history of Loretto than sixty-eight-year-old J.B. Peña. For the past forty-two years she has operated her business, Handwoven Originals, at the Inn and Spa at Loretto. As a young girl in 1958, when she was Judy Boles, she attended Loretto Academy for five years, starting in the first grade. Peña explains, “That’s when the school had grades one through twelve. Later, the elementary school was closed.”
Because Loretto Academy closed in 1968, Peña ended up graduating from Santa Fe High School in 1970. Four years later she started her own weaving business in a shop at Bull Ring Alley. By 1980 she had the opportunity to move her business to the Inn and Spa at Loretto, where she has been ever since. Peña’s forty-two years in business there and her five years as a student on the same site have made her Loretto Academy’s de facto historian. “People come into the shop and they have no idea that the property was a former school, so I give them the history,” Peña says. “When they ask me directions, I always tell them to go on College Street before I correct myself and say ‘Santa Fe Trail.’ I can’t help it, because it will always be College Street to me.”
College Street was named for St. Michael’s College, the counterpart to Loretto Academy. The all-boys school was founded by the La Sallian Christian Brothers in 1859 and was located next to the San Miguel Mission. By the early 1970s the street name was changed to the Santa Trail to mark the original route that began in 1821 in Franklin, Missouri, and ended on the Santa Fe Plaza. Before St. Michael’s College opened in the early part of the nineteenth century, the street was called Bridge Street because of the bridge over the Santa Fe River.
In addition to feeling that she’s still on College Street, Peña can’t help but feel déjà vu as she goes about her workday. “There used to be an underground candy store with tables, where we would eat our sack lunch. The cafeteria was located on the fourth floor of the convent. I used to help Sister Serga sweep the classroom while I waited after school for the bus. Jacques Cartier was my dance teacher during the time that he also performed as the fire dancer for the annual burning of Zozobra. And the building in the back of the parking lot used to be called the Opportunity School for disabled children,” she reminisced.
Peña is a self-taught weaver. She feels fortunate to have had a successful business in her hometown and that she can feature the work of other local artists. One way that she has given back to the town that has given her so much was through her involvement with the Santa Fe Living Treasures. For twenty years she was the president of the organization, which honors remarkable elders and their contributions to the community.
Peña says that operating Handwoven Originals for more than four decades on the location of her first school has given her “the feeling that my life has come full circle.” Moreover, it makes perfect sense that in 1990 she would choose Loretto Chapel as the site of another momentous life event, her wedding to artist Amado Peña.