Holy Angels Academy founder based educational career on faith, conviction
By JOHN R. KARMAN III
Record Staff Writer
ST. CATHARINE, Ky. - Though a career educator, Dominican Sister Mary Elise Groves has never been one to do things by the book.
The diminutive, 81-year-old nun went out on her own to start a private Catholic elementary school - Holy Angels Academy - in 1973, has been active in the pro-life movement and in the past could be seen praying the rosary in front of abortion clinics. She continues to wear her full habit every day.
"She's certainly one who's not afraid to stand up for her convictions," said Joseph Norton, principal if of Holy Angels, located in Old Louisville at 1408 S. Second St. He added that Sister Groves has held the line on church teaching in the last 20 to 30 years while "many of those in the church have strayed." Sister Groves retired earlier this month to Sansbury Infirmary on the grounds of the Dominican Motherhouse after six decades as an educator. In a recent interview, she talked about the reasons she has such strong convictions and about why it is important for her to maintain the traditional appearance of a woman religious. "I don't mind standing up," she said. "I want people to know what I stand for. The people - they recognize me. They come to me, and they talk to me no matter where I am - even at the races."
She added: "No matter where am, someone comes and I can help. You can do so much more this way."
When Sister Groves started Holy Angels, she did so without much help. She had the assistance of her long-time secretary, Marie Noonan, but the school was not, and is not today, supported by any particular parish.
Instead, direct appeal to parents and friends of the school, bingo and tuition are the financial mainstays of Holy Angels, which draws students from a number of Catholic parishes in Jefferson County and Southern Indiana with the largest number coming from St. Louis Bertrand Church, 1104 S. Sixth St., where the school was once located. Norton, who succeeded Sister Groves as principal of the school eight years ago, credited the nun's perseverance with maintaining the school when it was "run on a shoe string."
"Sister has kept this school going since 1973," Norton said. "This school was quite an undertaking. God chooses a unique individual for something like that."
Even at bingos, Sister Groves was always ready to pitch in to raise money for the school, Norton added.
"She'd jump in there just like anybody else," he said. "You might find her out selling pull tabs on the floor . . . in that habit if they needed her to do it. That kind of determination, perseverance, hard work on her part and her faith in God is what's kept this school going."
Norton recalled that when Sister Groves was principal of Holy Angels she would even drive her station wagon to the students' homes to make sure they had a ride to school.
When asked what her motivation was for working so hard on behalf of Holy Angels Academy, Sister Groves answered matter-of-factly, "educating children in the faith."
"I really think that there couldn't be anything better than Catholic education," she said. "The interest is in doing what's right and on getting to heaven. That's the most important thing, (getting) to heaven."
The children "mean a whole lot," she added. "I knew we would give them the best, and we have given them the best."
Holy Angels Academy adheres to the vision and values advocated by Sister Groves, Norton said. Loyalty to the pope and to the Catholic Church is critical to the school's mission. Pictures of Pope John Paul II and religious statues and artifacts are arranged throughout the school building.
The goal of the school is to educate Catholics and non-Catholics alike in a safe environment with sound academics, good discipline and a reverence for God and faith, he added.
Norton describes Holy Angels as "more traditional" in its approach to education than public or other Catholic schools because it follows Sister Groves' philosophy of "not abandoning the tried and true methods in education."
"Sister has always stuck to the things that worked, yet, at the same time, Sister's open to things that are new if they're good," he said.
The school boasts a curriculum where "the best of the new meets the best of the old." While the students learn about technology in a computer lab, they also use "old Catholic readers . . . I used when I was in school," said Norton.
Latin is also taught at Holy Angels. Sister Groves spent her last year at the school teaching the language to eighth-graders.
"I tried to get them prepared for their language in high school," she said. "I don't know why they've cut (Latin) out in high school because it affects so many other languages.
After an early history of uncertainty when the school struggled with finances and enrollment and changed locations several times, things have stabilized at Holy Angels. The school currently has no debts, Norton said, and is expecting an all-time high enrollment of 115-120 students this fall.
This growth and stability is particularly satisfying to Sister Groves.
"It means a whole lot to me because we're (continuing) to teach the faith to the children," she said. "Not only that, we're giving them a good education that can stand up to any place."
Sister Groves added that she is gratified when students come back to visit and report that they are still going to church and remember what they were taught about the Catholic faith.
In more than 60 years of educating and influencing the lives of children, Sister Groves said that she never experienced burnout.
"I was just so busy all the time (that) I didn't have time to be burned out," she said. "You just . . . do what the Lord wants you to do."