Jean Sites Oerther enjoyed telling her sons and grandchildren about how she attended a convent school during her first two years of high school.
Since leaving Mount Saint Joseph Academy following her sophomore year in 1958, Oerther had never returned to Maple Mount, even though since 1979 she has lived in Louisville.
“I’m not a ‘live in the past person’,” she said. “But I always wanted to come back here. I don’t know why it’s been in the back of my mind.”
When her husband Carl returned from a trip to St. Louis on Sept. 15, 2019, she told him, “Let’s just do this. I want to see if my memory serves me well.”
On Sept. 19, she returned to Maple Mount after 61 years. While visiting alumnae often remark how different the grounds are since last they visited, Oerther was surprised how much remained from her days at the Academy.
She meandered through the Mount Saint Joseph Conference and Retreat Center hallways – in what was the Academy until it closed in 1983 – to find the room she had as a sophomore. She and her husband stopped in front of the Christ the King statue to sit on a bench, just as she had done many times as a teenager.
“I went to class where that parking lot is,” she said, correctly pointing to the former St. Michael Hall, where math and science classes were held. The building was razed in 2013. She’s been gone so long that neither the gymnasium nor Lourdes Hall were constructed until a few years after she left.
Oerther grew up in nearby Henderson, Ky., where she attended Holy Name School, taught by the Sisters of Charity. As she was completing the eighth grade, the priest at the parish announced that the high school the church operated was closing.
“He also told us that if you didn’t send your children to a Catholic school, you were excommunicated,” she said.
Her father worked in Louisville, serving as the first environmental engineer for the State Health Department, while her mother remained in Henderson. Her family home was where the parking lot is now behind Holy Name Church.
“My parents brought me here in the summer at 14 and I got fitted for a uniform,” she said. Most of the boarding students at the Academy were from rural areas and had to work to help pay their tuition.
“I was one of maybe 10 students who didn’t work,” she said. “If you didn’t work, you felt a little different.” The girls with jobs could only go home at Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter, but Oerther was able to go home every six weeks.
“You wore a uniform seven days a week. The only time you took it off is when you went to bed,” she said. “We were in a dormitory, there was a bed, a nightstand and a white sheet separating us.” Two of the classmates she remembers who became Ursuline Sisters were Kathleen Kaelin and the late Rose Marita O’Bryan.
During her sophomore year, she had a private room above the library. The study hall was opposite the library, where the girls spent two hours a night, she said.
“The environment was like you were a young nun,” Oerther said. “We were awakened by a Latin phrase. We got dressed at 5:30 a.m. and went to Mass with the sisters. We ate, but we didn’t talk, they read religious books during mealtime.
“On Friday afternoons, you would walk down the hill to the laundry, they had this humongous press, and you would press the pleats back into your uniform,” she said. “Our names were sewn into our clothes. There was a Sunday uniform and a navy-blue sweater. You had your chapel veil and rosary all the time. We had one hour of recreation. We prayed from 4-5, then ate supper and did evening prayers. Then we spent two hours in study hall and went to bed.
“The education was terrific. The biology and math were strong here. It really started me on my career,” she said.
After two years, the Sites family decided to move to Louisville and took Jean with them, enrolling her in Sacred Heart Academy, where she was taught by the Ursuline Sisters of Louisville. She graduated in 1960. She then graduated from Marian College (now University) in Indianapolis, taught by the Franciscans.
“My parents told me I could go to any Catholic college I want within 500 miles. So, I chose one no one had ever heard of,” she said. “Just like the Mount, the first time I saw the campus was the day my parents dropped me off.”
She graduated with a biology degree, then went to work at Harvard University Medical School. She worked on cancer research projects for children with leukemia led by Dr. Sidney Farber, the legendary pathologist and one of the namesakes of today’s Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.
The project she worked with moved to the University of Pittsburgh, where some groundbreaking medicine for children with leukemia was developed in the late 1960s, she said. To stay with the project meant she would next have to move to New Jersey and Rutgers University. Wanting to be closer to family, she moved back to Kentucky.
The state had moved her father’s job to Frankfort, so that’s where her family was living. While attending a wedding, she met Carl Oerther, a friend of the family. The two were married in 1971. Carl was a mental health therapist, and Jean stayed home to raise their two sons. The couple are now both retired and have been married for 48 years.
Her trip back to Maple Mount confirmed that her memories were still clear.
“After so many years I wasn’t sure what to expect or how I might feel, but all is well,” she said.