New museum exhibit explores Catholic education in diocese

By: By Jennifer Willems

Even before there was a Diocese of Peoria, there was a passion for Catholic education in central Illinois. It was a passion shared by Bishop John Lancaster Spalding, who was consecrated to lead the fledgling diocese on May 1, 1877, and would be felt throughout the country before he died in 1916.

To honor that legacy and how it is being extended through the ministry of Bishop Daniel R. Jenky, CSC, the Museums of the Diocese of Peoria at the Spalding Pastoral Center have erected a new exhibit, “On the Shoulders of Bishop Spalding: The Beginnings of Catholic Education in the Peoria Diocese.” Opened late last month, it will run through November.

“It all began on his shoulders,” said Sister Lea Stefanecova, FSJB, who worked on the exhibit with Sister Ann Gill, FSJB. “He was a great educator and it was a big issue for him. He really took it as something of great importance.”

To collect information for these “pioneer” and “Spalding” schools, the archivists contacted more than 30 religious communities who sent Sisters to teach in the schools of the Diocese of Peoria just before it was founded and during Bishop Spalding’s era.

“Many of them responded with histories or materials, pictures and stories, and artifacts,” Sister Lea told The Catholic Post. “We acquired so much more than we had, which is really wonderful.”

She added that the communities were not able to send full habits for the display, but some of them did provide dolls dressed in miniature habits. Among them were the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, the Felician Sisters, the Franciscan Sisters of the Sacred Heart, and the Sisters of St. Francis of the Immaculate Conception, also known as the Heading Avenue Franciscans.

The Peoria Historical Society also loaned a few items to the diocesan museum, including a double writing slate that students would have used in class and some textbooks from the public and Catholic schools in the city at that time.

In addition, staff members from the Office of Catholic Schools offered some artifacts, such as an old school desk and a school uniform from Academy of Our Lady in Peoria. While not from the same era, these add to the sense of history, Sister Lea said.

“For me and probably for Sister Ann, too, I think the most interesting thing was we found out that Bishop Spalding was instrumental in (developing) the Baltimore Catechism,” Sister Lea said. “In other words, the bishop of Peoria was responsible for the catechism that was taught until very recently.”

She acknowledged that his name is not found among the authors or publishers, but that notes for the catechism were found among his things.
Bishop Spalding was home-schooled by his mother, Mary Jane Lancaster Spalding, according to Sister Lea.

“She was well-educated so she knew the value of a good Catholic education. He got the feel and the zeal for a good education at home,” Sister Lea said.

“Later on it showed in his own writings about education and being the father of Catholic University (of America),” she said. “He says if a school does not teach religion it’s good for nothing — it does more harm than good because children don’t have a sense of what is right and what is wrong.”

Bishop Jenky has also made Catholic school education a priority, something that was emphasized in the exhibit that preceded “On the Shoulders of Bishop Spalding.” That display was erected in honor of Bishop’s Jenky’s 10 years as spiritual leader and chief catechist of the Diocese of Peoria.

As with that exhibit — and any exhibit in the Diocesan Historical Museum and the Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen Museum — group tours are available from Monday through Friday, between the hours of 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. Sister Lea said Bishop Jenky is happy to greet school groups when his schedule permits and that all groups receive a special gift from the bishop.
More information is available on a website developed over the summer by seminarians Jacob Valle and Alex Millar. It can be found at

Tours and visits may also be arranged by calling Sister Lea and Sister Ann at (309) 671-1550.

SPALDING PASTORAL CENTER | 419 NE MADISON AVENUE | PEORIA, IL 61603 | PHONE (309) 671-1550 | FAX (309) 671-1595
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