The Way of BeautyHow the Church Built Western Civilization: Part Two

Last week’s essay described how the Benedictine monks began to rebuild continental Europe after the barbaric invasions.  After the sack of Rome in 410, the Church dealt with the barbarians, guided them from doing further carnage, and converted many.

This week, we advance to the Carolingian Renaissance in the eighth and ninth centuries and to convent schools.  Rose Kennedy, matriarch of a famous American family, recounts some experiences there as a young woman.

The Carolingian Renaissance “brought a revival of monastic education and the rise of many schools that, despite their small enrollment, exercised a strong influence over an extended period of time” (J. Leclerq,“Monastic Schools,” New Catholic Encyclopedia 9:1031).  The most renowned monastic educators were active in Ireland, England, Scotland, and Wales, the Iberian Peninsula, Italy, England, Germany, and France.

First, we should note the accomplishments of St. Hilda of Whitby, which anticipated a renaissance of scholarship and learning in England, and from there, spread to other lands.

A Woman Ahead of Her Time

According to annals written by St. Bede (d 735), Hilda (d 680) was one of the great early medieval figures to foster high educational standards in monasteries. This learned woman served as the abbess, the official head of St. Aidan’s at Whitby in northern England, a double monastery for both men and women which had separate wings. The impressive library she built fostered learning, uncommon in those days. Her community of men and women commanded knowledge of Latin language and literature as well as in philosophy, theology, and the copying of illuminated manuscripts. She trained scholars, five of whom became bishops and cultivated the gift of Caedmon, the first English Christian poet.

A gifted woman of great devotion, Hilda exercised considerable influence in the Church until her death. The forerunner of monastic and convent schools, she is the patron saint of the National Cathedral School for Girls in Washington, D.C. and other schools for girls.

Charlemagne and His Renaissance

The defeat of the Muslims in 732 by Charles Martel prepared the way for Charlemagne to promote the vigorous Carolingian Renaissance, as it came to be known. His long reign as King of the Franks (768-814) represents an important stage in the development of Western Europe. Charlemagne established orderly government and pursued religious and cultural reform, laying a firm foundation on which a civilized, Christian society was later built in Western Europe.


The Carolingian Renaissance is largely indebted to Alcuin (d 804) who was educated in the tradition of Anglo-Saxon humanism at the cathedral school of York, Northumbria, England. Renowned for his learning, Alcuin came to the Carolingian court at Charlemagne’s invitation. There he remained as educator and theologian, poet, writer, adviser and the king’s friend. Later he served as the Abbot ofthe monastery of St. Martin of Tours.

As a youth, Alcuin had studied in the tradition of the great St. Bede, monk and priest, theologian and Doctor of the Church, and the author of Ecclesiastical History. From the York school, Alcuin brought to Charlemagne’s court a love of learning for the glory of God. There he invigorated the studies with the seven liberal arts: the trivium, grammar, logic, and rhetoric, and the quadrivium, arithmetic, astronomy, geometry, and music. He taught Charlemagne and his sons to read and write. Charlemagne sent Alcuin to the Palace School at Aachen in west central Germany (formerly known as Aix-la-Chapelle) to educate the children of royalty.

Like Hilda, Alcuin was far ahead of his time, arguing in defense of free conscience: “Faith is a free act of the will, not a forced act. We must appeal to conscience, not compel it by violence. You can force people to be baptized, but you cannot force them to believe.” Alcuin reiterated that the Church had infused into the culture of the Ancients the good news of Jesus Christ and his Church(19).  “The most learned man anywhere to be found” is the way Alcuin is described in Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne.

Convent Schools

Today, some monasteries conduct schools at all levels.  The Benedictine-run St. John’s University, Collegeville, MN is one example.  The Religious of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (RSCJ) and the Religious of Jesus and Mary (RSJM), both of which are international Orders of consecrated women, conduct convent schools around the world.

In her delightful memoir, Times to Remember, Rose Kennedy recalls some of her experiences at Blumenthal, a convent school in Holland, near the German border and Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle), the ancient capital of Charlemagne. Agnes, her younger sister, had gone with her. At this time, their father, “Honey Fitz,” was the mayor of Boston (1906-08; 1910-14).

January 1908

More in The Way of Beauty

“At the end of the summer (in Europe), it was decided that Agnes and I would stay on for a year of school. In those times, it was considered a great advantage for a younger person to have gone to school ‘abroad,’ and I find myself still in agreement with this. The place my parents chose was a convent boarding school called Blumenthal (a German word translatable as “Valley of Flowers’” (26-7).

At Blumenthal (1908-9)

Some excerpts written by Rose Kennedy, the student at Blumenthal reveal a happy, young women at a convent school far from home. Filled with energy and ideas, she was a talented student, pious in an unsentimental but delightful way.


“The atmosphere of Blumenthal was religious, as at all convent schools.  Blumenthal’s curriculum was unusually concerned with the practical things of this world.  It was assumed that the girls when they married would be devoting their lives to Kinder, Kirche, und Küche (children, church, and cooking) and needed to prepare for all the duties implied in that expression” (27).  At Blumenthal, she learned to speak French and German.       

These young women were expected to marry well.  They would manage the entire household while their husbands attended to financial matters. Rose took this responsibility quite seriously and enjoyed doing so.  A woman of means and with nine children, she could employ domestic help to assist her in maintaining an orderly home.  Rose took full charge of the children’s early religious education, teaching them the faith in practical ways and especially by celebrating the liturgical year with them. There she built “the domestic Church.”

“Well, our first week of school is over. I am glad because I think the first week is always the longest. We had an hour’sinstruction this week on politeness ... The bell has just rung. Good-bye. Much love and kisses to all and my dearest for you and Papa. Rose” (30).

(Column continues below)

“This afternoon we are going to make a pilgrimage (on foot, of course) to some shrine, about an hour’s distance from here” (30).

October 1908

“Well, another week has gone by.  As I am an ‘angel’ (a neophyte in the sodality), I arise at six o’clock (fifteen minutes earlier than the others) and go to meditation nearly every morning. So you see my piety is increasing. If I am extremely angelic, I may become an aspirant for the Children of Mary; later I may become a Child of Mary. That is the highest honor a child of the Sacred Heart can receive.  So I shall have to be a model of perfection for the next few months” (31).

January 1909

“This evening the retreat begins.  Three days of complete silence will be quite an experience for us all.  Of course, the retreat is a great blessing.”

June 1909

“I received my medal for the Child of Mary today.  As I told you before, this is the highest honor and blessing a Sacred Heart girl can get and one we can strive for.  We are supposed to be a model and a help in the school and someone to be depended upon, etc.” (34).

“This is the feast of the Sacred Heart, and I could tell you a great deal about it and a great many other feast days which we have been having lately” (34).

September 1909

“It was decided that we would not go back to Europe for another year’s study. (Their mother had been terribly lonely when they were away) “Instead, Agnes went to Sacred Heart Convent at Providence, Rhode Island. . ., and I went to the Sacred Heart Convent at Manhattanville, New York” (36).

Rose, the student, wrote delightful prose. Rose, the nonagenarian, wrote a beautiful but poignant memoir.  Having read great literature, she instilled the joy of reading to her children.  Her quick Irish humor served her well. 

When Premier Krushchev signed photographs of himself and President Kennedy and returned them to Rose, she sent them to her son with a note about her plan to have the photographs signed by him and then make the exchange with Krushchev.

“I received the following letter from (Jack): ‘Dear Mother: If you are going to contact the head of state, it might be a good idea to consult me or the State Department first, as your gesture might lead to international complications.  Love, Jack.’”

Her reply:

“Dear Jack: I am so glad you warned me about contacting the head of state, as I was just about to write to Castro. Love, Mother” (348).

Last Years

Years later while musing about her faith Rose Kennedy gave strong witness to it.

“If God were to take away all His blessings, health, physical fitness, wealth, intelligence, and leave me but one gift, I would askfor faith – for with faith in Him, in His goodness, mercy, love for me, and belief in everlasting life, I believe I could suffer the loss of my other gifts and be happy – trustful, leaving all to His inscrutable providence” (444).

In addition to steadfast devotion to the Mother of God and to the Stations of the Cross, Rose writes this:

“Another favorite is the Meditations by Cardinal Newman, which always brings me consolation when I am discouraged and find myself in an inexplicable dilemma—some turn of events that seems to be unexpected and unnecessary” (446).

Rose had absorbed, she had assimilated the very best that convent schools could offer.  Faith permeating a family, thoroughly-educated, articulate, and mission-oriented—this was Rose’s vocation, her responsibility, and her deep joy.  

Rose had almost everything, including length of days. As with so many families, tragedy struck time and again, and in a very public way. Yet, she bore each with unimaginable grace—after she traipsed back and forth along the beach of the family compound, alone, her head scarf flapping in the wind, her hand clutching a rosary.

The Book of Judith aptly describes this ‘product’ of convent schools and the matriarch of a distinguished American family: 

“Now she was a very beautiful, charming woman to see

with a beguiling tongue

demonstrating to every nation, every tribe

that God is almighty and all-powerful. 

Her fame spread more and more the older she grew in her husband’s house;

she lived to the age of a hundred and five” (Judith:  8:7; 9: 14; 16: 23-24). 

To be continued ...

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