Virtus sola nobilitat – The Ursuline Academy in Galveston


An artist’s rendition of the Ursuline Academy in Galveston, Texas from a 1912 postcard to Anthony Lewis and Margaret Edythe [Young] Bettencourt, from her sister Florence telling them that their house was ready to move in to.

That Latin motto, which translates as Virtue Alone Enobles, represents a confluence of forces that helped shape the life of Margaret Edythe Young. For the purposes of this entry it was the motto inscribed on a medal given the graduates of the Ursuline Academy in Galvestonin 1910 – the year Margaret’s youngest sister Laureene graduated – and this year, as her youngest great-grandson graduates we are going to revisit the meaning of the motto and that warm June evening of just over a century ago when it was given as a gift.

Laureene Anna Young, Margaret Edythe Young’s youngest sister, at the time of her graduation from the Ursuline Academy in 1910

The motto is not uncommon in heraldry and one of the more prominent anglo Irish families, the Blake’s of Galway, used it in their coat of arms which is described by Debrett’s as:  Argent, a fret, gules. Crest. A cat passant, gardant, proper, Motto. Virtus sola Nobilitat. Ardrey House was built in 1770 by Joseph Blake, who later gained the title of Lord Wallscourt. This title became synonymous with the house and the Wallscourts, whose lineage is traced to the round table[sic] lived there until the second wife of the fourth Earl frittered away all the family money on gambling. Before this Ardfry (which means The Height of the Heather)  had a colorful past, thanks to many of its eccentric owners, one of whom was known to walk around the house naked carrying a cowbell to forewarn the maids.  As colorful as this history is it has nothing to do with our story – other than the fact that it originates in Ireland.

An early example of the use of the motto on an Irish family crest in County Galway

Margaret Edythe Young’s father was born in Ireland, in County Wexford, and both of her maternal grandparents had been born in Ireland. Although she was a first generation American almost every adult in her life was Irish, her family attended St. Patrick’s Church in Galveston and they lived in the 7th Ward which was almost completely Irish. While her parish was Irish the Church as a whole was run by Bishop Nicholas Aloysius Gallagher, of Irish descent, and even though the ladies of  Saint Angela de Merici, the Company of St. Ursula – or the Ursulines as they are commonly known – had come to Galveston from France in the mid 19th century so many of their postulants had come from Irish families in this country that there was a strong influence in the Academy in Galveston.

The coat of arms of the city of Waterford, County Munster, Ireland

The actual source of the motto as used by the Ursulines comes from Waterpark College in Waterford, Ireland where Edmund Rice, the lay founder of the Christian Brothers teaching order, had used it as a school motto. The coat of arms of the college is remarkably similar to the town’s but where the town used the motto, Urbs Intacta Manet Waterfordia  {Waterford remains the untaken city], the college went in an entirely different direction.  Many mottoes use Virtue as a starting point – from Virtus auro praeferenda [Virtue is to be prefered to gold] to Virtutis praemium  [Virtues reward] – but the condition of nobility and the necessity of virtue would have been very much on the minds of the good sisters and the Catholic community as a whole as an end of the educational process.

The coat of arms of Waterpark College, a Christian Brother’s School founded by Edmund Rice in 1892, the symbols are borrowed from Waterford and the motto, although profound, is not original, but then again very little in heraldry is.

Aristotle, and all good Catholics are good Thomists which means that they are good Aristotelians, tells us that we are what we constantly do. Virtue therefore is a habit and not an act. The purpose of Christian formation – which was finally the highest good of the Catholic educational system of that time – was in educating their students in how to conform their daily behavior to the requirements of virtue. Having developed the habit of virtue, an expression of the natural inclination to the good which while inherent must still be developed, their students would graduate with a “nobility” that would allow them to take their place in the larger society as forces for the good..

A photographic view of the south prospect of the Ursuline Academy in Galveston from a 1909 postcard sent to Margaret Edythe Young while she was in Chicago completing her artist training. It was sent by a favorite nephew, Martial, and advises of an upcoming fishing trip and his plans to catch some “little” fish. If you compare this picture to the artists conception at the head of this post you will see that the artist got it very nearly, but not quite, right.

On the evening of the 15th of June 1910  in the auditorium of the beautiful Victorian Gothic building, constructed by Nicholas J. Clayton in the 1890’s, six young ladies graduated and a number of others were honored in a ceremony that involved the entire student body and their families. If you have been forced to sit through more bad renditions of Elgar’s unfortunate Pomp and Circumstance March and listen to too many long-winded ramblings from people who became administrators in the state supported education factories because they were unwilling or unable to find honest work you might have been pleasantly surprised by the evening.

Education was not enforced baby sitting in those days designed to limit the amount of mayhem the young could visit upon themselves and the larger society between the ages of five and eighteen. Reviewing the census data I find that when his children were old enough to leave the nursery John Young brought a German governess over and they were taught the fundamentals – how to read, write [including penmanship – ESPECIALLY PENMANSHIP] and to do arithmetic. In addition they would have learned French – the international language of the European continent in the day – and German which was not only the growing language of science and technology but was almost a second language in the Galveston of the Rosenberg’s and so many other immigrants. When the young ladies proved their competence they were presented to the good sisters, who evaluated them – and their families – and admitted them to the Academy if they were found suitable.

The medal for music and studies awarded to Laureene Anna Young at the Ursuline Academy in Galveston, Texas in June of 1908

The evening did not start out with Elgar but with a March by Calixa Lavalee, a Canadian who had written, O Canada, which became the Canadian National Anthem. He had travelled widely in French Canadian circles and had lived for a time in Louisiana where he had been associated with the Ursuline Academy in New Orleans. Those of us used to sitting through the presentation of diplomas to classes that range for seven hundred to seventeen hundred would have been delighted to find that there were six graduates in that sixty third commencement. Four, including Laureene Young, graduated in the classical course and two in the special course. Since it might have been unseemly to have too much competition for grades and precedence in such a small group the valedictorian and salutatorian were determined by drawing and the obligatory speeches of the young attempting to sound sage were quickly dispensed with.

The inscription on the front reads, Miss Laureene Young graduated June 16, 1910″ and on the rear it reads, “Awarded at Ursuline Academy, Galveston” if you look carefully at the picture of Laureene Anna Young near the top of this post you can see this medal on her left shoulder.

In keeping with the maritime traditions of Galveston a farce entitled, “No cure, no pay”, [the condition of ship salvage under Lloyd’s open form]was presented followed by a Mikado styled Japanese Fantasy with over a dozen girls in real Japanese costumes and reminiscent of the then current infatuation with all one sees that is Japanese. Galveston was not only a port city but also an international community and as much a part of the world as it was of Texas. There was more music in the program, the presentation of medals for the subgraduates like the one for studies and music that Laureene Young had received at the ceremony in 1908 and a medal with a speech for “Virtus sola nobilitat” [Virtue alone enobles]. There were no class rings in these days but pictures of  the medals are shown here.

When the 1900 Storm hit Galveston there was no seawall. In the aftermath of the storm tents were erected on the beach for rescue workers. To the left behind the tents you can see the roof of the Ursuline Academy.

A poignant moment must have been the presentation of the Mother Mary Joseph medal for scholarship donated by the alumnae in honor of the nun who was the heroine of the 1900 storm.  Galveston must have seemed to have had a bullseye painted on it for early twentieth century storms. Five year later, on the 17th of August,  the 1915 Galveston Storm would strike the island. The hurricane was almost equal to the force of the 1900 storm but because of planning and preparation – including the construction of the seawall  – there were only 400 casualties instead of the 8,000 to 12,000 of the earlier 1900 storm.

An old photograph in poor condition shows the Ursuline Academy on the left and the Ursuline Convent on the right both of which were damaged, but not destroyed, by the 1900 Storm. It would take another 60 years of storms before Hurricane Carla would damage both building beyond repair.

We have all of us heard the speech in which the graduates are told that this is not an end but a beginning and certainly this was true for this graduation. It was a milestone for these young ladies to be followed by a European tour to “complete” their education which would be followed by their debutante season when they would be presented to society. Margaret Edythe Young’s father had a dining room table that extended from five to fourteen feet, seats ten and probably saw a good deal of use by young men from his firm being brought home to meet his daughters. All of these things were available to a middle class family in no small part because there was no income tax and people were free to spend, or save, what they earned. No wonder it was called the age of optimism.

On the grounds of the Academy, now Holy Family School, stands the old chapel bell. In the teeth of the storm the nuns tolled the bell directing the islanders to the safety of their buildings and more than 1,500 people were saved through their efforts. Far more than anything else that explains what Virtus Sola Nobilitat means.

If you had asked any of the graduates or any of the attendees if there would ever be a day when there would not be an Ursuline commencement in Galveston they would have expressed polite dismay and silently thought you a fool for entertaining such a notion. Sadly you would have been right. Within five years the grand tours would end as Europe erupted into a slaughterhouse and the United States would be dragged into the madness by the same reformer who gave us the income tax along with an omnipresent government that grows more so by the day. What I would have told them is that the things that really matter – the elements of the nobility of virtue – must be cherished and protected every day and as earlier Texans would have told them a line in the sand is a fine thing!

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