COLUMN: What Mercy High School means to 1 family and 4 generations of graduates

Posted at 7:14 AM, Mar 11, 2017

CINCINNATI -- People who didn't grow up in Western Hills might be wondering what all the fuss is about after the Sisters of Mercy announced that Mother of Mercy High School would merge with McAuley High School in 2018 and shutter the 100-year-old Mercy building.

From a distance, it looks like a reasonable move. Enrollment is down, the building needs millions of dollars of maintenance and McAuley, whose facilities are 40 years newer, has space to absorb any Mercy students who want to trek to College Hill.

McAuley High School, which will become Mercy McAuley High School in fall 2018

Without commenting on the wisdom of the decision, I'm here to tell you that it's a big deal. I'm not speaking as a former education reporter but as a native of Westwood whose five sisters and countless classmates and neighbors graduated from Mercy.

A guy whose friends still talk and laugh about being extras (as well as one supporting actress, Jen Jackson Deming, class of 1987) in an after-school special, "Narc," filmed in the beautiful school.

I'm speaking as a St. Xavier High School graduate who met some of his dearest friends among Mercy girls who acted in or did stage crew for Theater Xavier productions in the big-haired, stone-washed jeans days of the 1980s.

Westwood, where Mercy is located, is Cincinnati's largest neighborhood, and that's for a good reason. It's full of beautiful, historic homes and sensible brick starter homes that were built to last for generations.

German and Irish Catholics – and Italians and Filipinos and others, too – flocked to Westwood and filled parish grade schools to the rafters with children of the Baby Boom and Generation X.

When I attended St. Catharine of Siena in Westwood in the 1970s and '80s, there were so many kids that it could only fit grades 2 through 8. Mercy thrived along with the grade schools, with most of the girls matriculating there from my school, St. Martin, Our Lady of Lourdes and other nearby parish schools.

Year by year, decade by decade, generation by generation, Mercy became entwined with the fabric of the West Side, where summer church festivals and Lenten fish fries still thrive.

No family tells the story of Mercy better than the Bywater/Oldings. Full and happy disclosure: I grew up with many of them.

Wire to wire

Miss Ruth Bywater was in the first graduating class at Mercy – three women strong – in 1920. In 2018, her great-granddaughter Martha Olding, 17, will be in the last class.

Ruth Bywater, center, was in Mercy's first graduating class of 1920, along with Mary Owens and Helen Brinkman.

In between, three daughters, two other great-granddaughters and more than a dozen relatives graduated over three generations and 98 years.

"I can remember everybody from my mother to my grandchildren saying how good it was to go there," said Anna May Olding, Ruth's daughter. She went to high school in New Jersey but settled in Cincinnati when she moved here to attend Our Lady of Cincinnati College, which was also run by the Sisters of Mercy.

She married another Westwood native, the late Paul Olding, and they raised seven children in Westwood, including three daughters who all graduated from Mercy.

Whenever Ruth Bywater visited Cincinnati, she made a point of seeing family and the nuns at Mercy.

The program from Mercy's first graduation in 1920.

"It's hard. I think the hard thing is for the parents and the young girls. It's not like the girls decided to leave the school on their own," Anna May Olding said.

Maria (Olding) Seitz, class of 1984, made lifelong friends at the school – or cemented friendships forged at St. Catharine.

"It's not like we were all in the same class or same academic track. Some were in sports, some were in theater, some were brainiacs," she said. "I don't think it's real cliquey."

Judy Olding, class of 1987 and married to Ruth's grandson Vince, stayed loyal to her alma mater and chose to raise her own family in Western Hills.

"One of the reasons I love and I'm still here on the West Side is the families and the tradition. Martha chose Mercy over Ursula because of that tradition," she said. "It's a family atmosphere at Mercy. It made me who I am today, no doubt about."

Sadness and resolve

Mercy announced a two-hour delay on March 2, the morning that the closure announcement was made. Martha Olding suspected the worst, and it came true at an all-school assembly.

"I become really upset. I just really love the building, and I was just in tears. I was saying, good thing I wasn't wearing makeup because it would have been streaked all down my face," she said. "You never thought it could happen to a school that's over 100 years old."

She's grateful for the chance to finish high school in the building.

"I love it there," Martha Olding said. "It breaks my heart that my little sister won't graduate from Mercy."

Martha went home and cried that night some more, but by the next day, she came home with a new resolve.

"I'm with the let's make the best of this side," she said. "It's not just the building and the maintenance issue. Enrollment is going down, not just for the high school but for the grade schools. You just have to think of it logically that you'd rather have one Sisters of Mercy school than none."

Judy Olding said that Martha's attitude on Friday lifted her spirits.

"We know a lot of teachers, and when we talked to them they were all very positive. That's the character of the school. All the teachers I know have really had the attitude that yes, they're sad, but we need to do this."

Anna May Olding, who lived through the Great Depression, World War II and a lifetime of other ups and downs, had an even broader perspective.

"We can learn some lessons from it, I hope, about how to deal with certain things that happened in our life, things like this, she said. "There will be other things in their lives that will be harder to take. It might do some of them pretty good."

Western Hills moves on, with one less cornerstone.

Bob Driehaus covers economic development. Contact him and follow his stories on Facebook, Google, and Twitter.