Incarnate Word Academy concludes 150-year celebrations

June 11, 2024

Students at Incarnate Word Academy use the library located in the old Clayton Building in the 1950s. (Photo courtesy of Incarnate Word Academy)

HOUSTON — When the Sisters of the Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament first came to Houston in April of 1873, there was no way they could know the community of faith they were about to build in downtown Houston would still be there a century and a half later.

Sent from Lyon by way of Brownsville, Mother Gabriel Dillon, accompanied by Sister Mary Lawrence and Sister Marie Therese, came on the invitation of Bishop John Odin, the first bishop of Galveston.  He would die before the sisters arrived, but they would carry out his desire to educate young people across his diocese, which included the entire state of Texas. 

Settling in a former Franciscan monastery and then moving to 609 Crawford St., the sisters hosted Mass in their new home while opening the Academy of the Incarnate Word the following year. At the time, Houston itself was less than a century old but emerging as an important center of commerce in the South. Incarnate Word Academy (IWA), like the city it would call home, would grow together, changing to meet the times and welcoming those willing to work to fulfill their dreams. 

Now, when IWA concluded its 150th celebration — its Class of 2024 graduated with special stoles marking the sesquicentennial — the school stands as a bridge connecting the past to the future. 

“Looking at all that we have today and looking back at our history is a strong reminder that we stand on the shoulders of giants who were faithful to incarnational spirituality, an educational vision, and served with spirit and courage. For this, we are all grateful,” said Sister Lauren Beck, C.V.I, president of IWA, about the milestone.  

Mother Dillon would become the school’s first principal, assisted by Sisters Lawrence and Therese. In those early days between 1873 and the late 1880s, they embraced an ethos that education was for everyone, and the academy educated the daughters of Houston’s oldest families, newcomer settlers to Texas and freed slaves.

While the sisters were building the curriculum and educating those first students, designer Nicholas Clayton oversaw the plans and construction of the first school building and church, all of which were completed in 1905. 

That was the same time the academy shifted its focus from serving as a finishing school and started its journey as a college-preparatory institution. That was unusual at the time when young women were still expected to make lives inside the home and not go on to higher education. But it speaks to IWA’s legacy of providing a strong educational foundation alongside its deeply rooted Catholic faith. 

“When you start a mission, coming over one way from France, think about the level of courage that took,” said Cathy Stephen, IWA’s principal. “Bringing the mission forward is still important today because we believe in a space where girls can be heard and hone their voices, skills, and talents to be successful wherever they go.” 

Over the years, the school has expanded and enriched what was already a strong curriculum. The school named its first lay principal in 1994 and launched a pioneering leadership series in 2010 that would evolve into IWA’s Young Leaders Program, the first of its kind among Catholic schools and one of the few in the nation that helps students understand that leadership is multifaceted and every student has leadership potential. 

The school’s current building was completed in 2017. Its modern white exterior adorned with red awnings is a downtown landmark. Its 18,500 square feet are an extension of the old school. In the courtyard stands the historical marker that announces IWA’s beginnings as one of the city’s — and the state’s — important education landmarks. That’s just one more example of how the old and new stand side by side at IWA, proving its ability to grow alongside the city it calls home.  

When you talk to IWA students and alumnae, the concept of home is one that’s heard frequently, although it’s usually expressed with the word “sisterhood.” Multi-generational families of women educated within the walls of “the 609” are not uncommon stories.  

“Everyone at IWA knew everyone,” said Dominique Bartholet, a 1994 graduate of the school who is now an attorney. “I never felt like I was a number there. You really become part of a family.” 

The school allowed her to thrive, she said, and she graduated as salutatorian with a scholarship to the University of Texas at Austin. But, she chose to attend Trinity University instead, which she felt was big enough but still a small enough environment where she could find her way. 

Last year, her oldest daughter Danielle, graduated IWA and now attends Emerson College, where she’s pursuing her dream of being a writer. Bartholet’s youngest daughter, Madeline, is currently at IWA; she’ll graduate in 2027. 

“They wear the same plaid skirt I did,” she said of her daughters, and she likes the legacy of a shared experience. 

“IWA really prepared me for college,” said Danielle. “I learned how to advocate for myself and speak up for other girls. That’s been super helpful in college, and I feel like I can approach my professors, and I am so prepared academically.” 

She’s loved watching her sister go through her freshman year. The two have different likes, and that’s made their IWA experiences different. Danielle was on the school newspaper and took part in theater at IWA and with St. Thomas High School. Madeline tried out for sports teams and has taken up modeling.  

“But all three of us — my mom, my sister and I — have this connection through IWA,” Danielle said. “We’ll all have rings from the same high school. We have the same values and core surrounding us.” 

Over the course of the school’s year-long anniversary, it hosted a series of events to mark the occasion, including a gala and an open house showcasing documents, artifacts and memorabilia from the last 150 years, including a statue of the Virgin Mary that was displayed when the school opened.

That’s surely something Mother Dillon would’ve been proud of, even if it wasn’t something she could foresee. But the legacy she and those who came after have left behind is one that’s important for the school and the city it serves. 

“I think Houston is built on those renegades and those brave pioneers who were ready to go out there and change the world,” Stephen said. “I’m humbled by the legacy of this school and very proud to carry that forward each year with a new group of freshmen.”