When the Dowling community dedicated the school’s new memorial to its faithfully departed last All Souls Day, Nov. 2, 2021, among those whose souls they commemorated were two Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary who died exactly 100 years earlier on the most tragic day in the history of St. Joseph Academy.
Sister Mary Rosalita McLaughlin and Sister Mary Virginis Austin taught at St. Joseph, the girls high school that 50 years ago closed its campus and, with the boys of Dowling Catholic, moved to a new campus on Buffalo Road in West Des Moines.
They came to St. Joseph three years apart in the first decade of the 20th century, when Pius X was pope, the automobile was in its infancy, the Diocese of Des Moines did not yet exist and there was no boys Catholic high school in town.
They were music teachers and accomplished musicians in their own right. Sister Mary Rosita played and taught piano and organ. Sister Mary Virginis was a singer and vocals instructor. She possessed a singing tone that was, in the words of one music critic of the age, “so ravishingly beautiful as to haunt those who had the privilege to hear her.”
The students at St. Joseph heard both of them regularly at the daily Mass that started each school day. Mary Virginis sang accompanied by Mary Rosita on the organ. After Mass came a full day of classes. For the sisters, the day also included lesson preparation and paper grading. And daily prayers. Mary Virginis and Mary Rosalita also offered private lessons to interested students, the fees for which were a source of revenue for the BVM order.
By the fall of 1921, the Diocese of Des Moines was creeping up on its 10th anniversary. Bishop Austin Dowling had opened the boys high school that would one day take his name and he had designated St. Joseph Academy the central Catholic high school for girls in Des Moines. He also had moved on to be Archbishop of St. Paul, leaving Bishop Thomas Drumm to lead the Des Moines diocese.
St. Joseph Academy began its 37th year that fall, full of optimism and excitement. A new athletic field was open. The dormitories and classrooms shined after a summer renovation, leaving the fire of 1920 that closed the school for 10 days a distant memory. And to the delight of Srs. Mary Virginis and Mary Rosalita, “the rooms of the music hall have been retinted,” reported the Des Moines Register.
Sr. Mary Rosalita had even more reason to be excited. The 1921-22 school year would be the first with a new pipe organ in the chapel. It had been installed the week of graduation the previous June, a gift from the alumnae association.
The morning of Nov. 2, 1921 dawned clear and around 40 degrees. The students and sisters at St. Joseph gathered in the chapel at 6:30 a.m. for the first of three All Souls Day Masses chaplain Father Edward Seagrave would say that morning to commemorate all of the faithfully departed. Sr. Mary Rosalita was at the organ and Sr. Mary Virginis sang at each Mass.
That afternoon, according to Our Herald, a BVM order newspaper, a student intrigued by the day’s commemorations, stopped Sr. Mary Virginis on campus.
“Sister, are you afraid to die?” the girl asked.
“No child,” the sister replied. “I am not afraid to die. God is our Father and Heaven is our home. Why should I be afraid to die?”
The young girl started to ask another question, but Sr. Mary Virginis was to run errands in town that afternoon with Sr. Mary Rosalita.
“Not now, dear,” she said to the curious student, “some other time we will talk about it.”
Some other time would never come.
The sisters left campus shortly after 4 p.m. Sunset was an hour away. It would be dark on their return trip, so they scurried a block east to 31st Street and then a block north to Ingersoll Avenue where they caught a streetcar downtown. They visited a music store and Harris-Emery department store at Seventh and Walnut Street before retracing their steps and streetcar ride and arriving back at 31st and Grand about 6 p.m.
The campus was a block away, its lights flickering in the darkness across the street. The sisters waited to cross Grand Avenue as cars with their primitive headlights made their way up and down the dimly lit street. According to Our Herald, they greeted three Franciscan sisters from Carroll, Iowa, who had been visiting campus that day and were heading home.
“Hurry back and Sister Mary Rosalita will play the organ for you,” Sister Mary Virginis joked.
George Fagan, a 13-year-old newspaper boy finishing his route for the Des Moines Tribune, overheard the sisters comment on the traffic.
“I wonder how much longer we will have to wait to get across,” he remembered one saying.
“About an hour, I suppose,” replied the other.
But it might not have been a minute before they stepped off the curb.
As they were crossing Grand, Saul Aronow, a Des Moines jeweler, turned his Ford left off of 31st Street to head west on Grand Avenue. As he completed his turn, a second, larger car began to pass him and struck the two sisters.
Sister Mary Rosalita died instantly. Sister Mary Virginis, motionless in the street, clung to life.
The two cars stopped almost immediately. A third vehicle, coming from the west on Grand, was there moments later. All three drivers alighted, waved oncoming vehicles to stop and then lifted the sisters and carried them to the curb.
Aronow would later say that the driver of the car that struck the sisters went to a Grand Avenue home. It was the residence of George Carpenter. The mysterious driver asked to use the telephone and called the police. Carpenter’s wife would tell detectives the man made a second call to an auto garage asking if he could bring his car in to be “looked over.”
After his phone calls, the man left the Carpenter home. He milled around the ever-growing crowd that had gathered in the yards and on the sidewalks near the accident. At least two people in the crowd said he admitted being the driver.
But then, he was gone. So, too, was his car.
Father Seagrave, alerted of the accident when a passer-by walked to the Academy and interrupted dinner, hurried down the street. By that time, the stricken sisters had been carried to the home of John Cownie. There Seagrave gave Mary Virginis the last sacrament before an ambulance arrived. She died an hour later at Mercy Hospital.
Sister Mary Rosalita was 41 years old. Sister Mary Virginis was 37.
The next morning, Des Moines woke to news of the hit-and-run. Headlines screamed of the tragedy. At the top of its front page, the Tribune called on residents to slow down and called on the police to increase their presence on the west side of town. Sheriff W.E. Robb, Chief of Police Roscoe Saunders and Polk County Attorney A.G. Rippey told reporters they would stop at nothing to identify the hit-and-run driver.
Initially, the only identified witness was young George Fagan, the paper boy who had heard the sisters chat about the traffic on Grand Avenue. It all happened so quickly, he said. It was a Ford, he claimed. Scared and panicked, he didn’t get a license number.
In the coming days, detectives canvassed the neighborhood, found additional witnesses as well as Aronow and the driver of the third car on the scene. They came to believe the missing driver was not in a Ford, but a Winton, a larger, more powerful and more expensive vehicle. Indeed, the Winton Motor Carriage Company would last only three more years before falling victim to the more affordably priced Ford vehicles.
Sheriff Robb eventually identified a suspect who had recently purchased a Winton. But he moved deliberately, hoping more evidence would confirm that the suspect’s Winton was the missing vehicle and that the suspect was indeed the driver.
Meanwhile, the girls and sisters at St. Joseph Academy mourned the loss of their music teachers.
The girls “who were their pupils were struck dumb by the catastrophe,” the Des Moines Tribune reported.
Classes were cancelled Thursday. Students spoke in hushed tones as they walked the campus. The families of the deceased arrived from Chicago, where Mary Rosalita was born, and Lincoln, Nebraska, childhood home of Mary Virginis.
The funerals were Saturday, Nov. 5. It was an unseasonably warm day with temperatures in 50s. Some reported roses in bloom near the state capitol. The city was torn with emotion. Drake University was celebrating its Homecoming weekend. St. Joseph was readying for the sisters’ funeral. And under the dome of the state capitol, the body of Capt. Harrison C. McHenry, the first Iowa officer to be killed in World War I, lay in state. His funeral was Sunday.
At 6:30 a.m., Father Seagrave said a Low Requiem Mass for the souls of the sisters in the St. Joseph Chapel where just three days earlier Sister Mary Virginis sang and Mary Rosalita played the organ for the final time. Around 9 a.m., a funeral procession bound for St. Ambrose Cathedral took shape. Relatives of the two sisters took the head of the line, followed by the sisters at St. Joseph and then the students. The parade of mourners left campus at 9:15, passing the spot of Wednesday evening’s tragedy.
As the procession neared St. Ambrose, the crowds along the route grew deeper. Hundreds stood outside the Cathedral, unable to get a seat inside. The entire student body was there. So were 100 Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary and 50 sisters of other orders. Fifty priests assisted with the Solemn Pontifical Mass celebrated by Msgr. Michael Flavin, the longtime pastor at St. Ambrose who 15 years earlier oversaw construction of the church that would become the seat of the Diocese of Des Moines.
Father Seagrave gave the sermon. He spoke of the death and resurrection of Lazarus and made just one reference to the accident, reminding the congregation that God calls us to forgive “the one who had brought this heavy sorrow on the community,” just as we ourselves ask to of be forgiven.
The mourners moved on to St. Ambrose Cemetery for the burials. The line of cars in the procession stretched much of the 16-block route.
In the coming days, the Sisters at St. Joseph thanked the community for its support. They made special thanks to the Des Moines Street Car Company for providing the students free transportation and Reel Auto Company and the many friends of the Academy who provided vehicles to transport sisters to and from the funeral.
And the sisters thanked their students as well.
“The beautiful spirit of helpfulness shown during these days of trial by the students of the Academy … has been an inexpressible comfort to the Sisters,” reported Our Herald.
They also called on the city to provide police support to protect the St. Joseph students as they made their way along and across Grand Avenue at afternoon dismissal time.
By the end of the following week, W.H. Halpenny, a local car dealer, was charged with the deaths of Srs. Mary Rosalita and Mary Virginis. He owned a Winton. Investigators found traces of what was believed to be human skin and clothing fabric on the underside of the car. George Carpenter identified Halpenny as the man who telephoned police from his home soon after the accident.
But Halpenny had an alibi. He had been at his office at the time of the tragedy. He had witnesses to back up his story. They provided sworn statements to the police. The human skin found on the car was sent to biology professor Earl J. Galloway at Des Moines University. But in an era long before DNA analysis, no one could definitively tie the evidence found on the car to the bodies of the sisters.
A month after his arrest, a grand jury refused to indict Halpenny. Sheriff Robb was livid and vowed to re-present the case in coming months.
County Attorney Rippey was matter of fact, though.
“The grand jury action is final,” he said. “That is all I have to say.”
No one else was ever charged.
Ten months later, on Oct. 1, 1922, Sister Marie Patrice Lacy, the principal at St. Joseph, gathered her sisters and students on the south side of campus. There she had had built a grotto in memory of Sr. Mary Rosalita and Sr. Mary Virginia.
The St. Joseph community dedicated the grotto and its centerpiece statue of Our Lady of Grace that morning. Father Seagrave blessed the statue “with imposing ceremony.” Over the next 50 years, until the school closed, the grotto was a quiet retreat and occasional host to a May Crowning.
It’s not exactly clear what happened to the statue when the students and much of the school’s belongings moved to the new Dowling campus in 1972. Some believe it stood for 20-some years between the priests’ residence and the football field on the east side of campus before meeting an untimely demise when vandals beheaded it.
But Dowling bought a new statue of Mary and, deciding indoors was a safer location, placed it overlooking the attendance office, where eventually it was joined by a stained-glass window recovered from the St. Joseph Academy chapel and given to the school by the SJA class of 1951.
Mary and the St. Joseph window stand there today, steps away from the school’s choir room, band room and auditorium, where Dowling students have performed for 50 years.
Sister Mary Rosalita and Sister Mary Virginis would feel right at home.