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Girls’ Town: Gone but Not Forgotten

By Joan Plungis

For almost a century (1912-2001), a church with a distinctive green dome could be seen high on a hill overlooking Cincinnati’s Mill Creek Valley.

Remembering Girls’ Town of America, Cincinnati, Ohio, a new online exhibit at the University of Dayton, explores the history — and mystery — of this institution and its work for education, religious life, rehabilitation and social justice.  

Prominent presence, quiet purpose

Originally known as Our Lady of the Woods — later the Convent of the Good Shepherd and then Girls’ Town — this highly visible edifice was part of a complex that included school buildings, industrial training facilities and housing for nuns and resident girls.

When established by the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, the Girls’ Town property was isolated, surrounded by farmland and forests. Over time, farms gave way to single-family homes, and by the mid-20th century, the community on the hill adjoined booming residential developments populated by families of General Electric and Procter and Gamble employees. The rapidly expanding St. Xavier High School also acquired some of the adjacent property.

Girls’ Town was a prominent feature of the landscape, yet to residents living nearby — including myself while growing up — its purpose and activities were a mystery. During a one-semester research sabbatical in 2016, I began a multi-year project to learn more about this institution and ensure that its work is not lost to history.

Refuge, education, reform

The roots of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd reach back to the mid-17th century, when Father Jean Eudes, founder of the Order of Our Lady of Charity in Caen, France, established his order’s Houses of Refuge for “wayward” (i.e., “fallen” and delinquent) women and girls. Though the houses were destroyed during the French Revolution, a Catholic nun, Sister Mary Euphrasia Pelletier in Angers, France, revitalized the work of educating, training and reforming these women starting in 1828. She founded four convents that merged under the formal name Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd.

The Sisters of the Good Shepherd, as they were commonly known, sought to spread their work throughout the world. At the invitation of Bishop Benedict Joseph Flaget of Louisville, Kentucky, a contingent of sisters arrived in Louisville in 1842, soon founding communities in other North American cities; the Cincinnati community opened in 1857. Wealthy Catholic benefactors such as Sarah Worthington King Peter and Reuben R. Springer assisted the sisters in establishing facilities to help unfortunate girls and women.  Their charges included girls considered delinquent and in need of reform, known as the penitential class, as well as those with unstable home situations or without relatives to care for them, known as the preservation class.

In January 1870, Mother Mary of St. Joseph David, the first Superior Provincial of Cincinnati, bought a 20-acre tract of land just outside the Cincinnati city limits in Carthage, Ohio, and named it Our Lady of the Woods after a once-famous French shrine. This location was originally meant as a country retreat for children from the convents in the city, but in 1892, it became one of the order’s provincial monasteries. In addition to a convent and novitiate, the order operated a school and training facilities for delinquent girls. The Hamilton County Juvenile Court sent many girls there for rehabilitation; others came to the sisters due to family instability or loss. The provincial house was also home to a community of Magdalens, who lived separately from the Good Shepherd sisters and students. The Magdalens devoted themselves to penitence to make up for their previously sinful lives and supported themselves through needlework. In 1945, the facility began to be known as Girls’ Town, reflecting the similarity of its mission of rehabilitating young people to that of Father Edward Flanagan’s Boys Town in Omaha, Nebraska.  That year and for the next quarter-century, Girls’ Town held an annual festival to raise funds for their programs and the maintenance of the buildings and property. 

its era ends

Girls’ Town remained open until the early 1970s. Though various proposals called for repurposing the land and buildings, the property was eventually sold to St. Xavier High School, located across North Bend Road from the site, and most of the structures were demolished in 2001.  Athletic fields and parking lots now occupy the site.

Almost all of the magnificent marble, carved wood and stained glass that adorned the soaring chapel were removed when Girls’ Town closed, and few records from the Carthage site survived. Two stained-glass windows, depicting Jesus as the Good Shepherd and the Blessed Virgin Mary as Shepherdess for Christ, were moved to the chapel in Pelletier Hall in Fort Thomas, Kentucky, a retirement home where many of the Good Shepherd Sisters lived out their days. Pelletier Hall closed in 2016, and the windows were donated to Good Shepherd Church in Montgomery, Ohio, outside Cincinnati. Records and photographs from Carthage are housed at the archives of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd’s Province of Mid-North America in St. Louis, and correspondence and other materials are deposited among the archbishops’ papers in the Archives of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. 

Online exhibit: History and pictures

The online exhibit, which features just a sampling of the documents and photos discovered in the research process, opened July 28 and will be accessible indefinitely. It also contains photos of two of the chapel’s windows and other remnants housed at a retirement home in Fort Thomas, Kentucky.  The windows have since been installed in a church in Montgomery, Ohio.

Joan Plungis is an associate professor and reference and instruction librarian in the University Libraries.

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