This short biography is drawn from several earlier interviews that Julia Clare Fontaine, SCN, has already given and from a recent visit Maria Vincent Brocato, SCN, had with her in her small, neat apartment “on the hill” near Nazareth Home. All the interviews are rich in recalling Spalding College’s history and in capturing Sister’s delightful, free spirit. You are encouraged to go to the Nazareth Archives and reading one or all of her interviews.
“Aunt Breda and I are the only ones from Chattanooga who have ever entered the SCN Community.” (One needs to realize, of course, that “Aunt Breda” is Mother Bertrand Crimmins, the aunt of Sister Julia Clare’s friend and Nazareth College classmate, Mary Breda Mahoney.) With these words, spoken with sincere affection and a twinkle in her eye, Sister Julia Clare Fontaine began to share her heart-warming life story.
Now 94 years young, Sister Julia Clare has been an outstanding educator, especially appreciated by many students from her days at Saint Mary Academy in Leonardtown, Maryland, and Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky. She even now continues her service to others — namely, senior members of the SCN Community at Nazareth Home.
Born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Julia, later Sister Julia Clare, did not know Catholics or Sisters until she went to elementary school at Saints Peter and Paul School in Chattanooga. It was while there that she begged her mother for three years in a row, “Mama, I want to be a Catholic.” Finally, with the support of her Protestant grandmother, Julia was allowed to be baptized a Catholic. Her mother would follow her into the Church as would Julia’s brother Charles, whom Julia called by the nickname “Sar.” Later Sar’s wife, Marcelline, and several cousins also entered the Church. She is proud that a cousin became a Jesuit priest.
When Julia was only 12-years-old she lost her father in a tragic automobile accident. This left the family in difficult circumstances, but by the time Julia was ready for college she was able to go to Nazareth College in Kentucky. There she studied toward a pre-med degree in her hope to become a doctor.
For two summers Julia went to Camp Maria in Maryland, also belonging to the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth. There were other “campers” there during her time who would become Sisters of Charity — Sisters Grace Miriam Martin and Margaret Patrick Gallagher. Then, after two years in college, Julia answered her strong vocation call and entered the SCN Community.
Julia’s novitiate companions became good friends and were very supportive during her homesick days. They remain very dear to her. She has pictures and memorial cards of each of them in her room — Sisters Theresa Guardino, Christine Ellis, James Albert Wiggins, Antoinette Magistro.
Her first mission was as a teacher of the second and third grades at St. Paul School in Lexington, Kentucky. “I nearly went crazy. Every night I had to get help for the next day. If only they had asked me to give them a formula for sulfuric acid!” Luckily , the next year she was assigned to teach the seventh and eighth grades.
It was at St. Catherine Academy that she and Margaret/Sister Frances Loretto Yowalski became lifelong friends. In Sister Julia Clare’s apartment where she has lived for 28 years are pictures and remembrances of this dear friend — “the sister I never had.” Later in their lives Sisters Julia Clare and Frances Loretto would study for their master’s degrees at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. Then both had long years at Spalding College, now Spalding University. They retired happily and shared the apartment where Sister Julia now lives. Sister Frances Loretto’s declining health took her to Nazareth Home and she passed away in May 2010. There is no doubt that she is lovingly missed.
From Lexington she went to St. Cecilia School in Louisville, Kentucky, then to LaSalette Academy in Covington, Kentucky, and next to St. Frances Academy in Owensboro, Kentucky. It wasn’t until she got her degree in 1949 that she was sent to St. Mary’s Academy in Leonardtown, Maryland, where she remained for 10 years.
“St. Mary’s Academy was my first experience teaching in high school … the first job they gave me there was being a monitor for the students who came to live as boarders. That was really an experience, I tell you. Besides teaching full time, I was the monitor. Teachers from several other schools also lived at the Academy. It was a beautiful experience and I still hear from those students I taught. I was teaching everything — math, algebra, geometry, biology, chemistry, and of course, religion, and sometimes they would throw in something like general science.”
In 1959 Sister Julia Clare became an instructor in the biology department at Spalding College and would remain there for 27 years. During this time she had nursing students as well as those who were in her classes for their science requirements. In 1967 she was asked to take on another challenge.
“During the sixties I was asked to go over to the Medical School (University of Louisville) to take a course. I did go over and the first test we had, out of all one hundred and fifty that took that test, they told me I got the highest grade. I couldn’t believe it! After that took place they asked me if I would stay there and get my doctorate which I did. I loved it.”
Sister Julia Clare received a scholarship and was able to fit in easily with the students in her Ph.D. program.
“I was still wearing the religious habit. They didn’t care. At noon time we would eat our sandwiches and then I would cut the crossword puzzle out of the paper and we would work on it until classes began. All of the boys stood around and worked on it. This one item said ‘Author of the Psalms.’ This one boy said, ‘Sister, that is your bag.’ I said, ‘Oh no, I am a new Testament girl; it is yours.’”
In 1970 Julia Clare completed her doctoral degree in anatomy, a subject which was “her true love,” and returned to her classes at Spalding. “I taught Anatomy to practically every nursing major in the city,” she says, explaining that after hospitals closed their diploma programs, many nurses came back to Spalding for college classes. Eventually she became chair of the biology department at Spalding and is well remembered for her many teaching years there.
Students, women, and nurses that the interviewer, Sister Maria Vincent, has met from many different areas will ask about the special teacher they had at Spalding who taught them biology/anatomy. When she mentions Sister Julia Clare’s name the response is a happy, “Yes!”
One of the joys that Julia had while at Spalding was that her mother, Imogene McGlohon Fontaine, spent the last 12 years of her life living in an apartment very near the college. Sister Julia was able to look in on her mother every day and appreciates the blessing it was to them both.
An event that many associate with Sister Julia Clare is the annual Rat Race at Spalding now occurring during Derby time. She describes it in this way:
“I was having a biology seminar for the seniors at Spalding and they were getting ready to graduate. They were getting up tight and I was getting ready to give them another assignment. One of them said, ‘Oh no, not another assignment. I will be so glad to get out of this rat race.’ We had some little rats, black and white; they were really pets … I said, ‘Let’s race them.’ So we went out. We advertised it … we got a race track about eight feet long, about seven compartments, and we put our rats in. We didn’t have a starting gate or anything. We let them run and whoever got there first was the winner. The person who bet on that won would get some money back.
“It grew and grew and grew until it was a whole take-off on the Kentucky Derby. We had the parade; we had the election of King and Queen. We had one of our students who had gone to the University of Kentucky make me a race track, a race track like Churchill Downs with an infield. This one had a starting gate, a quarter pole and a three fourths pole. We had a finish with mirrors. Of course, the students — from different majors — had to train them. It was a fun and an educational experience at the same time.”
The President of Spalding University, Sister Eileen Egan, SCN, had questions about the existence of this project until several notable persons in Louisville shared with her that they had heard about the rat race on BBC. One remarked, ”Sister Eileen, I saw Spalding University mentioned on the television in London talking about the “Running of the Rodents.” That gave the event the approval it needed to continue.
Sister Julia Clare has many other memories of her life at Spalding. In her interviews she remembers:
- The early challenges in having adequate teaching space before the science building, the library and media center were constructed.
- The small private rooms the Sisters had which were located in various parts .of the building
- The great women who were the early teachers there — among them, Sisters Laurita Gibson, Rose Agnes Greenwell, Anne Horrigan, and Mary Emily Keenan.
- The closeness they felt as a college community in the early years.
- The strength the Sisters always had in living out their SCN mission as educators.
Now Sister Julia Clare is living out her vocation by serving in Community Service at Nazareth Home in Louisville. Those who minister in Community Service have a special care for the Sisters who are residents at Nazareth Home. Their mission is to be “family” to them, looking out for the Sisters’ personal needs and connecting with nurses and aides if there are health needs. Sister Julia Clare is as happy and dedicated here as she has been throughout her 71 years as a Sister of Charity of Nazareth.
Sister Maria Vincent came away with much gratitude for the joyful spirit and faithfulness of the dedicated woman from Chattanooga, Tennessee, Sister Julia Clare Fontaine!