Saturday, May 22, 1999

St. Ursula Senior Tea melds ideals

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        There are at least three good reasons to get to know the girls of St. Ursula Academy, a private girls' school in East Walnut Hills.

        The first is that they are almost without exception bright, articulate, thoughtful and extremely good company.

        The second is that they will probably one day rule the world.

        The third is that it might get you invited to tea.

        Senior Tea, to be precise. A tradition sprung up from the very roots of the 89-year-old institution.

        There are plenty of picturesque moments around the stately campus. Still, none is lovelier than the May afternoon when a long trail of beaming young women greet guests in a lawn reception line, then chat over tea in elegant parlors.

        It is a poignant moment, as they pause before being sent into the larger world. It is a day when girlhood, like school uniforms, is left behind; when womanhood is slipped on as mystically and majestically as long, flowered dresses.

        The delightful paradox is not to be missed. A group of girls as progressive, outspoken and strong-minded as these — who have been educated in an institution that tells them women can do anything — indulging in an old-fashioned female ritual.

        “Tradition is very important here,” says senior Elizabeth Kuck. “I think they're trying to get us to move forward to the future without losing what was special in the past. They want us to keep in mind that you work hard, but there's a place for what's really fun — greeting new people, being with the people you love.”

Tradition continues
        Tea has been flowing at St. Ursula since 1911, the year after the Catholic girls' school opened. School archivist Sister Mary Paul says the tradition began when Mother Fidelis Coleman held the first tea, inviting her own sisters from Louisville “to make sure it was all done right.”

        A wealthy neighbor supplied silver serving pieces. The nuns lent the beautiful plates that had been given them by family and friends. “The sisters never used that kind of thing themselves,” Sister Paul said. “It wouldn't have been holy poverty.”

        Even today, guests are aghast at the profusion of lovely dishes. Underclasswomen rush in with stacks of china, which guests quickly fill with dainty sandwiches and large, ruddy strawberries. Beaming seniors, just days from graduation, mix politely with parents, friends and proud alumnae. In keeping with tradition, hats are prevalent, dresses mid-calf or longer, and gloves not unheard of. As in the past, a memo reminded the girls that, 1999 or not, shoulders must be covered.

        It does make for a quaint scene. But to dismiss it as only that would be to miss the day's significance. For — probably just as Mother Fidelis had in mind — this is a power tea. A day for protegees to be groomed in the ways of the world. A day of initiation into — in the best sense of the phrase — the old girls' network.

Modern-day women
        For St. Ursula girls turn into St. Ursula women. And St. Ursula women turn into just about anything they want. Doctors, lawyers, athletes, engineers. Friends, wives, mothers.

        Yet however strong-minded, well-educated and confident they may be, they still face the challenges of being modern-day women.

        One is shaking loose of old stereotypes. Another is holding onto valued traditions.

        One is being cast into a traditional female role. Another, being denied it.

        For a while, on their way to self-determination, females broke free of apron strings only to be held captive by navy blue suits. First they were told they must have babies. Then they were told they must have careers. First they were laughed at for wanting to be serious. Then they were told they must never be silly.

        One gets the feeling, finally, that the young women about to graduate from St. Ursula Academy aren't waiting to be told anything at all.

        Come Tuesday, they will put their smart little hats on their very smart heads. They will hold teacups lightly, and personal opinions firmly.

        And they will spend a few precious hours learning a very important lesson: How to balance their plates, their roles and their lives.

        Krista Ramsey writes a Saturday column in Metro.

        Krista Ramsey's column appears on Saturdays. Write her at the Enquirer, 312 Elm St. Cincinnati 45202.