High school classes became available in Teutopolis at St. Joseph's College during the Civil War era, but that institution barred women. Citizens of Teutopolis expressed the need for a co-educational high school in 1916. At first, there was plenty of talk, but not much action.
Then a woman willing to bridge the gap between primary and secondary education came to Teutopolis in 1917. She was a native of Belleville. Mary Dekum was born there on June 2, 1893, one of six children. Her parents were Frank and Josephine Dekum. Her grandparents were German immigrants, and her father was a day laborer.
Sister Mary Ethelbert Dekum was not new to teaching, as she was recruited right out of high school to work at a parochial school in Dalgren, Illinois. Then she entered the School Sisters of Notre Dame in September of 1911, and said her first religious vows in August of 1915. She gained experience at two different high schools in the interim.
Her arrival in Teutopolis was prompted by pleas to the Motherhouse in St. Louis from Teutopolis pastor Father Theodosius Plassmeyer. At first, Superior Petra Pfeifer voiced reluctance due to the small size of Teutopolis. According to the prior federal Census, there were less than 1,000 people in Teutopolis Township, and fewer than 600 in the village itself. The city of Effingham was well over six times larger than the village.
Father Theodosius retorted that he intended to recruit another order of Sisters to teach in the grade school if she did not accommodate him. That may have been an empty threat, but the Superior was reluctant to risk it. After all, Mother Caroline Freiss sent the first group of three Sisters to the village in 1861, and they had been teaching primary school children in Teutopolis ever since.
So, Sister Ethelbert Dekum arrived in Teutopolis at age 24, and just two years professed. Today she would be labeled an "early career professional," and not the first choice to launch a high school. Her first work was at the Society Hall, which had been constructed 10 years earlier on the National Road and across the street from St. Francis Church. She and a layman taught the eighth and ninth grades at the start.
The number of students gradually increased, and the initial class of four-year graduates exited in 1926. In 1929, a new Teutopolis Township High School opened its doors on the National Road at the west end of Teutopolis. Sister Ethelbert was named Superintendent of the Teutopolis Unit at that point, a post she filled into 1955. In 1931, there were 12 graduates. Five years later and in the heart of the Great Depression, the graduating class had more than doubled.
Sister Ethelbert and her colleagues valued disciplined student conduct and quality instruction. They worked with the Notre Dames in Effingham to introduce current educational theory and techniques. For example, in 1948, the Sisters hosted a reading and spelling workshop highlighting the work of Dr. William Kottmeyer.
Kottmeyer was superintendent of the St. Louis public schools, but he collaborated with the city's parochial school systems. A leader in his field, he partnered with medical researchers to investigate the physiology behind reading and reading comprehension. In part, that involved directly examining how children's eyes move across the page when they first learn to read.
Over his lifetime, Kottmeyer authored or co-authored more than 200 books and workbooks. Teutopolis schools adopted some of them, and those workbooks and spellers survive in local boxes and trunks. Kottmeyer stressed repetition and phonetic spelling as the keys to mastering the English language. His eight-step "How to Learn a Word" method sent Teutopolis students down a vocabulary path paved with accurate spelling and crisp Palmer penmanship.
Groundbreaking for the first component of the current Teutopolis Grade School on Route 40 also took place under Sister Ethelbert's watch. That event was conducted in May of 1954 by two priests and the village mayor. A news release noted, "The ceremony was arranged by Sister Ethelbert, administrator of the Teutopolis unit." Absence of her family name (Dekum) was not atypical.
Before the religious order renewal called for by Vatican II, a Sister humbly laid aside much of her identity when she donned the habit of a vowed religious order. Name dropping was not true of male religious, who retained their family identity. A 24-page souvenir program was published for the Grade School Dedication in September of 1955; however, it made no mention of Sister Ethelbert Dekum's contribution.
Sister Ethelbert maintained contact with her former students by letters and phone calls. When the Notre Dames celebrated 100 years of service in Teutopolis in 1961, she posed in her pre-Vatican II habit with the two oldest surviving Teutopolis High School graduates: John B. Runde (1903-1996) and Christine Hewing Buehenerkemper (1903-1978). Bishop William A. O'Conner was also present.
The most creative building project of Sister Ethelbert's tour of duty was the one that gave her the most joy. Sister Ethelbert's baptismal name was Mary, and Pope Pius XII declared 1954 a Marian Year. In response, Sister Ethelbert inspired and organized the Lourdes Grotto that stands on John Street, just across from the St. Clare Hall parking lot.
With the directive skill of a general and the persuasive ability of a public servant, she drew plans, got permissions, raised money, inspired students, collected rocks, dispatched truckers, organized workmen, and ordered marble statues. Rocks were delivered to Sister Ethelbert from every state in the Union, and active duty military personnel shipped more from the Far East and Rome.
Western Oregon's obsidian was used to sketch the letter M under Mary's niche. The shape of that letter was carefully designed by Sister Ethelbert herself. The grotto was dedicated on Nov. 1, 1954. It stands today as a tribute to a uniquely progressive member of the School Sisters of Notre Dame.
Sources: US Federal Census 1900 and 1910; " 25 Will Graduate from Teutopolis High School," Decatur Herald, 5/27/1936, p. 8; Kottmeyer, Lambader & Wickey, Goals in Spelling 6 (St. Louis, Webster Publishing, 1951), p. 1; "New Teutopolis School Started," Decatur Herald, 5/6/1954, p. 7; Souvenir Booklet: Dedication of St. Francis Grade School and Auditorium-September 7, 1955; "Anniversary of Arrival to Teach in Teutopolis," Decatur Herald, 8/31/1961, p. 2; Robert Collins, "Books: Read Them and Keep Them," Southern Education Report, Vol 3, No 5 (Dec 1967), p. 30-32; Sister Ethelbert Dekum obituary, Teutopolis Press, 6/1973; Souvenir Booklet: School Sisters of Notre Dame and the Teutopolis and Effingham Areas: 1861-2011; Anne M. Butler, Across God's Frontier: Catholic Sisters in the American West 1850-1920 (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2012), pp. 172-175, 272-273, 292-295; Sister Ethelbert Dekum, Love Builds a Grotto (undated manuscript), Teutopolis Monastery Museum.