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Prayer Vigil Address Upon the Closing Announcement of Mother of Mercy High School

These are words and I read them into a microphone in front of a bunch of people while crying a lot. 

If you are standing here, you have been affected by alumna Carol T. Dressman. If you are one of our alumnae who graduated before she became Mercy’s development director in 1983, she upheld your legacy and tended your home. If one of the women who attended while she taught and served here, even if you never attempted to decipher her blocky handwriting at the top of an assignment, she lowered your tuition, gathered your classmates, and kept the lights on in your hallways—she was the nuclear reactor, the splitting atom, of the Mercy you knew and loved. If you attended after Carol Dressman retired in 2002, you received the fruits of her dedication, sacrifice, and piercing vision. In her own words, listen to how from nothing but dust and a desk, she harnessed the power of the alumnae and the community to create a school among schools:

The development job at Mercy was a huge challenge. There was no alumnae database, no alumnae newsletter or annual fund drive, and of course no budget to work with.  The job became a family project..I started a semi-annual antique show to raise money for an alumnae newsletter. After the first newsletter, I sent out the first official annual fund solicitation followed by a phonathon. In 1990 I started Mercy’s first charity dinner auction, Mercy Gras. This brought donors to the school and raised the bar on what people thought they could donate to a ‘girl’s school.’ In 1995 I began Mercy’s first capital campaign. Our goal was 2.2 million. No one believed that a small Catholic girls’ school on the West side could raise that much. When the campaign was finished we had 2.4 million and over 20 named scholarships.

What many of us took for granted as forever in existence and forever would be, amen, was, in fact, a revolution in Cincinnati women’s education. When I attended Mercy, it was physically impossible to climb the steps of the New Building and turn left. There was nothing but wall in the way, and I thought little of it. But before this woman of faith in God and Westwood and all other things powerful was done, she had indeed gone about her business of eliminating impossibilities.

My classmates and I sat in her English class as this mother of three told of us a day when the Catholic high schools of Cincinnati would begin to compete for students, and to meet this challenge, she said, Mother of Mercy had a ten-year plan, which involved a remodeled science wing and a turned-around gym, which at the time was fraught with shock-orange plastic chairs and a mold-scented tarp hauled out from under the stage for special occasions. She saw it.  She saw a beautiful historic building with yet more potential, just as she saw broken or frightened or childish young women who could yet become scholars, warriors, women to be relied upon. And she raised them both.  

I tell you the story of Carol Dressman because it’s not actually a story about Carol Dressman. It’s about you. It’s about us. It’s about the parents who counted Fund Drive money, the alumnae who forfeited a month of lattes to write the check, the teachers who set aside a stack of grading to make phone calls, the sophomore who addressed the letter to her grandmother, and the family-owned florist that made a blue card donation. And it is not a tale of money. It’s the adventure of a great rocket, with Carol the engineer, but the metal skin, pulsing engines, and high gantry rushed to the launchpad by those parents, these teachers, that sophomore. This cost, at times, nothing more than the ability to be Catholic; one year, when I informed Mrs. Dressman after Mercy Gras that the bid spotters were often thirsty and next time someone really should be dedicated to fetching them drinks, guess what I found myself doing one year later.

And sometimes the cost was more than that. The day Carol Dressman broke her leg on school grounds was the day they hauled her down the main steps on a stretcher, still yelling directions for the Mercy Gras she was preparing, for her own bone fragments trembled before her.

The last time I laid eyes on her body on this planet, it lay in state in this very room, this room she saw from her own plastic orange seat in the faculty section, this room that she built--but most importantly helped to fill --with young women and good people to shape them.  At the time I thought it her final triumph. But now I wonder if the iron rocket skin she began to mold in 1983 was awaiting testing for a day even she couldn’t see, a time you and I were meant to not just occupy, but in our own way and against our own anxiety, launch and break a force of gravity we weren't even aware was present.

That you are here is Carol Dressman’s legacy. That we were educated amongst a million impossibilities is ours. What are you going to do with it?


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