(About the photo: Undated photo of Sister Rachel Conway and two children at Sacred Heart Convent, Springfield, Ill.)
Springfield Dominicans thought they knew the story. A new reading of old documents raises an intriguing mystery.
It may be that a beautiful story about the synchronicity of the death of one of the Springfield Dominican founders is not true after all.
In 1874, Sister Rachel Conway and Sister Josephine Meagher, two of the sisters' revered founders, were honored to unveil a bronze statue of President Abraham Lincoln during a ceremony dedicating the president's tomb.
Thirty-seven years later, in 1911, Sister Rachel died at Sacred Heart Convent in Springfield, Illinois.
Beyond that, details are murky.
The old story, the one we've told ourselves for years, was that Sister Rachel died on the 102nd anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's death, and was honored at her burial when her funeral cortege was allowed to drive past the Lincoln Tomb as the bells tolled from the Oak Ridge chapel tower. She was buried in Calvary, the Catholic cemetery adjacent to Oak Ridge.
Sister Rachel's tombstone indicates she died on Feb 12, 1911. Her passing has been commemorated by the congregation on that date for decades. Yet public accounts do not corroborate this.
Springfield's newspapers say she died on February 13, at 12:30 a.m. "just one half hour after the passing of the one hundred and second anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln," as a story in the February 14, 1911, Illinois State Register says.
The papers also report her birth year as 1820 and her birth place as Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Congregational resources indicated she could have been born rather, in Kingston, Canada in the province of Ontario. Her profession records from Sinsinawa, Wisconsin, where she first joined the order, indicate she was 21 years old when she made her vows in 1849. If that is true, she was born in 1828 and she was 83, not 91, when she died.
Neither does there seem to be a public account of the funeral honors that have played such a big part in the imagination of the Dominican Sisters for decades.
Seeking death certificate
In the absence of a death certificate, which archivists Sister Julia Theobald and Maira Herrera are pursuing, we can imagine possibilities.
"She may have indeed died before midnight and her death was recorded incorrectly," Sister Julia mused.
"Or maybe she died before midnight but a medical official arrived to declare the death 30 minutes later," Maira added.
It's also possible that the sisters' desire to honor her by declaring her death on the anniversary of Lincoln's birth was impossible to resist.
Whatever the truth is, there is no doubt of Sister Rachel's place in the hearts of her "descendants"—Dominican Sisters who take courage and inspiration from her role as a founding member of pioneer congregation on the Illinois prairie in 1873.
Stayed tuned! We'll update the story as we learn more.
This article was updated on 2/13/2020 to correct an error of fact.