It was Mother’s Day – May 8, 1927 – when seven Irish-born Sisters of the Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament first arrived in Cleveland.
They had joined an order with its earliest roots in France, where Jeanne Chézard de Matel founded the Sisters of the Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament in 1625. After expanding throughout France, the Sisters followed God’s call across the ocean to Texas in 1853, later expanding their mission work into Mexico. But facing religious persecution in Mexico in the early 1900s, the order was forced to return to the U.S. to seek other ministries.
In 1926, the Bishop of Omaha, Nebraska, made an appeal for teachers, and these seven Sisters of the Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament responded: Sister Mary Columba Byrnes, Sister Mary Thecla Sullivan, Sister Mary Baptist Fitzgibbon, Sister Mary Brendan Fitzgibbon, Sister Mary Thomas O’Herlihy, Sister Mary Gabriel O’Regan and Sister Mary Raphael O’Connell. Their appointment was short-lived, however, as Nebraska allowed only American citizens to teach in their schools.
Nebraska’s loss was Cleveland’s gain. Bishop Joseph T. Schrembs of the Diocese of Cleveland welcomed these seven Sisters of the Incarnate Word and Blessed
Sacrament in 1927, and soon helped them purchase a tract of 10 acres in Parma Heights, formerly the Carl Miller family farm. There they built their home, welcomed new members, and set to work serving the needs of local parishes, schools and the Greater Cleveland community.
On September 11, 1935, a new school opened its doors to 33 eager young students. It was a 10-classroom building on 10 acres of rural property in the then-nascent community of Parma Heights. It was named Incarnate Word Academy, and its arrival was the culmination of many years of effort and setback by the group of devoted women who made it possible. That spirit of determination and selflessness they embodied has guided the education of students at Incarnate Word Academy students for over 75 years. We live by the motto “To Learn, Love and Serve.” This is our school’s story.
Tragedy struck this young congregation on January 26, 1935, when a fire destroyed the Sisters’ home. They sought shelter with other orders in the
Cleveland area. Yet, rather than deter the Sisters from their ministries, this tragedy spurred them on with the same resolve as Sisters who had faced religious persecution in Mexico.
The local community rallied around the Sisters, forming the Incarnate Word Guild as a means for lay people to support their mission. With the Guild’s support, the Sisters began to rebuild immediately, this time with the goal of creating a school on their Parma Heights property.
Just eight short months after the fire, the restored structure re-opened as Incarnate Word Academy, welcoming 33 students, with six teaching Sisters
and Sr. Bernard as the first principal.
In those first years, the Sisters awoke as early as 4:00 a.m. to travel by bus to the school from their temporary home 20 miles away on Cleveland’s St. Clair Avenue.
Enrollment at Incarnate Word Academy steadily grew as the community witnessed the Sisters’ commitment to the principles of academic excellence, faith, service to others, and formation in the values of Jesus, the Incarnate Word.
In the late 1930s, an anonymous donor contributed the funds to have the Queen of the Holy Rosary Shrine built on the Sisters’ property, a landmark that attracted large crowds for Sunday-afternoon pilgrimages.
In 1940, the Sisters were finally able to construct a new home on their property, including a wing for boarding students. This building was later known a Marian Hall.
Incarnate Word Academy Years of Growth
The post-war baby boom of the 1950's and 1960's brought expansive growth to Parma Heights and Cleveland’s other Western suburbs, and, as a result, to Incarnate Word Academy.
New Sisters joined the congregation, school enrollment swelled to nearly 700, and soon IWA’s buildings were bursting at the seams. The building that today houses Incarnate Word Academy and the Sisters’ home was constructed in 1952, and expanded in 1960 when celebrated its 25th anniversary.
The affectionately named "Red Barn", a remnant of the property’s farming past which had been renovated to house school events, athletics and meetings, was razed in 1967 and replaced with the larger and more modern Saint Joseph Hall.
Much changed in those growth years, but what didn’t change was Incarnate Word Academy's commitment to strong Catholic values and the highest standards of academic excellence. As the community grew, IWA’s reputation as a place of excellence brought parents from an ever-widening radius to enroll their children.
By the 1980's, registration for coveted spots in IWA’s kindergarten brought parents to the parking lot at 10:00 p.m. the night before registration day, where they camped out all night to secure their place in line.
Incarnate Word Academy set a standard of continuously enriching its curriculum early on, Whether in academics, extracurricular activities, faith formation or and service opportunities. Foreign languages, advanced math programs, choir, orchestra, and involvement in academic competitions and science fairs were added. A second "oor floor was added for junior high grades, along with a new science lab, computer center and media center. An Extended Day program was introduced to serve working parents with after-school care for their children.
The 1980s brought to IWA new foreign languages, advanced math programs, choir, orchestra, and involvement in academic competitions and science fairs. A second floor was added for junior high grades, along with a new science lab, computer center and media center. An Extended Day program was introduced to serve working parents with after-school care for their children.
Changes came for the Sisters of the Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament, as well. By 1979, they could no longer keep their growing school fully staffed by Sisters alone, so they hired Incarnate Word Academy's first lay teacher, Mrs. Catherine Abraham. Many more lay teachers gradually followed.