Because Ramona Convent is now 126 years old, it’s not totally surprising that there are ghost stories floating around about a so-called “White Nun” on the premises.
Since the 1980s, tellers of tall tales say she has been haunting the ethnically diverse secondary school in Alhambra that was established way back in 1889 by the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary.
Legend has it that this spectral figure can sometimes be heard playing the piano in one of Ramona’s empty buildings — minus a piano.
True believers also claim that the White Nun has been cited greeting incoming freshman classes and even posing for pictures, according to online lore.
But on May 28, the White Nun didn’t appear to be stalking the venerable institution. And there was nothing ghostly about the 64 vibrant young women in white dresses who graduated that late spring afternoon, each holding a bouquet of yellow roses.
Those sistahs, predominately Latina, seemed more like maidens resurrected from a Shakespearian rite of passage as they stood on the lawn of Roseheath, a garden on the 19-acre hillside campus at 1701 W. Ramona Road.
In unison, they tossed rose petals to the light wind blowing through their private school, signifying new beginnings. Cecilia Nunez, their class president, told well-wishers, “We’re ready to take on the world.”
It should be noted here that every girl in the class of 2016 is college bound, a typical scenario at Ramona, which has been accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges and twice (1983 and 1998) designated as a Blue Ribbon School by the US Department of Education. Notable alumni include actress Loretta Young and Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Los Angeles), the first Mexican-American woman elected to Congress in 1992.
And while earlier graduates in decades past may have sought Mrs. status or considered entering the now-sold Holy Names novitiate when it was accepting novices in Las Gatos, today’s crop speaks the language of women’s liberation and budding careerists.
Nunez, 18, the daughter of two physicians who live in San Gabriel (and who drove her to school until she got her own car this year), is headed for Harvard and hopes to “transition into actual government.”
“I’m planning to study government and economics,” she told this writer, who (full disclosure) briefly attended Ramona when it was a boarding school as well as a day school for grades one to 12. This was decades before the school’s now mostly lay teachers began offering courses in engineering and extracurricular activities like competitive robotics and even a smattering of sex education.
Nunez, who attended a co-ed public school up until the eighth grade, said her course of college prep study at Ramona was rigorous: four years of English, four years of history, three years of science, three more of mathematics and two years of foreign languages.
“I think Ramona has prepared us to interact socially with people from different backgrounds and not be intimidated,” Nunez said in a long distance telephone conversation. “It offered me a place where I could be myself and not worry about what other people are thinking about me.”
Yes, going to a small girls school like Ramona (enrollment is about 250) eliminates distractions of “other people” like boys.
“There are other opportunities to meet boys,” said Tori Concepcion, 17, who will be Ramona’s student body president this year. “But I don’t really miss them. I sometimes date, but I’m really busy.” She added: “I feel part of a sisterhood.”
Elisa Herrara, now a senior active in Ramona’s Peace and Justice Society, chimed in: “It’s like we care about each other and have each other’s back.”
She claimed co-ed schools can make girls overly self-conscious and too concerned “about what boys think of them.”
Indeed, Ileana Vasquez, 18, enjoyed the “empowering” sisterhood at Ramona so much that she decided to attend the all-female Mount St. Mary’s University as a nursing major at its Brentwood campus in September.
“Being around other strong woman was something I enjoyed at Ramona and I want that to continue,” said Vasquez, who noted that her mother, an elementary school teacher, had attended Ramona. “And I always wanted to go there since I was a little girl.”
Her classmate, Danielle Gutierrez, was deeply involved in sports at Ramona. Its athletic program includes eight competitive sports, among them basketball, softball, soccer and track. Gutierrez, 18, said she will be considering several options when she arrives in the fall at Whittier College as a kinesiology major with an emphasis on physical therapy.
“I’ve been a competitive swimmer and I’m still deciding if I want to pursue an athletic career,” she said. “I’m also interested in broadcasting news.”
Gutierrez, who lives in Montebello, was active in a students’ committee at Ramona that arranges mixed dances and chooses the location of the senior prom. It was held this year at the Sheraton Universal Hotel in Universal City on May 13. The senior class elected Gutierrez prom queen.
“We have a dress code” for such shindigs, she acknowledged. “You can wear a strapless gown. But gowns that are too tight or revealing are not allowed.” She continued: “We try as a school not to suppress people’s fashion choices and I think we have a code that allows a lot of free expression.”
What do the boys wear at Ramona’s dances?
“We definitely require a suit and more formal attire than a T-shirt,” Gutierrez replied.
Lauren Wendell-Dumas, who teaches US history and psychology at Ramona and is also director of student activities, said dances at the school are open to boys who go to Catholic schools. “If they go to public schools, the girls get a guest pass for that boy.”
Wendell-Dumas, who graduated from Ramona in 1989 and returned as a teacher in 1997, said she has seen a “dynamic change” in the student body over a 20-year period. “Girls are more focused academically and want to make sure they are independent women and well educated,” she said. “I see many students who get married and have children. But most of the girls have gone on to graduate schools and become doctors and attorneys before they get married and that’s a big change. You didn’t see that with girls back in the 1980s.”
Amanda Argueta, who graduated from Ramona in 2011, finished college and joined the faculty this year as a theology teacher for grades 11 and 12. She said the focus among students now is “not on who’s dating but who gets the better grades. They don’t use the word ‘feminist’ but ‘sisterhood’ is OK and ‘becoming a whole person.’ Gender isn’t the issue.”
Such lofty commentary can make Ramona seem to some as a politically correct and even “stuffy” place, as one of its detractors claimed online.
The school has always been strict — especially when the Sisters of the Holy Names ran things 24/7 at its now-closed boarding school, according to Georgia Ellis Christian, a member of one of Ramona’s active alumni groups from the class of 1956. She helps organize its reunions.
“The nuns approved the dresses you wore for the prom — you couldn’t have any cleavage,” recalled Christian, who began boarding school at Ramona starting in first grade in 1945 and was president of her senior glass 11 years later. “I had to add layers of netting, otherwise the nuns wouldn’t let me wear my dress.”
She also recalled how one of the girls in her younger sister’s class got pregnant. The nuns, she said, “wouldn’t let her graduate. Another girl in my class got pregnant but she got married soon after.”
Christian, who married a year after graduating and started a successful catering business, regards the nuns of her youth with respect, even though at age 12 she “short-sheeted” one, her music teacher, and lost her visiting home privileges for a month. “They were strict and demanding. But you look back and realize that they made you what are you are.” Her daughter Gina also attended Ramona.
As for her fellow boarders at the school, Christian, the daughter of a divorced working mother, has vivid memories of rich girls there, including one whose Irish-American father died in a car wreck with his mistress while driving to Las Vegas.
She recalled other privileged boarders who were the daughters of wealthy Latino families from Nicaragua and Mexico. Christian claimed they were enrolled at Ramona “only because their families didn’t want them to be involved with men until their daughters were ready for them. They would have a chauffeur come on weekends to take them shopping. They were nice but they didn’t have to worry about getting good grades. I guess the money was good for the school.”
Ramona got off the ground back in the latter part of the 19th century when engineer and property owner James de Barth Shorb Jr., a son-in-law and partner of the powerful land owner Benjamin (Don Benito) Wilson, who became the first mayor of Los Angeles, gave the founding Holy Name nuns 15.5 acres to start the school. Shorb reportedly acted on the request of his daughter Edith, who didn’t want to stay at an Oakland boarding school operated by the Holy Name nuns.
According to accounts reportedly drawn from the school’s archives, the Holy Name sisters of yore named their convent Ramona to honor the memory of Maria Ramona Yorby Wilson, the maternal grandmother of Shorb’s daughter Ramona.
The school’s first building to be erected was a four-story red brick edifice that fell victim to the 1987 Whittier Narrows earthquake. Alums described its demolition as a traumatic and heartbreaking event.
But the school keeps on keeping on, a place which the Los Angeles Times described as “a beautiful Christian home where young ladies will be educated among artistic surroundings.”
There have since been major changes at Ramona. In 1983 its boarding school was closed “because the facilities were no longer adequate,” said Sister Kathleen Callaway, Ramona’s president since 2000 and one of only three Roman Catholic religious people on staff these days.
In 1970, Ramona’s instructors taught grades seven to 12. But three years ago, the school phased out the seventh and eighth grades “because there was no market for it,” noted Callaway. About half of the school’s student body pays $13,025 a year in tuition (scholarships are available).
Callaway said enrollment declined after the recession in 2008 but claimed it has been picking up with increasing numbers of applicants for freshman classes. She noted they come from as far away as downtown Los Angeles and Koreatown and as far south as Downey and Norwalk. “But most come from West San Gabriel Valley,” she said.
There are also about 28 international students on campus, most arriving as freshman and sophomores from China. Callaway said they are willing to pay extra for tuition ($21,000 a year, plus money to pay host families) in hopes they will graduate from Ramona and go to college in the United States.
Despite the few nuns on staff (who reflect a general shortage of Catholic religious people nationwide), the mission of the school appears to be pretty much the same as it was in the old days.
“We’re looking for students who really love to learn and who believe in the values of the Holy Name sisters,” said Mary Mansell, the school’s principal since 2014. “We want them to develop as strong leaders and to be of service to other people and to reach out to the less advantaged and to show concern for social justice.”
Callaway noted the school offers merit scholarships based on academic achievement but said that 47 percent of its students get scholarships based on financial need.
“We don’t want any student who wants to come to Ramona to get denied because of financial need,” she said.