Over the course of her life, Sara Catherine Aloysia Tracy became one of the largest benefactors to the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston. Her generous contributions were pivotal in the establishment of many projects throughout the Diocese. One of five children, Miss Tracy was born December 6, 1827 in Lansingburgh, New York, the daughter of a prominent, deeply religious family. Her maternal grandfather was responsible for the founding of the Catholic Church in the area, and her mother displayed untiring devotion to caring for the local poor people.
She received her early education at Manhattan's Sacred Heart Convent and then taught for many years at the Lansingburgh Academy. She become heiress to her brother Edward's fortune after his untimely death and spent the rest of her life traveling the world and supporting numerous charitable activities. She was an invalid the last year of her life and died on November 6, 1904 in New York, New York.
Sara Tracy's devotion to the Wheeling germanated in 1899 as the result of an ocean voyage that included a late-night game of chess. Crossing the Atlantic on a cruise ship, she met the Most Reverend Patrick Donahue who was making his first official visit to Rome as the Bishop of the Diocese of Wheeling. One evening, as the Bishop engaged in a friendly game of chess, a particularly contemptuous German officer became vocal with his criticism of the Bishop's strategy. The Bishop challenged the officer in a game of chess that lasted into the night, a contest which the Bishop would ultimately win.
After watching the chess game, Miss Tracy, impressed by the Bishop's manner and intellect, approached him for counseling on personal matters. They became close friends throughout the remainder of the voyage. Leaving the ship, Miss Tracy presented the Bishop with a check for $5,000, the first of numerous contributions she made to the Catholic Church in the Wheeling area.
Over the years, Miss Tracy became intimately involved with the works of the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese. In 1899, she sent a check for $10,000 to support the Bishop's efforts to bring the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity to Wheeling from Canada. The Sisters established the Good Shepherd Home for Young Ladies, intended to care for and educate young women who were at risk or in need of financial or emotional support. In recognition of this gift, a plaque and a beautiful oil portrait of Tracy were displayed on the wall of the Good Shepherd Convent. Sadly, both plaque and portrait were destroyed by a fire at the convent in 1911. With only a photograph of the painting, Bishop Donahue commissioned a local artist, Joseph Owens, to duplicate the portrait. Owens' work and a memorial plaque currently hang in Wheeling Jesuit University's Swint Hall.
At her death in 1904, Miss Tracy bequeathed the majority of her estate (valued at approximately $250,000) to Bishop Donahue and the Diocese. In her will, she made a specific request that at least part of the bequest be used to establish a college in the Diocese. This request led to the initial construction of Wheeling College in the 1950's. Her bequests to the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston have funded many other projects, including the St. Edward's Preparatory College, St. Xavier's Manual Training School for Boys, and the rebuilt Wheeling Cathedral. In addition, lands in Texas granted to the Diocese as part of Tracy's inheritance continue to provide substantial income.
In recognition of Sara Tracy's contribution to the Diocese, Bishop Joseph Hodges remarked: "The development of the Catholic Church in the state of West Virginia has had substantial dependence on the generosity of Sara Tracy. Every Catholic, and many who are not members of the Catholic Church, have benefited. Her hand is present in every building and program."
Information compiled from:
The Catholic Spirit, December 2, 1983
The Catholic Spirit, December 23, 1983
Memorial plaque in Swint Hall
Wheeling Jesuit University Chronicle, Spring 1994
The Wheeling Intelligencer, November 19, 1904
The Wheeling News Register, November 19, 1904