Tag Archives: St. Cecilia

The 808

November 5, 2019 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

There are certain houses that seem to hold within them an unusual power of gravity. The homes that, for generations, maintain the ability to attract, to pull family and friends together, even as they pass from one owner to another. The St. Cecilia neighborhood home of Bill and Julie Erickson, known affectionately as “The 808,” is one such house.

Julie explains: “This house was such a hub for the neighborhood for years before we owned it that it took on its own name. The beauty of this history of ‘The 808’ has been so endearing to our family, and we want to maintain that as best we can.” 

Built in 1890, this Queen Anne wears its many years with style and grace. Its intimate rooms seem to radiate with the warmth of the countless lives that have filled the space over the years. Beautifully restored wood floors, rich lamp lighting throughout, and a bright, open kitchen contribute to an inviting, nurturing atmosphere.

“The big porch in front really sets the tone,” Bill notes. “You can fit a lot of people up there.”

“If that porch could talk!” Julie adds.

If it could, it would have much to say about the years it played host to generations of the Neary family, who owned the home for 40 years. It was in this era that the house earned its long-held name. The original Neary family of six children has since branched out to a sizable Omaha clan of many dozens. Today, they’re collectively known as “The Neary Nation.”


Ellen Neary, wife of Chuck Neary (one of the six children who grew up in the home), recalls the warm welcomes she received every time she came to visit her in-laws. “I can remember the feeling of driving down from our farm in northern Iowa and getting so excited as we drove closer, knowing all the faces waiting for us in the house.” 

Ellen’s daughter, Shauna Hautzinger, has her own fond memories of time in the home. “I’ll always remember sleeping in the back bedroom, saying prayers with Grandma, looking up at the towers of [St. Cecilia] Cathedral.”    

Since becoming owners, the Ericksons have hosted three groups of Nearys for tours of their old family home. “To us,” Julie says, “the Nearys are really the heart of this house. All the memories they built together. That’s the foundation.”

With this spirit in mind, the home’s interior feels ready for guests at any moment. Special touches, such as filled-to-the-brim candy dishes on nearly every side table, a fully stocked bar at the ready, and enough seating for a family of 30, mean that the home is set for gathering of loved ones any day or time. 

“I love chairs!” Julie confesses. “They just come to me from all over.” Elegant exposed-wood seating—some from a funeral home formerly owned by Julie’s father—and colorfully upholstered pieces from estate sales or other family members provide each room with an eclectic warmth.

“I guess I’d describe my style as country French,” Julie says. “I love rich colors and wood. I’ve always had wood shutters made for each of our houses.”

Julie’s talent for design was established in her youth, during her years working directly under the guidance of Omaha interior designer Peg Boyle. “I got to go to all the buying trips to Chicago; and Hickory, North Carolina; and L.A. I was basically her protégée, and she taught me how to do all of this.”

While Julie’s eye is to the construction of distinct “vistas” throughout a space, it’s all framed by Bill’s passion for creating a precise color backdrop.

“At all of our houses throughout the years, no paint is off the shelf,” Julie notes. “It’s always a Bill Erickson creation.”

“I wouldn’t say it’s scientific, but it’s quite a process,” Bill says. “For this house, it took about four or five months to decide on the exterior color, painting a whole side of the house, watching the light hit it throughout the day, changing it slightly, mixing in a bit more white or green, trying again.” 

Though Bill and Julie have been full-time residents only since December 2018, they’ve owned the home for more than 10 years now, having first rented it out to their college-age children, John and Jane, and their children’s peers.

“John was going to Creighton and we thought instead of paying all that rent, we could invest in a place ourselves,” Bill recalls. When daughter Jane finished high school (before moving to Chicago for school), it was her turn to hold the keys. Again, this meant several years of eager guests filling “The 808.” Late nights on the porch, conversations filling the kitchen, a body in every chair…   

Throughout this time, refurbishing work was slow but continuous. Labor-intensive tasks, like pulling up kitchen linoleum “millimeter by millimeter” to reveal pine floors beneath, were done with an eye for maintaining the home’s original charm.    

A love of real estate and an eye for design seem to be a shared genetic trait among the Ericksons. While many 20-somethings might look at their rental home merely as a crash pad, John and Jane were eager to contribute what they could to the home’s restored elegance in their several years as residents. What is now a lush backyard oasis, framed by the dramatic cathedral spires, is largely the fruit of plantings made years earlier by the Erickson children.

Today, the whole Erickson family has combined their shared love for architecture and design, working together as collaborative real estate agents in the Denton-Erickson group. “It’s in our blood,” says Julie with a smile. With a gem like “The 808” to call home, it’s easy to see why. 

This article was printed in the November/December 2019 edition of OmahaHome. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

The Last Nuns of Duchesne

August 26, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The nuns have left the building. For the first time in the 135-year history of Duchesne Academy, students have no interaction with members of the Religieuses du Sacre Coeur de Jesus (also known as the Society of the Sacred Heart).

That means no nun to greet students at the front door of the all-girls Catholic high school at 36th and Burt streets; no nuns to work the main office, teach in the classroom, or raise an eyebrow at tardy students scampering into the historic red-bricked school. None of it. 

Nuns2Sister Lucy Hayes and Sister JoEllen Sumpter performed those duties (and many more) during their various tenures at Duchesne dating back to the 1950s. But time inevitably forces even the most earnest and dedicated to answer another call, and both sisters heard the call of retirement.

“It’s time,” says Sumpter, 76. “I fell in a freak accident a couple of years ago and hit my head. I lost sight in my right eye.” In addition, mobility problems force her to use a walker.

Hayes, still spry and active at 87, fought the idea of leaving Duchesne. She wanted to continue her daily duties as sacristan, even if it meant living in Omaha alone. But the Society of the Sacred Heart mandates its members live in a religious community. Hayes now looks ahead to mentoring opportunities for both of them at the RSCJ retirement complex in Atherton, California. 

Losing nuns at the Catholic school signals a seismic shift of symbolic importance. The sisters’ departure plans became official in late August, when the provincial leaders of the RSCJs handed over the responsibility of their spiritual vision to the lay administrators and faculty. Students, families, alumnae, and members of the Omaha Archdiocese gathered for the formal ceremony at St. Cecilia Cathedral.

“They’re putting their charisms—or values—into our hands,” says head of school Meg Brudney. “Symbolically, (the Society of the Sacred Heart) no longer has a resource here. But we know their goals and their values. We live them every day.”  Duchesne will remain part of the Sacred Heart network of 22 schools in the U.S., Brudney adds.

Sumpter began living those values—educating the mind and the soul—at a young age. “I started at Duchesne in seventh grade in 1952, went through high school and then college,” she says, referring to the days when the campus included a primary school as well as Duchesne College. “We had some really powerful (nuns) there at the time, with very few lay people teaching.” She majored in biology and eventually earned two advanced degrees.

Hayes, who grew up in Denison, Iowa, also attended Duchesne College, which closed in 1968, and fell in love with learning. “Our teachers tied all the subjects together, and somehow we came into this huge worldview, which just blew my mind,” she says. “It woke me up to, ‘Wow, this is what life is.’”

Both knew at an early age what they wanted to do with their lives, a decision formed by the loving nurture of the nuns at Duchesne. Sitting in their cozy apartment on a tree-lined street in the shadow of St. Cecilia’s, the two weave a fascinating life story that straddles two eras of the Catholic Church. 

“My family had a difficult time, especially my father, who wasn’t Catholic,” explains Sumpter about her decision to enter the Sacred Heart community. “You see, I was an only child.”

Which meant no grandchildren?

“You got that right,” she deadpans.

Nuns1Armed with a drama degree in 1951, Hayes immediately left for the convent. “My father wasn’t Catholic, either,” she says.  “When I got on the train, he remarked, ‘You can always come home, you know.’”

But it was a long time before either woman would see their families again. They lived a cloistered life, having very little contact with the outside world except in the Sacred Heart schools where they taught—Sumpter in Lake Forest, Illinois, and Hayes in San Francisco, during which time she earned a master’s degree in history. Prayer, reflection, and Mass filled their highly structured routine.

The winds of change that blew through the Roman Catholic Church in 1965 as a result of the Second Vatican Council also changed the lifestyle of the religious women. Exhorted to “go out into the world,” they left the cloisters and lived among the people they served. Their long, flowing black robes gave way to modern dress.

“A lot of nuns left because they couldn’t adjust,” says Hayes quietly.

The sisters’ paths finally crossed in the early 1990s when both returned to Omaha to be near ailing relatives. They rejoined the severely depleted religious community at Duchesne, filling in as needed in various capacities until they became the only two nuns left.

“We just adore both of them,” says Brudney, a 1983 graduate of Duchesne and one of many alums among the administration and faculty. “The culture of the school is filled with love. It’s a very respectful environment.”

With Duchesne’s enrollment at an all-time high and applicants on a waiting list, the legacies of these gentle, beloved women and all the Sacred Heart nuns who preceded them will no doubt endure.

Visit duchesneacademy.org  for more information. Omaha Magazine