SAINT MARY ACADEMY
(A History of Brown County, Illinois 1880 – 1972)
Saint Mary’s parish is to be commended for the fact that it has provided education for its children for over a hundred years.
In 1864, a one room school was built in the northeast corner of the church property. Miss Bedelia Baust was the first teacher. In 1873, another room was added and the school is affectionately remembered as “The Little Red Brick.” Mr. Richard Fitzsimmons was one of the lay teachers and had the Catechism classes. (Mr. Fitzsimmons was the grandfather of Harold Fitzsimmons, Mrs. Eulalia Nolan, Mrs. Alice Ray and Mrs. Ethel Geisler, present day members of the parish.)
Lay teachers were in charge of the school until 1882, when Father Clifford, pastor, secured the services of the Dominican Sisters of Springfield. In September 1882, Sister Mary Catherine, Sister Mary Joseph and Sister Mary Raymond arrived to take charge of the school and the teaching services of the Dominican Sisters have continued to the present time.
Father Heffernan became pastor of St. Mary’s in 1907 and soon began planning for a new school building to replace The Little Red Brick which has proved inadequate to meet the increasing enrollment.
May 17, 1908 remains a memorable day in the history of St. Mary’s. St. Patrick’s Day had been selected for “the turning of the sod.” Large groups of volunteer parishioners, with teams of horses were kept busy all day with their plows and scrapers and the major portion of the basement was excavated in one day.
Several weeks later “a sand and gravel hauling day” took place. Approximately 50 wagon loads of sand and gravel were hauled from Jerry Cronin farm south of town, to be used in the masonry work, which was done under supervision of John Ward. A large kettle of vegetable soup was prepared for the hungry workers by Henry Stark.
Work progressed rapidly and the laying of the cornerstone was observed May 17. Dedication services for the new school were held Sunday, September 20, 1908, when Bishop James Ryan consecrated the new school – St. Mary Academy – and dedicated it to serve the needs of Christian Education in Brown County.
Classes were started immediately and the enrollment the first year was 125. Sister M. Sebastain was principal, Sister M. Ambrosia was the lower grade teacher, and Sister M. Gonzales was in charge of the two-year commercial course. The commercial class consisting of 16 members, became the first class to graduate from St. Mary Academy in 1910.
The upper floor was not entirely finished when the 1908 school year started. Later class rooms with portable sidings were used. A stage was constructed at the east end of the hall and served as the setting for many excellent musical programs, class plays and home talent productions.
The Academy Hall was dedicated February 12, 1909 and the occasion celebrated in a musical program given by the Cecilian Circle, a group of private music pupils, under the direction of Sister M. Martina, first music teacher of the Academy.
One of the first stage performances was at the end of the first school year in June 1909, when a patriotic cantata was given under the direction of Sister Martina.
In September 1909, the first high school class was formed. This class graduated in 1912. (Three-year high school courses were legal in Illinois at that time.) In 1915, the Academy was recognized as an accredited high school by the State of Illinois. The first four-year high school class graduated in 1916. The two-year commercial course was later discontinued and a four-year high school curriculum, meeting state requirements, was offered to the children of St. Mary and St. Joseph parishes. The teaching staff was increased to seven members including Miss Jane Brennan, the first lay teacher at St. Mary’s. Miss Brennan was intermediate grade teacher.
In the 1920’s, Father Lydon, assistant pastor, took an active role in the growth of the school. Being much interested in the religious education of the youth of the community, Father Lydon recruited many students from the rural areas of Brown County and an enrollment of 200 pupils was soon reached.
In 1928, St. Mary’s Alumni Association was formed at the suggestion of Father Fox, pastor, and Sister Eulalia, principal. Much credit for the successful organization of the Alumni is given to the first officers of the association: Nell Teefey, Grace Cronin and Cyril Schneider. Since 1928, the annual Alumni Banquet at the end of each school year has served as a Homecoming event and a reunion for the graduates of S.M.A.
St. Mary’s has always endeavored for high scholastic standards and has maintained a complete course of study in secular and religious subjects including music and art.
In 1935, an all school orchestra was organized under the capable direction of Sister Madonna. In the 1940’s a glee club supervised by Sister Leo Marie, gave many excellent performances at class plays, other school activities and special programs in the area. Sister Mercedes, who was art instructor in grades and high school, is well remembered for the high caliber of her art classes.
In the summer of 1953, the second floor of the Academy was completely renovated under the capable guidance of Father Marley, pastor. The stage was removed and additional classrooms were arranged. The science department was enlarged, more library space provided, a principal’s office was added, and various other improvements were added to the high school department. This left the entire first floor for the grade school classes. Several years later, a Home Economics course was added to the curriculum. Mrs. Mary Agnes Busen was in charge of this department.
In 1956, another major improvement was made within the school system when a gymnasium was constructed under the supervision of Father Marley. The gym fulfills the athletic needs of the school as well as providing advantages for parish activities and community events. Gerald Melchor of Quincy College was the first coach in the new gym. Philip Snowden was the first full time coach.
Beginning in September 1963, St. Mary’s participated in a shared-time program with Brown County High School in Science and Driver Education courses.
In 1969, the announcement was made by the Mother Superior of the Dominican Sisters that due to a shortage in personnel they would no longer be able to supply St. Mary’s with the required number of Sisters to staff both the high school and the grade school. The decision was made regretfully to discontinue the high school and retain the eight grades.
The Class of 1969, consisting of 16 members, was the 60th and last class to be graduated from S.M.A Graduation exercises for the last class were held Sunday evening, June 1, 1969, at St. Mary’s Church. Rev. John Franklin, an alumnus, was the speaker.
The last high school faculty was: Sister M. Mercita, principal, Sister Elizabeth Clare, Sister M. Theodore, Vernon McDormand and Philip Snowden.
At present, St. Mary’s has an enrollment of 140 in the grades. There are four full time teachers and one part-time teacher. Richard Burkey has been the grade school coach for several years. Sister M. Ancilla is the principal. Father Louis Shea, pastor, is in charge of the Newman Club classes.
Sister Sebastian was the first principal at St. Mary’s Academy. Others who have served in that capacity were: Sister Patrick, Sister Constantia, Sister Sybilina, Sister Eulalia, Sister Joanna, Sister Anaclete, Sister Emmanuel, Sister Edna, Sister Norberta, Sister Albans, Sister Victor, Sister Vincent de Paul, Sister Norberta, Sister Mercita and Sister Ancilla.
Many alumni and former students of St. Mary’s remain in Brown County while many others are living elsewhere. All recall with pride, the sentiment expressed in the words of their school song:
My heart’s with St. Mary’s
Thanking her always,
And wishing her well,
My heart’s with St. Mary’s
Wherever I dwell.
A History of Brown County, Illinois 1880 – 1970 – Copyright 1972