"On Sumter fields, they sow the seed.
Guard it with tender care,
Nor count the pain, but hope to gain
A harvest rich and rare,
With time's swift flow, the seed shall grow,
Its buds to leaves unfold,
And Sisterly bands lend aiding …
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And Sisterly bands lend aiding hands,
To gather sheaves of gold."
Reflections looks back at the development of St. Joseph's Academy, considered by many to be one of Sumter's foremost institutions of higher learning during its existence. According to the writings of Anne King Gregorie, the school was held in high esteem by the local citizenry, and many from outside the district sought admission to the school. The stringent curriculum was challenging and offered girls the opportunity to take courses heretofore unavailable to them. The material and photos used to prepare this article were taken from The Item archives and from the writings of Gregorie and Cassie Nicholes.
According to Gregorie in "The History of Sumter County," "St. Joseph's Academy had been founded during the war by the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy when they took refuge in Sumter from the federal bombardment of Charleston. In 1862-63 they erected a two-story building on East Liberty Street, and later they added wings and another story."
The building was eventually surrounded by wide piazzas with the first floor utilized as classroom space; even more expansive halls could be created by opening folding doors. The second floor was utilized as a residence and additional classroom space. Dormitories were located on the third floor for those students who boarded at the school.
The school was situated on a six-acre site given to the sisters by Mr. Edward Lafitte, a prominent merchant in Charleston. The orphans and boarding pupils under the direction of Sister Mary Joseph Kent were sent to this house which was converted into the academy. The site would eventually feature a garden, an orchard and a playground. Many of the early photographs reveal that the grounds were enclosed with fence.
In 1881, the report to the state superintendent of schools "showed that St. Joseph's had five teachers and 60 pupils." An article published in The Sumter Daily Item in 1923 noted that "St. Joseph's Academy filled a big place in the needs of the young women of South Carolina. From all over South Carolina and from other Southern states, hundreds of young women came and were educated and trained at St. Joseph's. Catholics, Protestants and Jews recognized the value of this institution and sent girls to the Sisters of Mercy to be educated and trained for their life's work."
Records confirm that the Council of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy closed the high school department of the academy on Jan. 2, 1929. The entire school was closed in June of the same year. The reason given was that the sisters were needed in other fields of religious activity in the diocese. Thus, the school closed after 65 years of devoted service to the Sumter community. In August of 1929, "Right Rev. E. M. Walsh submitted to the community the plan of using the academy building as a Missionary Center for the propagation of the faith. Unanimously, the sisters gave acceptance, and in the month of September four sisters were appointed to go forth as missionaries for the instruction and enlightment of those souls for whom the Master said, "I thirst."
In 1942, Mayor F. B. Creech received a telegram from Sen. Maybank advising him that the Federal Work Agency approved an appropriation of $30,000 for the construction of a U.S.O. recreation center in Sumter. Before this, the U.S.O. headquarters was in the building formerly occupied by St. Joseph's Academy on East Liberty Street.
The building which housed the academy was finally taken down when the land on which it resided was sold to the Long Corp. of Charleston who built a $400,000, seven-story apartment building on the site (corner of East Liberty and Magnolia streets) which opened on Jan. 1, 1951.
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