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Reflections by Sammy Way: St. Joseph's Academy, a Sumter first

Archivist and historian
Posted 3/22/20

Part 2 of Reflections remembers the construction of St. Joseph's Academy and its evolution into a leading girls' academy in the South. The author utilized photos and documents from The Sumter Item archives and utilized the writings of Cassie Nicoles …

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Reflections by Sammy Way: St. Joseph's Academy, a Sumter first


Part 2 of Reflections remembers the construction of St. Joseph's Academy and its evolution into a leading girls' academy in the South. The author utilized photos and documents from The Sumter Item archives and utilized the writings of Cassie Nicoles in preparing this article. Due to the length of the article, a certain amount of editing was required.

"From 1938 through 1941, a large number of missions and churches were part of St. Anne's Parish. It extended over six counties, including the towns of Cheraw, Bennettsville, Bishopville, Hartsville, Manning and Summerton. During that time, mission churches were built in Bishopville and Hartsville. The present parish lines include Clarendon and Sumter counties. The public benefactions and charities of the parishioners of St. Anne's church are proverbial. Whether for the wayfarer, hungry and stranded, or for calls of public or private community charities, there has always been a fulsome and generous response.

"Visitors have admired the interior of St. Anne's Church. The ground plan of the building consists of a Latin cross while its interior and exterior architecture is English Gothic. The windows of the nave have emblems of the Seven Sacraments. The chief feature of the interior of the church is the beautiful altar of Italian marble. The side shrines conform to the main altar and are surmounted by statues of the Blessed Virgin and of St. Joseph. On the main altar of this sacred edifice is offered each morning, for the glory of God and the salvation of souls, the Holy Sacrifice of the Eucharist, the ancient Christian sacrifice, the offering of Jesus Christ Himself, foretold by the prophet Malachias and instituted by Our Lord at the Last Supper.

"Unique among the beautiful stained-glass windows is one dedicated: 'To the Confederate dead.' This is the north window of the eastern transept and displays the battle flags of the Southern states. Inscribed with a verse from Father Bryan's immortal pen is 'The Conquered Banner,' which reads:

'It will live in song and story, Though its folds are in the dust.'

"No history of St. Anne's Parish would be complete without discussing St. Joseph's Academy. In 1862, the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy came to Sumter to establish their convent. St. Joseph's Academy was one of the first educational institutions in the City of Sumter. In 1867, a new building was erected for the convent and academy, and the new chapel was dedicated Nov. 22, 1896. The Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy, bequeathed the Neill O'Donnell home, reside there, having named it St. Catherine's Convent. They conduct a kindergarten there at present. Another valuable contribution to the enrichment of Sumter's history coming from the Irish Catholics was St. Joseph's Academy, which had its roots in the old country."

"In the early 19th century, the venerable Bishop England influenced a colony of ladies from the Ursaline Convent near Cork, Ireland, to come to America. They built a convent in Charleston with the purpose of offering to the children in the colony an opportunity to receive an education that 'only the princes and nobility of Europe could afford their children.' The first superioress was Miss Maloney. At her death in 1838, Madame Borgia succeeded and worked for several years before returning to Ireland. The Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy Convent and Orphanage fled to Sumter when federal troops began to shell Charleston. They bought a lot on East Liberty Street and built what was known as St. Joseph's Academy, where they brought the defenseless orphans who were in their care. Needless to say, the school began under difficult conditions, but with dedicated efforts of the Sisters as teachers, pupils were attracted to the school. Soon students were coming not only from this state, but from Georgia and North Carolina as well."

"In 1865, Gen. Potter with 5,000 troops and followers entered Sumter on Palm Sunday. Sister Mary Joseph Kent and twin sister Mary Augustine went to visit him. They met him on the street between Magnolia and Harvin (East Liberty). Holding to the bridle reins of his horse, Sister Mary Joseph asked protection for herself, the other Sisters and the orphans in their care. She also begged mercy for the people of Sumter. Touched by the plea, the general ordered a guard to protect them. Students of the academy prepared a program of entertainment for Gen. Potter and the guard. Among other piano selections, they played 'The Homespun Dress' and 'The Bonnie Blue Flag.' Though the troops wantonly destroyed much property in the little town, the academy was not touched. After the war, those pupils who lived in Charleston returned to their homes, but the school continued to grow. In 1867, a new three-story building was completed on the approximate location of the present Circle Apartments building. It had an 'imposing front and wide spreading wings.' It was said to have health, comfort and elegance."

"A letter from Mother M. Teresa to Messrs. Eugene Kelly and Co. of New York City stated that she had been for some years Mother Superioress of the Sisters of Mercy established in Charleston by Bishop England in 1829. She also mentioned that she attended wounded and ill soldiers during the war. The building in Charleston she wrote was 'pierced and battered by cannonballs during the bombardment.' She also related in the letter how the boarders and orphans were sent to Sumter, where the sisters opened a school. She included in her letter a clipping from The Sumter News, the town's newspaper at that time, telling among other things concerning the merits of the school of how 'God has blessed our Religious Community.'

"The letter continued with the information that 'The old shanty residence' is gone and a new building was erected during and since the war, 'through God's blessing' without debt. However, money was needed for final touches and some furnishing to make the rooms comfortable for boarders. The point of the letter was to ask for a loan which she must have received. Good days had come for the academy. Enrollment increased and an efficient program of instruction was offered. It was said at that time to be 'one of the best female colleges in the Southern states.' Many in Sumter today who attended this school attest to the excellence of instruction received there.

"An account of a typical commencement shows something of the program of work offered at the school. President of the Diocese Dr. Corcoran of Wilmington, North Carolina, and the vice president Rev. Father McNeil were seated on the rostrum and no doubt made remarks suitable for the occasion. Students filed in dressed in 'white with blue ribbons and sashes.' The music, under the direction of Mr. Denek of Columbia, was described as 'great.' Miss Julia Colclough received a medal for a vocal rendition. Miss Colclough and Miss Sallie Fleming were applauded for an instrumental duet. Among other awards was the 'Conduct Crown' which was given to Miss Fleming. This award shows that the young ladies in the school were given a well-rounded education including moral and ethical training as well as mental and cultural.

"St. Joseph's Academy, Sumter's first educational institution, had as its first directress Sister Mary Joseph Kent, who was followed by Sister M. Agatha McNamara, who served from 1871 to 1878. Graduates in 1878 were Miss Katie Bogan, Miss Lucy Pride Green and Mrs. Neill O'Donnell. In 1878, Sister M. Isidore Barry became the directress, and she was succeeded by Sister Loretto Quinlan in 1889. In 1896, the chapel was dedicated. The beautiful stained-glass windows were donated in memory of Sumter citizens. Among these were Thomas and Margaret Monaghan, Margaret Doyle, William and Johanna Bogan, James P. Brennan, John P. Dowling, Mary Moran, William D. Bogan and Francis A. Epperson. The Sacred Heart Statue was dedicated to T.J. Tuomey.

"After World War II, the chapel was named Gerald Hall in memory of John Paul Gerald, who was killed in that conflict. In 1913, the Golden Jubilee of the school was held with elaborate ceremonies. When the diocese decided in 1929 that the Sisters were needed for extended missionary endeavor, the high school department was closed in January, and the following June the entire academy was closed. The last commencement was held in the Opera House, according to an article in The Sumter Daily Item. There were a number of medals awarded: Highest average - Catherin Finley; Roll of Honor - I'ans Jackson; Attendance - Master William Brennan. There were a number of diplomas given in that last year of the school. Many now living in Sumter no doubt still have these mementoes of the happy days spent at St. Joseph's and reminders of that sad day when the academy closed its doors for the last time.

"In August of that year, the Right Rev. E. M. Walsh asked that the building be used as a missionary center. It continued to be the home of the nuns for a short while. Later the Neill O'Donnell home was occupied by the Sisters until the new brick convent on Liberty Street was built. During World War II, the first floor of the academy was used as USO headquarters. Later the beautiful old building was torn down and Gerald Hall was moved."