St. Teresa’s Academy celebrates sesquicentennial

The gates that secured the Quality Hill Campus of St. Teresa’s Academy from 1880 – 1910 are on display in Windmoor Center, along with Father Bernard Donnelly’s chalice and paten, the bell acquired by Father Benedict Roux for St. John Francis Regis Church in the 1830s, which later became the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception; and other pieces of 150 years of history of the Academy, its teachers and students. (Marty Denzer/Key photo)

The gates that secured the Quality Hill Campus of St. Teresa’s Academy from 1880 – 1910 are on display in Windmoor Center, along with Father Bernard Donnelly’s chalice and paten, the bell acquired by Father Benedict Roux for St. John Francis Regis Church in the 1830s, which later became the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception; and other pieces of 150 years of history of the Academy, its teachers and students. (Marty Denzer/Key photo)

By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter

KANSAS CITY — How many of us attended “STA,” have mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters, cousins, nieces, daughters or granddaughters among the alumni? A pretty good estimate would be in the hundreds, if not thousands. Kansas City’s oldest school is celebrating 150 years of Catholic education for young women.

In 1865, Father Bernard Donnelly, pastor of Immaculate Conception Church at 11th and Broadway, wrote to the motherhouse of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, near St. Louis, requesting the Superior send some sisters to open a convent school for girls.

It wasn’t the first time the Sisters were requested to start a school in what would become Kansas City. In 1833, Father Benedict Roux, who had started the first parish, St. John Francis Regis, and had a log church built with funds from Augustus Chouteau, at what is now 11th and Pennsylvania, requested the Sisters for a school. When Bishop Rosatti agreed to send several to Kaw’s Mouth, Father Roux backtracked, saying he couldn’t afford them. He left the area in 1837.

The parish was then served by Jesuit missionaries for several years until Father Donnelly took up residence in 1845. A school was taught by lay teachers under Father Donnelly’s leadership.

1860-1900: In a Daughters of Old Westport archival document cited in the 1991 diocesan history, This Far by Faith, Mary N. Jarboe wrote that she “taught four years in Father Donnelly’s school on the ground where the Cathedra … now stands. The school became so large and successful that the dear Sisters from Carondelet were authorized to possess it and I was sent to open a new school in Old Westport.”

Father Donnelly promised the Sisters that a school built in 1859 from bricks made in Father Donnelly’s brickyard would be ready for the Sisters’ use. Sister Francis Joseph Ivory, described as “a strong, enduring, educated woman with interpersonal skills and the ability to speak English,” by STA President Nan Bone, arrived first, and quickly procured free railroad passes for five of her fellow Sisters. They found the promised building empty and had to scramble to acquire the necessary beds, desks and chairs. They purchased a cow and threw a party, raising enough money to furnish St. Teresa’s Academy, which was opened and dedicated by St. Louis Archbishop Peter Richard Kenrick, Sept. 1, 1866, under St. Joseph’s patronage.

Their first student was Laura Coates, daughter of Kersey Coates. She was followed by the daughters of traders and civic leaders of the burgeoning city. Young Mexican women traveled by covered wagons to the school. Freighters began dropping off their daughters at St. Teresa’s to be educated and kept safe; sometimes years would pass before they were reunited. One hundred forty French, Irish, Italian, German, Spanish and American students were registered that first year.

The names of some of those first students comprise a roll call of Kansas City’s founding families: Laura Coates, Josie Payne, Maggie Brown, Rose Ingraham, Emma and Lydia Guinotte, Mame Shannon, Delia Chouteau, Effie DeLuce, Anne Gilday, Mary Harmon, Ada, Lulu and Mary Boarman, and the Pratt sisters. Later students included Kate and Margaret Lillis, and daughters of the Teasdale and Salisbury families.

The curriculum during its early decades included Analytical Grammar; Mythology; Sacred History; Botany; Criticism of English authors, and Mental and Moral Philosophy. According to the Prospectus of St. Teresa’s Academy, c. 1866, “Whether in class or recreation, when permitted to converse at table, or during their walks, the pupils must endeavor to improve the purity of their language and cultivate urbanity of manners. A few years in an Academy would be well-employed if nothing else were learned than to converse with the dignity and propriety of a lady.” And Kansas City is called a “cow town!”

Students wore black alpaca dresses with red-trimmed black hats in winter and buff chambray dresses with blue trimmed white hats in summer. The Sisters wore the floor length habit, wimple and veil, and Kansas Citians weren’t used to nuns in habits. In fact the Sisters from Carondelet were the only religious order in the region to wear the habit. Sister Francis Joseph recalled later that people thought they “were the circus.”

As the city grew, it grew wilder. The neighborhood surrounding the church and Academy had been nicknamed Quality Hill when Kersey Coates and other elite families began building homes in the area in the 1850s. But following the Battle of Westport in 1864, the still unpaved Broadway, Pennsylvania and other streets around Immaculate Conception Church and St. Teresa’s Academy became home to numerous saloons, other businesses and frequent shootouts. In 1880, the Sisters had iron gates set into the stone wall surrounding the Academy; they were locked nightly at 8 p.m., to keep out bad guys like Jesse James.

That same year, the Diocese of Kansas City was established, with Bishop John J. Hogan of St. Joseph as founding bishop. Father Donnelly retired as pastor of Immaculate Conception parish that year, and was taken in and cared for, by the Sisters at St. Joseph Hospital nearby, until his death that December.

In 1908, the Academy became the first Catholic school to be named a University of Missouri Affiliate.

As the years passed, the neighborhood grew less safe. The cattle trade was turning the neighborhood into a brawling congestion of shops and saloons. Sister Evelyn O’Neill, a botany and music teacher at the Academy was named head of the school by 1908. She realized that Downtown was encroaching on the Academy and it would be best to move south as many of the old Quality Hill families had done. But she ran into a roadblock with Bishop Hogan, who “was imbued” with the notion that the Diocese owned the Academy and was the one to decide when and where it moved. Mother Evelyn wrote down facts and figures to back her arguments and credited St. Joseph with winning over Bishop Hogan. A nearby building, the “old Buckley House,” was found for a school. The bishop agreed to turn over the deed to the Academy in exchange for the new school and the Sisters were free to relocate.

Mother Evelyn and a student drove south in a borrowed carriage, stopped at 20 acres in the sparsely settled Country Club District, and Mother Evelyn said, “That’s it.” It was a swampy, moor-like property, but she could envision the beauty it could have. The property, at 5600 Main Street, was purchased.

Ground was broken for the Music and Arts Building, which would combine classrooms, dormitories for the Sisters and boarding students and a gymnasium, on Oct. 15, 1908, the Feast of St. Teresa of Avila. It was a windy day, recalled Mother Evelyn, although “Our winds were kind … but just as full of pranks. The various groundbreakers had a hard time to keep track of hats and curls. Verily a wind-swept moor, I thought, as there dawned upon me the windiness and mooriness of ‘Windmoor.’”

The cornerstone of the Music and Arts Building was dedicated and laid by Archbishop Kenrick with Bishop Hogan and Coadjutor Bishop Thomas Lillis in 1909 and the building completed and ready for use in 1910. Engraved into the cornerstone were the words of the Academy’s patroness, St. Teresa of Avila, “Deo Adjuvante Non Timendum,” meaning “With the help of God, we need not fear.”

When they had first arrived in Kansas City, Father Donnelly had given the Sisters the bell that Father Roux had obtained for Chouteau’s Church, among other items. The bell had wakened the Sisters and the boarding students, and marked the passing of days and the curfew for more than 40 years. On moving day, the bell was in the first load of “treasures” taken from the old Academy to the new by Mother Evelyn. Today the bell and other artifacts are displayed in Windmoor Center.

St. Teresa's Academy showcases one of the most beautiful campuses in the city. (photo courtesy of St. Teresa's Academy)

St. Teresa’s Academy showcases one of the most beautiful campuses in the city. (photo courtesy of St. Teresa’s Academy)

The Music and Arts Building (fondly called M & A) opened for classes on Sept. 10, 1910.

Many stories and legends were born in Windmoor’s early years, among them the legend of the stolen trees. In a 1925 memoir, St. Teresa’s Academy of Kansas City, Missouri, A Sketch, Mother Evelyn recounted, “It was decided that trees should be planted on the north end of the new campus. St. Joseph was commissioned to find the trees and help with that ill-funded mission. Immediately a man arrived on the grounds with a tree-digging wagon and asked if he could plant a 50-foot elm on the campus, ‘as it would be a good add for me.’” Mother Evelyn asked if he could get more big trees for her; she wanted a forest. Yes, he could and did, for a fee of $25 per tree. As the 20 trees were taking root, the young man disappeared.

Two distinguished looking men arrived on campus in his place; Mother Evelyn found them admiring the trees. They smiled at the nun and asked if she knew where her trees came from. She said no, and was told they were stolen from Swope Park in broad daylight. “Now don’t be alarmed,” they reassured her, “every man on the park board is glad you have them and sorry you did not get a few more.”

The curriculum in the first decades on the new campus consisted of Religion, Medieval and Modern History, Latin, Spanish, Physics and Harp. The New St. Teresa’s Academy handbook of 1910, proclaimed that students were “prohibited the use of phones. Any necessary message will be delivered.”

In 1916, the 50th anniversary of the Academy’s founding was celebrated; the original Academy building was demolished, and the 2-year College of St. Teresa, was founded on the Windmoor campus. Classes were held in M & A.

In 1923, the Academy became a member of the North Central Association of High Schools and Colleges.

Mother Evelyn O’Neill died in 1938.

Ground was broken in 1940 for Donnelly Hall, named in honor of Father Donnelly, which would house the College of St. Teresa. Classes began there in 1942.

The last year STA enrolled boarding students was 1960.

In 1963, the college moved to its own campus in south Kansas City and eventually was renamed Avila College. The Academy expanded into Donnelly Hall.

The Academy celebrated its centennial in 1966 with 300 students marching in the American Royal Parade.

In 1982, the Goppert Center, a multi-purpose building containing classrooms and a gymnasium, opened.

In 1992, the neoclassical Music and Arts Building was officially listed on the National Register of Historic Places. St. Teresa’s was recognized as the oldest educational institution in Kansas City in 2000.

Today, the campus boasts four academic buildings, M & A, Donnelly Hall, the Goppert Center and Windmoor Center, dedicated and opened in 2012. The McDonnell Family Sports Complex, a partnership of STA and UMKC, was dedicated in 2012 also, and includes facilities for soccer, track and field. Parking areas and the quadrangle have been renovated and enlarged. The campus has been wireless since 2010.

Nan Bone, alumna and president of the high school, said she is “honored, the luckiest person in the world to have been a student at St. Teresa’s and now to view it from the perspective of president. The school is unique because our students are a sisterhood, supporting each other.”

The curriculum has changed over the past 150 years but, “always progressive,” Bone said, “always innovative and looking at best practices. We have STEAM, science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics curricula and robotics as St. Teresa’s advances further in the 21st century. The education here empowers confidence for great leaders confident in whatever they do, whether mothers, engineers or mission workers.”
Some statistics: graduates have a 100 percent acceptance rate into colleges and universities; and 85 percent of those receive scholarships. And there are 50 agencies in the Kansas City area where STA students provide service.

There are several upcoming events to celebrate the 150 years: Jan. 31, a celebratory Mass at 2 p.m., at Visitation Church will be followed by a reception; Feb. 1, Mayor Sly James will be on campus to proclaim 2016 the Year of the Young Woman and tour the campus; June 4, the Summer Quad Fest, an evening of drinks and music on the Quad; June 22-30, a river cruise through France, and Nov. 19, the Anniversary Gala. Also this spring and summer, more trees will be planted on the grounds as designed by faculty and students to fulfill Mother Evelyn’s wish for an arboretum.

For more information, visit, click on 150.


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October 20, 2020
The Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph