St. Joseph’s Academy: remembered and reunited

by Kathleen Stack Domitrovits

For three heartfelt days in early June, nearly 250 alumni, faculty and former students of St. Joseph’s Academy, gathered in Prescott to reunite, reminisce, and celebrate an unforgettable era, spanning 88 years of Catholic education in our town.

Amidst a growing population of prospectors in the 1870s, a plea rang out from the Santa Fe Railroad for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondolet to open a hospital in the Prescott area. From the recently formed Western Provence in Tucson, Mother John Berchmans Hartrich, Sisters Mary Martha Dunne and Mary Rose Doran arrived in the fall of 1878, after a weeks journey by stage through hostile territory.

The Sisters opened their hospital on September 6, 1878, in a small frame house on Alarcon and Willis Streets. The house was divided into two sections, with the sisters’ living quarters in one area and sick and accident victims in the other. Funds for equipment and furnishings were encouraged by the military governor of the territory of Arizona, John C. Fremont and his wife, Jessie Benton Fremont, who had known and worked with the Sisters in St. Louis, caring for the wounded during the Civil War.

The Sisters gratefully accepted eggs, potatoes, and perhaps a few dollars for their work of mercy. During periods when there were few patients, classes for the Catholic children in Prescott were held in the house. This little school, referred to as the Catholic Pioneer School of the West, was the seed of the future St. Joseph’s Academy.

According to the wishes of Bishop Peter Bourgade, in 1885 the Sisters’ hospital was discontinued. He felt strongly that the building would be better utilized if it were converted into a school, "as the need for fine education in the area was great." Thus, the little house in which shelter and medical care had been afforded to the sick and injured, opened as Prescott’s first private school, St. Joseph’s Academy.

In 1890, the academy moved to a larger house on Marina Street, adjacent to the newly built Sacred Heart Church, today the location of the parking lot for the Prescott Fine Arts Association.

Prescott was a thriving community in 1901, and Mr. Frank Murphy, a local land investor, donated a 10-acre tract to the sisters, known as ‘Murphy Hill.’ Under the supervision of Sister Aurelia Mary Doyle, the academy was built on ‘Murphy Hill’ according to plans she herself had drawn. Architect W.S. Elliott translated her plans into a magnificent mission style three-story edifice at a cost of $45,000. St. Joseph’s Academy opened its doors, again, in 1904, with praise from the community for the design and setting of the new building.

The academy building served as an illustration of the generosity of friends and benefactors of the Sisters and of their dedication to education and the students they served.

By 1910, the majority of the resident students lived on ranches or in the outlying mining towns. In the school’s first yearbook, ‘Academy Chimes,’ the school was advertised as a "boarding school for young ladies and girls." An entrance exam was required and pupils of all denominations were admitted. Board and tuition was $20 per month. Academic (high school) students were assessed $5 per month.

In addition to regular classes, the academy students could avail themselves of lessons in piano, stringed instruments, painting, Spanish, German, stenography and typewriting.

Although boarders came from influential territorial families, some were orphaned or abandoned, and the Sisters became "family" to these students who expressed their gratitude in later years for the love and solid foundation they received.

By 1910, the academy could accommodate fifty boarders and had a separate facility for boys, aged 6-12. A well-known graduate of 1910 was Grace Sparks, who served as the secretary of the Prescott Chamber of Commerce for many years. St. Joseph’s Academy students were civic-minded, too. They joined all Prescott students in planting trees on the plaza after the unveiling of the Rough Rider Monument.

The academy enjoyed prosperity from the 1920s to the 1950s under devoted superiors Mother Marie Del Lourdes, Clare Generosa, Rosemary and Victoria. In 1940, it was customary for graduates to leave something of sentimental value to the school. Peg Ensminger Campbell "willed" her little sister, Suzanne, who entered first grade that year. Suzanne not only later graduated with the class of 1952, but also entered the convent. Sister Suzanne Ensminger, CSJ, returned with Peg to the 2006 reunion to share that memory.

Sacred Heart Parochial School opened its doors in 1956, and the Sisters continued to staff both schools. Students and townspeople recognized the Sisters’ habit and respected their goals.. ."to teach.. .to direct.. .to inspire."

In 1960, the Sisters were honored for their 75 years in Prescott, educating students of all ages, and from around the world.

Under the supurb coaching of Jim Frary, the academy ‘Dons’ finally broke through in football in the fall of 1965, winning seven consecutive games before being eliminated in the state semi-final game. Little did anyone know that this would be their final season of football, as well as all other sports, activities, and education under the direction of the dedicated Sisters of St. Joseph’s.

Due to stricter building codes and numerous needed renovations on the 62-year-old building, St. Joseph’s Academy was condemned for use as a living facility and school after the class of 1966 graduated.

The church on Marina Street was too small for the growing Catholic population, so the Sisters graciously signed over Academy Hill (‘Murphy Hill’) for construction of the new Sacred Heart Parish Center. The work of the Sisters would continue in hospitals, parishes and schools throughout the country and world.

On Sunday, May 29, 1966, the final graduating class of fourteen women and twelve men proceeded down the grand outside stairway to receive their diplomas, and silently honor the Sisters and their beloved, noble academy.

Local resident, Bob Hinshaw, was present for the demolition and gathered several foundation bricks, which he kept secure at his home. After forty years, these precious keepsakes became part of a large silent auction of donated items held in conjunction with the reunion banquet this year. All monies raised, over and above expenses were donated to the Sisters of St. Joseph’s Retirement Fund in Los Angeles.

From as far away a Wales, men and women of the academy rejoined classmates and faculty to share stories and memories of their school years from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.

Irene Contreras Hilbers, class of 1931, was the oldest alumnus and one of the first to register last spring. However, she passed away at age 94 years on Friday June 1st, the day festivities began!

The St. Michael Hotel, site of the 1966 senior prom, received alumni for a social mixer on Friday evening, June 1st. The Saturday activities (2nd) included a golf outing, Prescott Historic Tour (given by Melissa Ruffner, class of 1959), Academy Stair Climb (beginning at the bottom of the hill at Willis St.) and Mass celebrated at Sacred Heart Church (at which several alumni participated in the liturgy). Following the Mass, a dinner, auction and program was held at the Quality Inn ballroom. The reunion-goers gathered one last time, for a picnic at Granite Creek Park on Sunday afternoon before going their separate ways.

Vince Gray, 2006 reunion chairman, reflected, "The memories are what motivated me. It was a small school. We were like family, where everybody looked out for everyone else."

Sister Dolores Anchondo, present at the close of school in 1966, represented the eight returning Sisters and expressed her thoughts at the banquet. "It was not the building which brought us all back to Prescott," she said, "but the spirit that we all shared. Let that spirit continue to live in each alumni and bring us together again."

(Kathleen Stack Domitrovits, St. Joseph’s Academy, Class of 1966, submitted this article with gratitude to the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondolet Archives and the Sharlot Hall Museum Archives.)

Our readers’ thoughts…

I graduated from the Academy in 1961. Sister Anne Marie was principal.
If it were not for the sisters and their tireles teaching there would
have never been such a great school. Our class was also the first
eighth grade class to “graduate” from Sacred Heart School. It was a shame
they tore it down and replaced it with such an ugly builing as what is
there now!!!!

Gary Wilhelm
February 18, 2006

My name is Roberta Northam Ollenberger. I and my sister Audrey Claire
Northam were boarding students at St. Joseph’s Academy years. I believe
I was there for 1947 for 1/2 year…I was in the 6th grade and really
missed my family. My Sister Audrey However, graduated in 1949 as
Valvictorian of her class. I, after leaving and going to Portland Oregon in
January of 1946 attended St. Mary’s Academy in Beaverton, Oregon…I
was just going over a lot of files, photos etc. and thought that I would
see if St. Joseph’s Academy was still in there after all of these
years. I remember picnic’s, hikes, etc. and as a boarding student remember
my best friend, a day student named “Crow”…I believe her parents
owned a grocery store in town. I also remember spending Thanksgiving with
my sister, and a girl named “Tyree”…we were invited to spend the
holiday on her family ranch near Flagstaff….Is there anyone or nun who
remembers us in that year….I will always remember the afternoon snack
of Bread, butter & sugar…Thanks…

Roberta Northam
January 22, 2008

My name is Margie (Black) Conner. I was a boarder at St. Joseph’s Academy from 1952 to 1958. Does anybody out there remember me? I did recognize a couple of names listed in articles from Sharlot Hall such as Kathleen Stack who it seems is the writer on the article. I live in Prescott Valley now. A friend of mine sent me the web site from Sharlot Hall containing these articles and pictures and I have just started going through them and will continue looking for more information. I, of course have many many memories of those 6 years. I was among the somewhat orphaned ones who was placed there in 1952 and never went home even during the summer. The nuns at the school became my family. When my mother died in 1958 I was then sent to live with my brother in California. I would really like to get more information about those years and pictures of the inside and out of the school itself. When they condemned the building, did they leave the basement and build the church over it – is that the area that is under the church? I know some would think I’m silly for thinking it was, but when I am in that part of the building I just feel like it was. That was where the heaters were and where they did the laundry – I think. Would really like names of the nuns that were there during that time; the Mother Superior, etc. would also like other names of boarders, if anybody has heard from them, where are they now and also day students, Katheryn Dalke, Leland Lambert, Sharon Chauncey and so many others I have forgotten their names; that was over 50 years ago – it would be fun though to reconnect.

Margie (Black)Conner
October 20, 2010

Read more Days Past

Illustrating image

Sharlot Hall Museum Photograph
Call Number:(bus5003ph)
Reuse only by permission.

St. Joseph’s Academy, 1966.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>