Mount St. Mary Academy in Little Rock (Pulaski County), a Catholic school established in 1851, is Arkansas’s oldest educational institution still teaching today. The academy is the state’s only all-girl secondary school. Today, Mount St. Mary educates about 550 high school students.
In late 1850, Bishop Andrew Byrne went to Ireland in search of an order of sisters to promote Catholic education in Arkansas. Upon contacting the Sisters of Mercy, Byrne was granted twelve members of the order. The women arrived in Little Rock on February 5, 1851, a date now known as “Founders Day.”
The sisters lived in Byrne’s house on 2nd Street and then in a meeting house on Markham Street. Their “official” convent at 6th and Louisiana streets was blessed on November 1, 1851. The Louisiana Street convent, which originally taught thirty-five Catholic and Protestant students of both sexes, remained the sisters’ home for more than fifty years. The boarding school associated with the Sisters of Mercy most likely originated in 1852, when the daughters of some of Bishop Byrne’s New Orleans, Louisiana, friends were sent to the school.
During the Civil War, St. Mary’s Convent housed students, children displaced by the war, and Confederate and Union soldiers. The Sisters of Mercy witnessed the Union capture of Little Rock in 1863. Toward the war’s end, Federal troops provided food and supplies to St. Mary’s.
The Reconstruction era was a time of rebuilding for the Sisters of Mercy. By 1875, St. Mary’s offered an education to girls and boys on the grammar and high school levels. The Sisters of Mercy had wanted to move their convent and school to an alternate location since 1883; the increased overcrowding and noise of the Little Rock business district had grown to surround St. Mary’s. With help from Bishop John B. Morris, the Sisters of Mercy relocated to ten acres atop a ridge in rural Pulaski Heights. Construction on a five-story, Gothic-style main building began in 1907. The new location was dedicated on June 11, 1908. It housed the convent, dormitories for more than 100 students, and classrooms for grammar and high school students. With the relocation, the school was renamed Mount St. Mary Academy and became an all-female school.
In 1915, the religious training quarters for the Sisters of Mercy in Arkansas were moved to Mount St. Mary. The space devoted to classrooms and the convent became too small with the increase in students. A convent annex was added to the north side of the main building in 1923. The 1929 construction of the Gymnasium Auditorium Building made Mount St. Mary the state’s first school with an indoor pool. Also in 1929, the Sisters of Mount St. Mary merged with the recently created Sisters of Mercy of the Union and became sponsored by the Sisters of Mercy of St. Louis Providence. Young women seeking to join the order now were trained in St. Louis, Missouri.
The Depression years at Mount St. Mary were defined by the struggle to maintain both enrollment and school facilities. Some families bartered goods and services to ensure that their daughters would remain enrolled at the school. A strong Parent Teacher Association organized the efforts of parents in repairing facilities and building additions for the school.
In 1951, Mount St. Mary celebrated its centennial anniversary and an enrollment close to 400 students. Marian Hall was built in 1954 because of this enrollment increase. It was connected to the original Gothic-style building via an open-air walkway. High school students attended class in Marian Hall, while grade school students attended in the original building.
The element of change in the 1960s was not absent from Mount St. Mary Academy. Throughout the 1960s, Bishop Albert Fletcher led efforts to end segregated Catholic education in the diocese. In 1962, Mount St. Mary began accepting African-American students. That year, Carol Blow became Mount St. Mary’s first black student, graduating in 1966. The diocese provided Little Rock’s black students with segregated educational opportunities until the early 1970s.
The Second Vatican Council in 1965 was followed by a decline in the number of women entering the Sisters of Mercy at the Mount. Because of the decrease, the school had to downsize. By 1970, boarding students were no longer accepted. In 1975, Mount St. Mary decided to stop enrolling grade school students.
The late 1970s and early 1980s were times of both construction and destruction for Mount St. Mary. The Marian Hall Annex was dedicated in 1977 to serve the school’s 750 students. In 1982, the Sisters of Mercy had moved to a new convent, and the next year, the 1908 main building that once housed them was demolished. Despite preservation efforts by the community, the structure was determined too expensive to maintain. In 2000, the Karen Flake Math and Science Building was added to the campus. Additional major renovations to other buildings was completed in 2009. In 2017, the convent was officially closed and deeded over to the school.
Mount St. Mary celebrated its 150th anniversary during Founder’s Week in 2001. Bishop Andrew McDonald celebrated a mass with students, faculty, and guests in the gymnasium. One guest, Governor Mike Huckabee, declared February 5 to be “Sisters of Mercy Day” in Arkansas.
Mount St. Mary students live in and outside of greater Little Rock. Some travel from Benton (Saline County), Cabot (Lonoke County), Conway (Faulkner County), England (Lonoke County), Hot Springs (Garland County), Pine Bluff (Jefferson County), and Roland (Pulaski County). Ninety-eight to 100 percent of students enroll in college after graduation.
For additional information:
Hayes, Jan. History of Mount St. Mary’s Academy, Little Rock, Arkansas, 1851–1987. St. Louis, MO: Sisters of Mercy, 1987.
Lester, Jim, and Judy Lester. Greater Little Rock: A Pictorial History. Norfolk, VA: The Donning Company, 1986.
Mount St. Mary Academy. http://www.mtstmary.edu/ (accessed July 15, 2014).
Woods, James M. Mission and Memory: A History of the Catholic Church in Arkansas. Little Rock: August House, 1992.
“Supplement 2001.” The Mercian. (2001).
Central Arkansas Library System