Note: This article was written for the centennial celebration of Historic St. Ann Church. Sister Jean is an alumni and the last Dominican Sister to have taught at St. Ann School.
A New School
Sister Jean Aufderheide, O.P.
Since this one hundredth anniversary celebration of the establishment of St. Ann parish is a time of recalling ancient history, may I be permitted to brag a little as a Dominican sister and boast that more than five hundred years ago the Dominicans came to Florida to teach the truths of the faith to the Indians.
Dominican teaching came again to Florida when the Adrian Dominican sisters accepted an invitation from Bishop Patrick Barry to teach the truths of the faith to the young hearts and minds of the children of West Palm Beach. The year was 1923.
In reality our Florida history stems from 1912, the year that Catherine Barry, known to all Adrian Dominicans as Mother Mary Gerald Barry, entered the Adrian Congregation. She brought with her a living experience from this then newly developing realm of beauty where three of her brothers resided: Lawrence, a layman, and Patrick and William, both priests in the Diocese of St. Augustine which at that time covered the entire state. In visits to Adrian for the Reception and Profession ceremonies of their sister, the Barry brothers urged Mother Camilla Madden to accompany Sister Gerald on her visit to them. In quest of a warm climate for her health and that of the sisters, she accepted the invitation and found delight in the sun, the flowers, and the fruit. She did not conceal her pleasure, nor her desire to send sisters to teach there.
But it was not until Patrick Barry was consecrated Bishop of St. Augustine in May, 1922, that a school was actually accepted. The following letter to Mother Camilla from Father John D. Brislan, S.J., pastor of St. Ann Parish, written May 28, 1923, leaves no doubt that on the occasion of Bishop Barry’s consecration arrangements had been made to send sisters to West Palm Beach.
“Dear Mother Camilla,
Just a line to say that the house on Second Avenue between Olive and Poinsettia, only a block and a half away from the church, has been rented for the sisters who are to come. The rental is six hundred dollars for the year from June 1st, 1923 to June 1st, 1924. It had to be taken at once as others were after it. So let the sisters come as soon as you deem it advisable.
Enclosed is a list of furnishings it contains given to me by Mrs. Carney, the owner, who is a Catholic. She will be your next-door neighbor. Why not come yourself and start things going. Nothing like being on the spot and seeing for one self. Trust in the Lord; he will not fail thee. With kindest regards to your two companions and promising to all a remembrance in the Holy Sacrifice.
Yours sincerely in Christ,
John D. Brislan, S. J.”
In response, Mother Camilla lost very little time in sending four sisters to the pink house on Second Avenue. They were: Sisters Angelica O’ Brien, Superioress; Rose Dominic Le Blanc; Alma O’ Reilly; and Angela O’ Brien. No Aufderheides among them!
Following the advice of Father Brislan, Mother Camilla, accompanied by Sister Mary Reynold, soon went herself to “start things going.” Snapshots of her picking oranges from the tree alongside the sisters’ house reflect her happiness in this mission, the first planting of the blossom of Adrian in Florida.
The Jesuit Fathers who had charge of St. Ann Parish were ready to open a school; but since the new building was only in the planning stage, the sisters taught classes in the old church until the completion of the new school in 1925.
Father Brislan, the pastor who had welcomed the sisters to West Palm Beach, died in November, 1923. He was replaced by another kind gentleman, Father Felix Clarkson.
For two years the sisters had taught in the parish hall, and even in a residence. The new St. Ann School was opened on October 12, 1925, with a faculty of seven Dominican sisters, three lay teachers, and 463 students. There are pictures of that dedication in the Parish Hall. You are invited to go over and see if you recognize yourself, or your Grandmother!
Sister Laurine Neville and Sister Grace de Lellis Mulcahy formed the high school staff in the pioneer years. Sister Laurine wrote an account of difficulties that were converted into a creative learning atmosphere.
In its beginning years, the school could not afford an equipped labratory so Sister Grace de Lellis, the biology teacher, brought her class to the ocean reef for the study of specimens. They made their own glass bottom pails, collected their own specimens, and studied them on the spot. To this day these alumni tell how they wrote up the customs of generations of the octopi.
Meanwhile Bishop Barry and the Jesuit Fathers were looking for ways and means to build a permanent dwelling for the sisters. The answer came in a seven acre piece of land on the Shores of Lake Worth given to Bishop Barry by Colonel Edward Bradley with the suggestion that an academy for girls be built.
This property was deeded by Bishop Barry to the Sisters of St. Dominic. Though the Dominican Congregation assumed the debt and the supervision of the construction, the Bishop and the Jesuit Fathers gave their full support in business matters.
In 1925 the sisters moved to the newly constructed St. Ann on the Lake Academy, now called Rosarian Academy. The sisters teaching at St. Ann School resided at the Academy from 1925 until open placement became effective in the 1970s.
The new school was completed at a total cost of $135,000, less than modest homes cost today. The first Senior Class graduated in June, 1927. The graduates included Debra Ryan, Ann Wilbert, Floretta and Louis Markwalter, Grace Strahan, and Jean Creed.
On September 16, 1928, an infamous hurricane hit South Florida and badly damaged St. Ann Parish. Both the rectory and school buildings lost their roofs. Many of the beautiful stained glass windows in the church were demolished. The sisters tell wild hurricane stories about their veils blowing down Flagler Drive.
In 1930, St. Ann School was accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. When the accrediting visitors came, classes went on as usual. The results of the visitation were issued in a report that gave the school an excellent rating. The report also recorded the following comments:
“The finest rapport between teachers and students that we have observed.”
“The most unorthodox methods with excellent results.” (Remember the glass bottom pails and the octopi!!)
And so, with minimal equipment and a skeleton faculty, St. Ann School received the accreditation and an A+ from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.
Other major events during the 1930s include the hosting of the National Soladity Convention, winning the State Catholic Basketball Championship, and staging wonderful musicals in the third floor auditorium. Some of you may remember the Gypsy Troubadour, Sunny of Sunnyside, and Sunbonnet Sue.
In 1935 students from St. Ann School entered the Dominican Congregation at Adrian, Michigan for the first time. They were: Margaret Lee Buesching (Sister Rosaria), Rita Gleason (Sister Ann Catherine), and Phyllis Hurley (Sister Marie Carol). These fine young women were followed by many other beautiful girls who chose the Dominican life.
From the beginning the faculty included so many great nuns that it is difficult to pinpoint individuals. How many of you here today can name your teachers from grade one through twelve? First grade, Sister Eileen Cecile; second, Sister Eileen Marie; third, Sister Mary Immaculate; fourth, Sister Mary Burke; fifth, Sister Mary Burke; sixth, Sister Mary Brian; seventh, Sister Ellen Therese; eighth, Sister Mary Charles; ninth, Sister Mary Samuel; tenth, Sister Ann Francine; eleventh, Sister Clare Ambrose; and twelfth, Sister Ellen Joseph.
Perhaps many of you are now in touch with a favorite teacher, a tough one or a sweet one. Sister Jean Patricia reiterates the comment of many, many nuns who taught at St. Ann School. “The St. Ann students are the most loyal of any I’ve ever taught.”
Sister likes to tell that she asked why the senior high school students had their names on their paper lunch bags. Nancy Smith Hudnall said, “If you had Sister Eileen Marie in third grade, you would never leave home without a name on your lunch bag.” In today’s jargon, it would be, “Don’t leave home without it.”
Think of the legions of great Dominican women who left their marks on lunch bags and hearts, on brains and souls, with a moral conscience.
Were it not for the persistence of the Jesuits, St. Ann would very likely have been just another dream. Imagine the Jesuits being responsible for all Catholics in Florida, south of Tampa. Their zeal was recorded in letters from the Jesuits to the Mother General in Adrian and attests to their interest, anxiety, and pure joy when the sisters arrived. Since 1925 these learned priests have been an integral part of St. Ann School. Who among the Catholic graduates did not receive the sacraments at the hands of a Jesuit? Their loyalty to the sisters, teachers, students, and families has been instrumental in forming the whole Catholic school community.
St. Ann today is a vibrant school serving the Diocese of Palm Beach. It stands among the multi-million dollar federal, state, and local buildings. St. Ann Church stands proudly proclaiming its one hundred years of service to the people of West Palm Beach. We are proud to be part of this centennial celebration.
Perhaps a fitting closing can be found in the 1944 St. Ann School Yearbook: “Due to your splendid teaching and training in religion and secular knowledge, we graduates leave St. Ann’s prepared to do well in this life and the next.”
St. Ann School is for all of us who have been blessed to be here, a true Alma Mater, a loving mother to us all.