Our History in Florida
Sisters traveling by steamship from Quebec to the west coast of the United States invariably stopped briefly in Key West, the last island in the chain of Florida Keys. Less than 100 miles from Cuba, Key West was a mixture of cultures, races and languages. Among the diverse population were Native Americans, Blacks, Cubans, and descendants of the British Loyalists who had populated the Bahamas since before the American Revolution. Incorporated in 1828, Key West remained small until the 1840s when its population jumped to 2,000. By 1870 there were 5,000 residents and Key West was the largest and wealthiest town in Florida, primarily due to the lucrative shipwreck salvage market made possible by the treacherous Florida reefs.
In 1867, Reverend John B. Allard was assigned to the Mary, Star of the Sea parish in Key West. An old friend of the Sisters from Quebec, he immediately thought of them once he saw the poor educational system in the parish. In early 1868, the Florida mission was accepted.
In February 1868, Augustin Verot (1804-1876), Bishop of Savannah wrote that a house and land had been purchased for the Sisters and that all other stipulations would be met. The only thing left was to set an arrival date. Dreading the introduction of the Sisters to their first Florida summer, Verot suggested a fall arrival.
On Oct. 15, 1868 six Sisters, headed by Mary Euphrasie, took the train from Quebec to New York City. There they boarded the steamboat Sedwidge, accompanied by a Reverend Landry, who was the new assistant pastor to Key West. During the voyage, a terrible storm struck, destroying the ship’s masts and leaving it at the sea’s mercy. The Sisters prayed fervently for protection and in time the wind abated and the clouds passed. Nevertheless, the Sisters were grateful to finally glimpse their new home on the morning of Oct. 24, although they were not overly impressed by the town. The only structures were built of wood, most no more than one story tall.
The Sisters were met at the pier by Reverend Allard and a curious crowd of onlookers. They stayed with two local families for four days until they could prepare their new residence. The Key West foundation house, located outside the town limits, was a two-story abandoned Union barracks and was in use as a goat barn. The Sisters used the ground floor for the chapel, a parlor, a music room, a drawing room and a refectory. The second story was divided into two classrooms, a community room and a dormitory for the children.
On Nov. 9 , classes began with 26 girls.The school year ended in July and the Sisters happily anticipated some rest. That hope was short-lived, however, for an epidemic of yellow fever was sweeping the island. Three priests succumbed to the disease within weeks, leaving the island without anyone to say Mass or anoint the dying. Tragically, one of the Sisters’ own also fell ill: Sister Mary Angelique died on Sept. 2 after suffering from yellow fever for a month.
Nevertheless, the mission had to continue. With heavy hearts the Sisters opened the school year on Sept. 13, welcoming 69 day students and six boarders. Within a few years, their school grew and the Sisters were teaching in several other schools in the parish, including St. Francis Xavier, which they opened in 1872 specifically to teach the Black children of the island, and a school for Cuban girls which operated from 1873 to 1878. A new, much larger convent was begun in 1874. In addition, new foundations were opened in other parts of the state: Tallahassee (1872) and Tampa (1880).
On July 17, 1881, two Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary arrived from Key West to open a two-room schoolhouse in a blacksmith shop on Zack Street in Tampa. Thirty-five pupils were enrolled initially, but by the end of the first academic year, their numbers had increased to 70 day-scholars and two resident students.
In April 1889, the site of the school was moved to a two-story building at the corner of Franklin and Harrison Streets. In 1891, the late Bishop John Moore, second Bishop of St. Augustine, purchased property on Twiggs Street where a larger school, which served the community for 34 years, was built.
By 1926, further growth necessitated larger accommodations, and the school was moved to temporary quarters on Central Avenue while the present building on Bayshore Boulevard was under construction. Bishop Barry of St. Augustine laid the cornerstone in 1928, and Florida’s Governor-elect Carlton spoke at the ceremony. The following September saw the opening of the new school, but financial difficulties halted building progress before the structure was completed. However, with increasing enrollment, growth of the school continued. The building was completed, and by 1952 two new school wings were added, along with the Chapel and auditorium.
A separate boys division for grades 1 through 8 was established in 1962, and in 1970 a kindergarten was added. In 1989, the provincial of the New York Province of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary approved the recommendation that the Boys Academy and the elementary division of the Academy of the Holy Names be combined into one coeducational elementary school.
In 1983, the Sisters left Key West after 115 years of dedicated service. However, in Tampa, the staff of Sisters and their lay associates continue to instruct more than 925 students in the coeducational elementary division and the high school for young women.