|The Sisters of Mercy, above, celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding of St. Bernard Academy and Convent.|
Six young Sisters of Mercy arrived in Nashville on the evening of Halloween in 1866 from Providence, Rhode Island. They had been summoned by Bishop Patrick Feehan, the third bishop of Nashville, who wanted the sisters to start Nashville’s first parochial school.
The sisters quickly got to work.
A special Mass was celebrated on Nov. 1 at the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Seven Dolors, what is today St. Mary of the Seven Sorrows Church in downtown Nashville, and after the Mass there was a formal opening for the new school, St. Mary’s, located in the Kirkman Building across the street from the Cathedral. Classes began the next day.
The line from that first school stretches through 150 years to today and St. Bernard Academy, which will formally celebrate its 150th anniversary with several events the weekend of Sept. 23-25.
Throughout its long history, the school has been moved to several locations and has undergone several iterations. But in all that change, the school has been marked by one constant: the Sisters of Mercy mission, handed down by their foundress, Mother Catherine McAuley, to extend Christ’s compassion to the poor, the sick and the uneducated.
|Sisters of Mercy Suzane Stalm, from left, Jeannine Curley and Lauren Cole were all former teachers at St. Bernard Academy, which is celebrating the 150th anniversary of its founding with several events Sept. 23-25. Photo by Andy Telli|
The Sisters of Mercy no longer own or operate St. Bernard, but their mission remains the mission of the school, said St. Bernard Head of School Chuck Sabo.
“What the sisters started, that really is in the water here,” Sabo said.
“I’m really humbled that I can be here and be a part of it,” he said. “It’s like your dad giving you the keys to the Corvette and saying, don’t wreck it.”
At home on 21st Avenue
The school, renamed St. Bernard Academy in honor of Mother Bernard Read, who had sent the original sisters to Nashville, was located on Capitol Hill in downtown Nashville for its first 27 years. In 1895, the school was moved to Green Street in South Nashville, into the former St. Margaret Hospital. But a declining enrollment and the deaths of several sisters from tuberculosis forced the closure of the school in 1899 while the sisters tried to secure a new location.
In 1903, they bought a nine-acre tract of land on Hillsboro Road from Bishop Thomas Byrne and Father Patrick Gleeson. Two years later, they re-opened St. Bernard Academy and Convent, which stood as a monument to Catholic life in Nashville for more than eight decades.
During that time, the four-story building served as a home to the sisters, a high school and boarding school for girls, an elementary school, a special education school and a Montessori school. In 1960, a new building was erected behind the convent on 24th Avenue South, that became the home of the high school, while the elementary school remained in the convent.
|Mother Mary Clare McMahon led the first group of Sisters of Mercy who came to Nashville to open a school, which eventually became St. Bernard Academy.|
Sister Lauren Cole, RSM, was a junior at St. Bernard Academy when the high school moved into the new building. “There was such an atmosphere in the old building,” she said. “It was a holy place, it felt to me.”
The new building had its blessings as well, she said. “We had all the latest things of the day. I got an excellent education.”
Sister Lauren entered the Sisters of Mercy community after high school and returned to St. Bernard Academy in 1976 as a teacher and later served as principal of the high school from 1979 to 1984.
“I loved teaching at St. Bernard,” Sister Lauren said. “What I enjoyed about being principal was showing the school off to people.”
“It was just the most unique school,” said Therese Williams, the superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Nashville. She attended high school at St. Bernard and later returned to teach there for 15 years.
“I felt it was home away from home,” Williams said. “The sisters really nurtured us to be strong, independent, young women.”
The sisters were teaching the students to be leaders in the community, Williams said.
“They saw our individual strengths and encouraged us to use them,” she said. “As a freshman, a sister pulled me aside and said I want you to run for student office next year. I wouldn’t have thought about that if one of the sisters didn’t say, hey you’re not being all you can be.”
Williams did run and was elected class president as a sophomore, junior and senior.
She wasn’t the only one encouraged by the sisters, Williams said. “You look around and there are so many St. Bernard girls who are leaders in the community.”
“The fact it was single sex had a huge impact on some students,” said Sister Suzanne Stalm, who taught at the high school for 17 years. The girls were given opportunities to be leaders, she said, and “girls blossomed into beautiful, articulate, young ladies.”
One of the community leaders produced by St. Bernard was Eileen Beehan, who served as director of social services for Catholic Charities of Tennessee for 23 years and as a member of the Metro Council for eight years.
Beehan attended St. Bernard Academy high school from 1964-1968, a time of tumultuous change in the Catholic Church and the country. Beehan remembers it as an uplifting time. “There was so much hope,” she said.
Beehan’s freshman class was the first that was integrated at the school. She remembers the Sisters of Mercy overseeing a mostly smooth transition. “We studied Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, so that sense of social justice was there,” she said.
The education offered by the Sisters of Mercy encouraged community service and had an impact on Beehan’s college choice, St. Mary’s in South Bend, also an all-women’s school. The single-gender school “really did develop leadership,” she said.
Besides offering a top academic experience, the Sisters of Mercy were focused on the spiritual as well. When she taught at St. Bernard, Sister Suzanne organized retreats for the students. “The retreats were a profound experience for the young ladies because they experienced how great God’s love for them was,” she said. “It was my hope that when they drifted away from God and when they experienced darkness that they would be able to remember these experiences of retreat when they realized God’s love for them.”
New approaches to education
The Sisters of Mercy also brought cutting-edge approaches to education at St. Bernard. In 1968, Rose Manley opened a school for children with intellectual and physical disabilities at St. Bernard.
The St. Bernard School for Exceptional Children was a pre-school that offered an opportunity to families that had few other options at the time, said Sister Judith Coode, RSM, who taught at the school.
“I remember working there with the special children and what a blessing that was for me. They’re so open and so responsive to what you were trying to give them,” Sister Judith said. “It was a very rewarding experience for me. I think I learned as much from them, probably more than they did from me.”
One of the students at the school was Father Mark Hunt, pastor of Holy Rosary Church in Donelson who has a physical disability.
“I remember it as a fun place,” said Father Hunt. The school served children with a wide range of disabilities, and offered them many opportunities. “We went on field trips. I remember we all traipsed down 21st Avenue to the fire station,” he recalled.
“It’s sad that we don’t have anything like that in the diocese today,” Father Hunt said. “When it closed a lot of families were sad because there was a need there, there still is a need.”
Father Hunt stayed connected with the Exceptional School over the years. As a senior at Father Ryan High School, he volunteered some of his senior service hours there. “It was great to go back and help the kids there. It was the same atmosphere, kids having fun, happy. Everyone felt like they belonged.”
The sisters also operated a Montessori school at St. Bernard, and in their last years operating the elementary school, it was a non-graded school. “Kids worked at their own pace,” Sister Lauren said. “It was a relaxed way of learning.”
In 1989, the Sisters of Mercy closed the high school, special education school and Montessori school. A group of parents bought the high school building and moved the elementary school there, reconstituted as a private, independent, Catholic school.
Continuing to thrive
St. Bernard Academy has continued to thrive in the years since. Enrollment is about 330 students and a new expansion of the school will be dedicated on Sept. 23, as part of the Mercy Day and 150th anniversary celebrations.
Although they no longer owned the school, the Sisters of Mercy continued to have a presence at St. Bernard.
Sister Jeannine Curley, RSM, worked as a guidance counselor at St. Bernard for 11 years before retiring in 2009. The Mercy approach to education is still present at the school, she said. “You try to take children where they are and help them work to their ability.”
The last Sister of Mercy left the staff last spring with the retirement of Sister Marianne Smith, RSM. But the charism of the Sisters of Mercy still is evident, Sabo said.
The sisters’ emphasis on service remains “an integral part of the curriculum,” Sabo said. Each grade level has a service project, the school organizes a day of service to people in the neighborhood, and the students work with several charitable organizations, he noted.
“We’re continuing to walk in their footsteps by promoting their mission,” Sabo said. “It’s something we have to be very obvious about and intentional about. …
“We will keep that Mercy identify in the forefront.”
Theresa Laurence contributed to this report.
All invited to celebrate Mercy Weekend
St. Bernard Academy kicks off its 150th anniversary year with several events the weekend of Sept. 23-25 at the Hillsboro Village campus.
Sept. 23, Mass celebrated by Bishop David Choby, 10:30 a.m., St. Bernard
Academy multi-purpose room,
Followed by the dedication of the new St. Bernard Academy building
Sept. 24, Community Open House, 9 a.m.-12 p.m., SBA multi-purpose room
Sept. 24, 150th Anniversary Fall Fair, 4-8 p.m., SBA rec field
Sept. 25, Catherine McAuley Alumni Tea, 2-4 p.m., SBA gym
More information about St. Bernard Academy’s 150th anniversary celebration is available at www.stbernardacademy.org.