Texas Over Time: The McLennan County Courthouse, Waco, Texas.


By Geoff Hunt, Audio and Visual Curator

Texas has changed quite a bit over the years, as is readily seen in our vast photograph and postcard collections. To help bring some of those changes to life, we’ve created a “Texas over Time” blog series that will illustrate the construction and renovations of buildings, street scenes, and more. Our collections are especially strong on Waco and Baylor images, but look for some views beyond the Heart of Texas, too.Continue Reading

From Belgium to “Rough-and-Tumble Waco”: The Academy of the Sacred Heart and The Sisters of St. Mary of Namur

Academy of the Sacred Heart, Waco, TX, 1946
An exterior view of the Academy of the Sacred Heart at Washington and Eighth Streets in Waco, Texas. The buildings show the magnificent architecture worthy of such an institution. Photo by Fred Marlar on March 15, 1946.

By Geoff Hunt, Audio and Visual Curator

On the corner of Eighth and Washington in Waco, Texas, once stood a Catholic school and convent that taught thousands of students during its years of operation from 1874-1946. This institution was the Academy of the Sacred Heart. It was given this name because the property it stood on was purchased June 12, 1874—the day of the Feast of the Sacred Heart.

Academy of the Sacred Heart, Waco, TX, 1946, classroom (7)
Inside one of the classrooms of the Academy of the Sacred Heart, Waco, TX. Photo taken by Fred Marlar on April 4, 1946.

The academy had its origins in Namur, Belgium, through the Institute of the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur. The Cistercian Father Nicholas Joseph Minsart was one of the founders, and after his death, he elected Sister Claire (originally Rosalie Niset) to preside over the community in Belgium. In 1863, the now Mother Claire encouraged a group of Sisters of St. Mary of Namur to come to the United States to assist Catholic immigrant communities.

The Sisters of St. Mary set up their first house in Lockport, New York. Then, in 1873, at the request of Bishop Claude-Marie Dubuis of the Diocese of Galveston, a group of the Sisters were sent to Waco from New York, to start a house and establish a school. This would soon become the Academy of the Sacred Heart.

Academy of the Sacred Heart, Waco, TX, 1946, classroom (8)
Inside one of the classrooms of the Academy of the Sacred Heart, Waco, TX. Photo taken by Fred Marlar on March 15, 1946.

On October 1, 1873, the school opened in a facility at Sixth and Washington Avenue. The first Sisters of St. Mary to begin instructing at the Waco academy were Mother Emelie, Sister Mary Angela, and Sister Stanislaus. Only three students attended that opening day.

Although it had a humble beginning, Dr. Carlos E. Castañeda states in Our Catholic Heritage in Texas that: “The Academy of the Sacred Heart…proved to be a most fruitful mission in Central Texas. Not only did it become a large and flourishing institution, but it led in rapid succession to the establishment of eight more schools in the State…” (The Sisters went on to establish several schools in various cities in north and central Texas.)

The mission initially was devoted to the education of girls, but the Waco academy made exceptions. It was a day school with grades one through twelve. Boys were allowed to attend until the eighth, and ninth through twelfth were reserved for young women. Only girls were allowed boarding privileges.

Academy of the Sacred Heart, Waco, TX, 1946, classroom (1)
Inside one of the classrooms of the Academy of the Sacred Heart, Waco, TX. Photo taken by Fred Marlar on April 12, 1946.

Students from non-Catholic denominations were welcome, too. The 1876 Waco city directory describes it as follows: “…Its course of study is complete and comprehensive, and among its patrons and pupils are the representatives of the various denominations of the city and county. Its conduct and discipline are free from sectarianism…”

But by 1946, student enrolled had dwindled. Only six boarded that year, and this would be the last year of operation for the academy. On May 24 of that year, The Waco News-Tribune reported that “With the singing of the class song by 11 graduating seniors, Sacred Heart Academy…ended… an existence which began in 1873.” After more than 70 years, so ended a chapter in the ministry of a group of Sisters who came from New York “to open a school for young ladies in a rough-and-tumble Waco celebrated for its gun fights.” The photos that accompany this blog post were taken by Waco photographer Fred Marlar in 1946, so they likely knew these would be the final photos of the school in action.

After the academy’s closing, the building and site were sold and slated for demolition. This didn’t happen until July 1951, “when the last brick was carried away.” Consequently, the area at Eighth and Washington, where the academy once stood for decades, was brought down to be turned into a parking lot.

However, the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur are still strong to this day. The order has spread throughout the U.S. and other countries during the 20th century, and still remains strong in the 21st. A recent quote from the Sisters states that: “Our early calling to Christian formation continues at the heart of our ministry.”

This “early calling” that brought them here to Waco in 1873, with their roots in Belgium, led to their passion to influence many in their mission work in faraway lands—even in a “rough-and-tumble Waco” of the 1870s.

Click the image below to see more photos in our Academy of the Sacred Heart album on Flickr:

The Academy of the Sacred Heart Catholic School, Waco, TX


Begnaud, Sister St. John, A Little Good: The Sisters of St. Mary in Texas (Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR, 2011).

“Being Razed” The Waco News-Tribune, May 26, 1951.

Castañeda, Carlos E., Our Catholic Heritage in Texas, 1836-1936, The Modern Period, Vol. VII (Von Boeckmann-Jones Co., Austin, TX, 1958).

Kelley, Dayton, editor, The Handbook of Waco and McLennan County, Texas (Texian Press, Waco, TX, 1972).

“Sacred Heart Is Closed Up after 73 Years in City” The Waco News-Tribune, May 24, 1946.

“Sisters of St. Mary of Namur,” https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/ixs05/, Accessed 27 April 2016.

Sisters of St. Mary of Namur, Eastern Province, USA, http://www.ssmn.us/ourstory.html, Accessed 28 April 2016.

Waco, & McLennan County, Texas, 1876, Reprint-First City Directory of Waco (Waco, Texas: Texian Press, 1966).

Documenting the “Monster from the Skies”: Photographs Telling the Story of the 1953 Waco Tornado

By Geoff Hunt, Audio and Visual Curator

"Monster From The Skies," Waco Tornado, May 1953
“It was so wide and the rain so heavy, it was impossible for anyone in the city to see the funnel approaching.” The cover of this publication demonstrates how T.E. Caldwell of Thornton, Texas, remembers how this storm on May 11, 1953 looked.

This week marks the 60th anniversary of the May 11, 1953, tornado that hit Waco, Texas, causing the deaths of 114 people. To honor those who lost their lives on this tragic day, and the great loss of a large part of Waco’s central business district, we have put on our Flickr page some unseen or seldom seen photographs of the affected areas of Waco, before and after this storm.

This group of images includes digitized 35mm, 4×5 and 8×10 photograph negatives, Kodachrome slides, stereo-slides, and printed photos, and features images captured by Waco photographers such as Hiram Blaine Sherrill, Randall W. Todd, Fred Marlar, and the Army Air Force Photography Division. We also included “before” photos, giving us a sense of what these stricken parts of Waco were like before the catastrophic storm.

Before and After: The Devastation of the 1953 Waco Tornado
The top image, taken by Fred Marlar in about 1951, contrasts with the image below taken by Jimmie Willis of the same vicinity after the 1953 tornado.

Fred Gildersleeve, a well-known Waco photographer, also documented the storm’s wreckage. In a 1977 oral history interview, Waco historian Roger Conger remarked of Gildersleeve that “…Waco was most fortunate in having him here because he rode the crest of Waco’s remarkable development during the first twenty-five or thirty years of this century.” But sadly, just a few years prior to his death in 1958, he also saw the destruction of part of the city he had made a living photographing. He likely lost friends in the tragedy. However, like his earlier work, his documentation of the aftermath of the 1953 Waco Tornado helps to record an important part of the city’s history.

Before and After the Tornado, South Side of Waco, Texas, City Square, 1953 Waco Tornado
Before (1950) and after (1953) the tornado, south side of Waco, Texas, city square, by Fred Gildersleeve

Another photographer whose work is being brought to light is Dr. Hannibal “Joe” Jaworski. He resided in the nearby Roosevelt Hotel (400 Austin Avenue) and had a medical practice on the third floor of the Amicable (ALICO) Building, on the corner of 5th and Austin. In the aftermath of the storm, he led medical care of the wounded at Waco’s Hillcrest Hospital. Jaworski previously served as a colonel in the U.S. Army Medical Corp, and so his experience earned during WWII made his contribution vital in helping those injured in this catastrophic natural disaster.

First Responders to the 1953 Waco Tornado (2)
The collapse of the Padgitt’s and RT Dennis buildings onto 5th Street, by Hannibal “Joe” Jaworski

When going to some of these hard-hit areas now, all that remains are some empty lots and historical markers. However, there is nothing like a photograph taken during this time or just before to help us realize why this event was sometimes referred to as the “Monster from the Skies.”

Check out more before and after images of the 1953 Waco tornado in our Flickr slideshow. Click the arrow to make the slideshow start, and click the crosshairs in the bottom right corner to make the slideshow full-screen.

Discover more about the 1953 Waco tornado…