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.
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.
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.
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:
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).