The History and Tradition of Mount St. Mary Academy
A woman named Catherine McAuley (1778 - 1841) was dedicated to serving the sick, poor and uneducated in her Dublin hometown. With the inheritance from a former employer, she opened the House of Mercy on September 24, 1827, and thus founded the Sisters of Mercy. Catherine sought to provide solace to sick and needy families, to train young girls for employment and to instruct poor children.
The establishment of St. Mary's Academy in 1851 was part of an effort by Arkansas' first Catholic Bishop, Andrew Byrne, to support Catholic settlement in frontier Arkansas. Byrne traveled to Ireland and persuaded the Sisters of Mercy to send four sisters and five postulants to the newly formed Diocese of Little Rock. Upon arrival, the Sisters formed the nucleus of the little school that would eventually become Mount St. Mary Academy.
The sisters began their school in a small house at Seventh and Louisiana Streets in downtown Little Rock with an enrollment of 35 students. St. Mary's grew rapidly as non-Catholic girls and boys were admitted alongside Catholic children. Consistent with Catherine McAuley's innovative mission of melding spiritual and secular educations, the sisters offered courses in the present-day fine arts―guitar, painting and drawing―along with religious and general coursework.
St. Mary's Academy moved to her present location in Pulaski Heights in 1908 after outgrowing her Louisiana Street location. The 10-acre site was purchased with funds from the sale of the downtown property and contributions from local residents and landowners.
In conjunction with the move, instruction for boys ceased and the school became a women's academy providing both grammar and high school level instruction. It was also at this time that the name of the school was officially changed to Mount St. Mary Academy to reflect the new hilltop location. Shortly after this, Mount St. Mary Academy became the novitiate for the Sisters of Mercy in Arkansas and served as the state's motherhouse, training all young women entering the order until 1929.
The next two decades saw student enrollment increase significantly as the school became one of the best equipped and most highly accredited primary and secondary schools in the state. In 1931, Mount St. Mary Academy became one of the first schools in Arkansas accredited by the North Central Association of Secondary Schools and Colleges, beginning the longest continuous accreditation of any school in the state.
Because of the substantial growth in postulants (young women) entering the Sisters of Mercy and the steady influx of new students, expansion of Mount St. Mary Convent and Academy became imperative. To accommodate the growth, a convent annex, auditorium, and new gymnasium with a pool (state's first school with indoor pool) were added.
At mid-century, Mount St. Mary described herself as the "Little Rock Catholic High School for Girls" and boasted college preparatory classes, an accomplished music department, art, speech and commercial classes, religious clubs and academic organizations, swimming, tennis and basketball. In a booklet produced for the school's 100th birthday, the sisters not only extolled their school's academic achievements, but also their continuing commitment that no girl be denied admission at the Academy because of inability to pay.
The 1950's brought growth in programs and activities as well as in numbers of students and boarders. Through the efforts of Arkansas Catholics, Mount St. Mary alumnae, and then-principal Sr. Mark Parsley, RSM, the school raised funds to construct a new building to provide classrooms and dormitories. In September of 1954, Marian Hall, the new annex, was dedicated.
The dramatic social, economic and technological changes occurring across the nation fueled St. Mary's growth in the '60s and '70s. Occurring at this same time, Vatican II called upon religious congregations worldwide to examine their constitutions, so that they might relate their current ministries to the spirit and purpose of their founders, and better meet the new needs of the 20th Century Church.
The Sisters of Mercy responded by broadening their ministries to include direct service and advocacy for economically poor persons in response to the social teachings of the Catholic Church. Because this period saw many sisters responding to a wide variety of needs, the number of sisters available to work in parochial schools shifted. In 1961, Mount St. Mary's teaching staff included 16 sisters and two lay teachers. Ten years later the ratio of religious to lay teachers was 15 to 14. By 1981, it was 13 to 30.
The increase in lay teachers necessitated an increase in tuition in order to offer them just compensation. One of the most dramatic changes that grew out of the school's staffing difficulties before 1976 was the closure of the girl's boarding facility and the elementary school. The boarding facility's closure in 1970 was prompted by the lack of sisters for staffing and the need to convert dormitories into badly needed classrooms to accommodate the expanding high school enrollment. In 1975, the elementary school was closed due to the growth and expansion of parochial schools in Greater Little Rock. A year later, a new wing of classrooms was added to the existing structure to accommodate the increase in enrollment.
Catholic schools were not immune to the new trends reshaping public education. Mount St. Mary's curriculum in the 1970's reflected a growing emphasis on standard academics, basic business skill classes and the addition of psychology, speech, and physics. During the 1979-80 school year, Advanced Placement courses were first offered in government/law, speech II, and debate. During the 1980's and early 1990's, several trends characterized the school's growth and development. These included the need for annual tuition increases, a rise in non-Catholic enrollment as a percentage of the overall student body, and the hiring of additional staff.
In 1982, a controversial and difficult decision was made to tear down demolish the original convent and academy buildings. The aging of the religious community and the condition of the building made it increasingly unsafe as a residence for the sisters. In addition, the enormous expense of maintaining the deteriorating buildings led to the painful decision by the congregational leaders of the Sisters of Mercy- St. Louis Province.
The early 1990's began an era of stability and growth for Mount St. Mary Academy. Tuition began to climb and teacher salaries were more competitive with area public and private schools.
In 1995, the school's tradition of service was formalized into the theology curriculum as the Service Learning Program. The program includes one semester of off-campus service at various sites, as well as a semester-long class dealing with social topics such as hunger, poverty, and environmental issues. Other innovations of the 90's were the introduction of the "block" schedule offering teachers lengthened classroom time and the move to a President/Principal model for the administration of the Academy.
In 1998, the Mercy Scholars Program was developed to provide interested students with a rigorous curriculum based on international standards of achievement. Originally designed to span four years, the program shortened to two years to prepare freshmen and sophomores for entry into the International Baccalaureate (IB) Program. In 2000, Mount St. Mary became the first school in the state authorized to offer this program.
Also in 1998, Mount St. Mary Academy embarked on the first major capital campaign in 20 years to provide the facilities that would support the enhanced curriculum in math and science. This effort resulted in the Karen Elizabeth Flake Math and Science Building, adjoining the 1954 and 1977 buildings.
Facility needs identified during the 1998 Campaign were incorporated into a comprehensive long-range development plan for the academy: Lasting Efforts: The Campaign for Mount St. Mary Academy. The Lasting Efforts Capital Campaign raised $13.2 million over 12 years for a two-phase plan that addressed the school’s need for facility improvements/additions, technology upgrades and long-range endowments in order to manage future challenges and meet the changing needs of the students. The Capital Campaign produced the largest single gift made by a Mount St. Mary Academy alumna to date.
Phase I of the Lasting Efforts Campaign culminated in 2000 with the addition of the Karen Flake Math & Science building. Phase IIa brought about the renovation of the 1929 McAuley Center Gymnasium in 2006. And Phase IIb included a renovation of the 1953 and 1977 buildings and a 6,400 square foot expansion completed in 2009. The renovation focused on comprehensive upgrades of all mechanical, electrical and plumbing of the 1953 and 1977 buildings, which received improvements like energy efficient replacement windows and a new roof for the 1977 building and asbestos abatement for the 1953 building. Along with the bricks and mortar improvements, the renovation incorporated added technology infrastructure and classroom technology to integrate enhanced learning and communication programs for the school. The much-needed expansion, which added space on all three floors of the building, opened up the library/media center, enlarged the theatre arts and family/consumer science classrooms, and added development offices and multipurpose meeting rooms.
By 2013, the Mercy in Technology (MIT) one-to-one laptop program was making use of the technological improvements put in place during the Lasting Efforts Campaign. The laptop program was incorporated school-wide to enhance learning, prepare students for the technologies needed to be proficient upon graduation, and build leaders equipped to tackle future challenges in college and in their careers.
History of Mount St. Mary Academy revised July 2014.