St. Cecilia Academy
Photo courtesy of Patrick Hawkins
The St. Cecilia community was founded in Nashville in 1860
for educating young women.
The founding of St. Cecilia Academy was simultaneous with the founding of Tennessee’s only Motherhouse of Dominican Sisters, the Congregation of St. Cecilia of Nashville. At the request of Bishop James Whelan, also a Dominican, four sisters from Somerset, Ohio, came to establish an Academy for the higher education of young women in the Diocese of Nashville, in August of 1860. Classes opened the following October on a hill in North Nashville known as Mount Vernon Gardens.
One of the co–foundresses, Mother Frances Walsh – who was still in her teens at the time – kept a journal of these first days. In referring to the boarding students’ schedule, she wrote that the school hours were long, from 8:00 am to 6:00 pm, with an hour’s intermission at noon. However, “. . . there were no studies after supper as it was thought that evenings spent free from all serious application were conducive to health of mind and body” (Annals).
Music and art were important areas of emphasis from the outset. Included in one of the Academy’s first courses of study were: painting, sculpture, pottery and china, piano, organ, harp, violin, and voice.
“But for the terrible cloud that lowered and threatened, all things foretold a bright and prosperous career for St. Cecilia Academy” (Annals). The Academy’s early years were inextricably bound up with the Civil War. The first commencement exercises were held in June of 1862. Miss Doyle of Tennessee and Miss Schipp of Kentucky graduated in the concert hall, which had been constructed in 1861, despite the war, to meet a growing enrollment. Lanterns borrowed from the railroad lit up the grounds, as over a thousand guests gathered to hear Reverend Mr. McDonald, a Scottish Presbyterian minister, deliver St. Cecilia’s first baccalaureate address.
Lee surrendered in April, but the school session continued until June 1865. That summer the girls returned to homes which had been ruined or abandoned. In September of 1865, St. Cecilia opened with a greatly reduced student body. Many of the debts owed to the Academy went unpaid. Deprived of its income, the school could not pay its own debts and the property was sold at public auction in September of 1867.
Although the Bishop purchased the school and returned it to the sisters, he later decided to close it because he was convinced that the congregation could never pay the debt. The sisters were told to return to Ohio, but they begged to stay and promised to extricate the Academy from financial collapse.
Prosperity gradually returned to Tennessee, and by 1880 the applications to St. Cecilia had increased to the extent that a new building was needed. Further additions to the campus at Eighth Avenue and Clay Street were made in 1883 and 1903.
With the city’s growth and general movement westward, in 1923 the Congregation decided to purchase the ninety–two acre Joseph Warner Estate in West Nashville. Thirty–three years later, on the feast of St. Cecilia, November 22, 1956, ground was broken on the Overbrook property for the new St. Cecilia Academy. A year later, the statue of St. Cecilia was set in place and the new building on Harding Road was dedicated by Bishop Adrian.
This marked a new era for an old institution. St. Cecilia entered the 1960’s confidently, with over a century of progress in the field of education to her credit – anxious to begin the next 100 years of providing young women with an education of the highest religious, academic, and cultural standards.