Blazing Trails Since 1851: Celebrating 170 Years
23 Feb, 2021
A trailblazer is a pioneer or someone who is considered a first in their area of expertise. As leaders, they point the way, take the risks, and change the environment. They have a vision for a different future, a faith that turns their dreams into reality, and a determination that cuts through barriers and obstacles.
The six Dominican Sisters who traveled down the Mississippi River on a flatboat in January of 1851 were definitely pioneers! When they arrived that January day 170 years ago Memphis was a rough river town less than 50 years old. The Sisters landed in downtown Memphis with only $238 in their pockets and a vision to start a Catholic girls school.
On February 4, 1851 they opened the doors of St. Agnes Academy on the corner of Orleans and Vance Avenue. And the school has never closed its doors since that day – making it the oldest continuously operating school in West Tennessee!
That first group of Dominican Sisters brought with them a strong faith, a dedication to scholarship, a sense of community, and a commitment to service that would be the hallmarks of their ministry. They faced many challenges but met them all with that strong faith, determination and resilience.
In 1861, just 10 short years after opening the school, the country was in the midst of a Civil War. The Dominican Sisters took charge of the city hospital overcrowded with wounded Confederate and Union soldiers. General Sherman and the Union soldiers even camped on the grounds of the Academy!
In 1867 and 1873 the Sisters nursed residents of Memphis through yellow fever epidemics, losing many of their own to the disease. While all the other schools in the city closed, St. Agnes remained open, continuing its mission of education while ministering to the sick in the community.
In 1878 the Sisters watched as the school burned to ashes. They endured a smaller fire in 1900. Each time they rebuilt. During the hard times of the 1930s the Sisters operated the school on a shoestring budget, often accepting tuition on the barter system. Meat and garden vegetables were traded for tuition during those lean years. When World War II began St. Agnes and the Dominican Sisters joined the nation in sacrificing for the effort by rationing and collecting necessary items and by wrapping bandages for the Red Cross.
Despite the hardships, the school thrived both in size and in the scope of its academic offerings. By 1951 as St. Agnes Academy celebrated 100 years in Memphis it had become clear they would need to find a different location as business had taken over the area around Vance and Orleans.
The Sisters purchased a 20-acre tract on Walnut Grove and Mendenhall, and on August 6, 1950, ground was broken for the new St. Agnes Academy. Five years later in 1956 ground was broken for St. Dominic School on the same property with St. Agnes.
Since that time the campus has expanded, enrollment has grown, and the school has continued to exhibit that same innovative spirit of the first sisters. In 2002 St. Agnes-St. Dominic became the first K-12 school in the nation to adopt 1:1 laptop technology on its campus, and in 2008 the school opened the Veritas Research Center complete with a state-of-the-art Distance Learning Center opening up a new world of learning for our students.
In 2020 when the pandemic began, our campus may have closed, but school did not close. Bold and talented teachers quickly transitioned to a remote platform and our students remained engaged and connected.
Looking back now it must have been a great leap of faith for the Dominican Sisters to make their way to Memphis in 1851 to carry out their mission of setting up a Catholic school for girls. They were proud, strong women of faith who wanted to empower their students to make a difference in the world. That is still the mission today, 170 years later.
An education at St. Agnes-St. Dominic is a journey of continuing growth rooted in Study, Prayer, Community and Service. Our students learn what it means to be part of a community, to connect academic endeavors with social justice principles, personal faith, and a greater purpose. Our graduates continue to follow in the footsteps of the Sisters, blazing trails as they set out to make the world a better place.
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