A Look Back
The long history of St. Agnes Academy makes it one of the strongest sources of Catholicism in Memphis. St. Agnes Academy was founded by the Dominican Sisters in January 1851, and chartered in January 1852. St. Agnes was situated in what were then the suburbs of Memphis (Vance and Orleans), about a mile and a quarter from Court Square, the center of the city. The doors were opened on February 4, 1851, with 20 boarders and about 15-day students. When the school year ended on July 7, 1851, the enrollment had increased to more than 50, and an addition to the school had been completed. The Sisters also boarded orphans until 1864 when the Dominican Sisters opened St. Peter's Orphanage.
In the fall of 1867 and again in the fall of 1873, Memphis was enveloped by the yellow fever epidemic. During these times, many Dominican Sisters died rendering service to the sick in Memphis. On May 16, 1878, after the yellow fever had faded, the Academy caught fire and was reduced to ashes. Another fire in 1900 caused lesser damage. Neither fire, however, hindered the School's continued operation.
In 1911, two wings were added to the building to accommodate the growing enrollment, a Romanesque Chapel and an auditorium. The community purchased the Porter property on the right side of St. Agnes. On October 5, 1918, the faculty of St. Agnes established the Memphis Conservatory of Music where students could acquire a B.A. degree in music. It became the formal music education center of Memphis for beginning, advanced and professional students. It was incorporated on August 4, 1923 and eventually formed the Department of Music at St. Agnes College.
In 1922, classes opened at St. Agnes College, the first Catholic women's college in the Diocese of Nashville and in the tri-states. It was the first college in Memphis to offer adult evening courses. It became evident that a separate location from the Academy was needed if the college was to grow. To emphasize the distinction between the Academy and the College, on January 1, 1939, the name of St. Agnes College was changed to Siena College. The college eventually was moved to Poplar Avenue (1953) where it was known for excellence in education until it closed in 1972.
After 100 years of life at Vance and Orleans, St. Agnes Academy began a new phase of existence in 1951 at the present site on Walnut Grove Road. Ground was broken in 1956 for an elementary school for boys on the property with St. Agnes. The founding fathers of St. Dominic School for Boys were: John Ford Canale, Austin Hall, William Fay, and L.K. Thompson. St. Dominic was opened for classes in 1957 with the understanding that the Dominican Sisters of Saint Catharine, Kentucky would operate it in conjunction with St. Agnes Academy.
The campus has been expanded over the years. The Buckman Building (1990) serves as the campus center for science and mathematics. Siena Hall (1998) houses the 300-seat Hook Theatre, two art studios, a music studio, Davis Gymnasium, dining hall and St. Catherine Chapel. The Veritas Research Center (2008) houses a Cybrary, Tech Center, Multi-Media Lab, classrooms and theater-style Distance Learning Center, providing spaces for study and research for all students. The R.D. “Johnny” Davis Early Childhood Center (2010) along with a newly renovated St. Dominic School, completed the Board’s 2005-2010 Master Campus Plan.
The spirit of the Dominican Sisters has formed and guided the students, faculty, staff and Board of Trustees of St. Agnes Academy – St. Dominic School and continues to do so. Students are imbued with Catholic principles and Dominican spirituality, which stress truth in word and action, the value of study and sharing knowledge with others, the necessity of combining contemplation with action, and the commitment to the Four Pillars of Study, Prayer, Community and Service.
St. Agnes Academy – St. Dominic School stands proudly on its long, fruitful, academic and spiritual heritage. A Board of Trustees consisting of parents, local leaders and representatives of the Dominican Sisters of Peace currently operates the School as one entity. The trustees, faculty and staff embody a vision of education for the future in the tradition of the Dominican Sisters.