December 2016 eNewsletter: Historical Corner: The Early Years

The Sisters of St. Joseph and the Early Years of the Academy

By Dr. Melinda Blade, Director of Mission Integration and Historian

The Primitive Constitution of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet states that the Congregation is dedicated to “the practice of all the spiritual and corporal works of mercy of which a woman is capable and which will benefit the … dear neighbor.” Those works of mercy were brought to San Diego in 1882 when four Sisters of St. Joseph arrived on board the steamship Ancon and founded the Academy of Our Lady of Peace.

The San Diego of 1882 was a burgeoning mining town and seaport with few of the amenities with which we view the city today. Alonzo Horton held a vision of San Diego that he was working mightily to achieve, the San Diego Telephone Company opened operations in 1882 and the public library also was opened that year. There would be no modern fire department for seven more years; Kate Sessions had yet to arrive from San Francisco to teach at Russ School; no mayor was in office, rather, a Board of Trustees governed the populous of the city numbering under 3,000.

Notable in 1882 for OLP, however, was the arrival of four Sisters of St. Joseph who arrived in San Diego on April 18, 1882. The four Sisters who arrived via the Ancon were Mother Ambrosia O’Neill, nicknamed “El Capitan” by Yuma Indians, Sister Eutichiana Piccini, Sister Amelia Leon, and Sister Coletta Dumbach. The Sisters arrived at the behest of Father Antonio Dominic Ubach, who had been petitioning the Sisters since 1870 to establish a school in San Diego.

It was Father Ubach who had spent twelve years in entreating the Sisters to send a delegation from the Congregation to begin a school in San Diego. The arrival of the four Sisters and the opening of the Academy were a culmination of his prayers and travels to Carondelet, Missouri to personally appeal to Reverend Mother Agatha.

The Sisters promptly rented a house located at Second and G Streets for $15 per month and began preparations for their school. The new school was designated as the Academy of Our Lady of Peace by Reverend Mother Agatha Guthrie and it was opened on May 10, 1882.

In attendance were twenty-eight girls and two boys. Mass was first celebrated by Father Antonio Dominic Ubach in the tiny chapel on June 13, 1882, the feast day of St. Anthony, the priest’s patron saint. Mass would be held in this chapel twice weekly for the Sisters.

The success of the Sisters’ early school is well documented. Within two years of opening the school, the Sisters purchased property in the southwest corner of Third and A in an area known as Horton’s Addition, and in 1887, when a new school building was erected, the Academy moved to that location. Mother Valeria Bradshaw became the Superior when the Sisters moved to the new location. The Academy was situated in the present-day downtown area until the early 1920s.

To be continued…
Read the second article here.