Old School

St. Vincent’s Academy celebrates 175 years

When I lived downtown on East Jones Street, the sight of St. Vincent’s Academy students walking briskly over the cobblestones on their way to class was a hallmark of my morning dog walks. As my old pug and I crossed Madison Square and hooked a right at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, we passed under the 6-foot bronze likeness of Sisters of Mercy founder Mother Catherine McAuley, one of the few statues in the Historic District honoring a woman, behind the wrought-iron gates of the convent and academy on Liberty Street. For 175 years this July, the Sisters of Mercy have been educating SVA students in the Greek Revival building designed by architect Charles McCluskey.

And though this spring was a little quieter than usual, as St. Vincent’s moved classes online, the coronavirus pandemic recalled other testing moments in the school’s history. SVA President Mary Anne Hogan said the challenge of this year’s coronavirus response reminded her of the sisters’ resiliency through recurring yellow fever epidemics, hurricanes, the Civil War and more.

“The sisters have always been caretakers, and their ability to put their own needs to the side reminded us we have to do whatever we can to make sure our students and their families are taken care of,” she says. “That’s the spirit of the Sisters of Mercy.”

In 1845, six sisters led by Mother Vincent Mahoney arrived from Charleston on a mission that would profoundly shape Savannah to this day. St. Vincent’s Academy was the first Catholic educational institute established in the state of Georgia. In just 10 years, the day school, boarding school and orphanage doubled enrollment, leading Mother Mahoney to purchase the rest of the 200 block of Liberty Street.

Over the course of the school’s history, the Sisters of Mercy educated Maggie Davis, daughter of former president of the Confederate President Jefferson Davis, while also finding clandestine ways to teach math and reading to the children of slaves and freed slaves. (The school was integrated in the mid-1960s.)

Then, as now, school life revolves around a courtyard bordered by classrooms. On the original convent side, an area affectionately dubbed “the dungeon” stretches out near St. Vincent’s grotto depicting Our Lady of Lourdes, where slips of paper with prayer requests are sealed within rocks laid in 1903. 

Many generations of SVA students come from the same families, and many faculty are former students as well — like Sister Jude Walsh, Class of 1943, whose time at the school inspired her to join the Sisters of Mercy. After working in several of Savannah’s Catholic parochial schools, she came back to St. Vincent’s as principal for nearly 30 years before serving in the school’s development office as director of the alumnae association and as the first-ever archivist, where she wrote the book on St. Vincent’s history, literally — Enduring Legacy was published in 2015.

“St. Vincent’s is the love of my life,” Sister Jude says. Katie Crider, Class of 2005, whose family history at St. Vincent’s dates back to the class of 1890, said long-time teachers would occasionally call her by several relatives’ names before arriving at hers

“My grandma said the day she graduated, she cried all day because she didn’t want to leave. She and her high school friends still meet for lunch once a month,” Crider says. “It’s a place where women can flourish and be themselves during a time in life when that can be kind of hard.”

The sisterhood born in the halls of St. Vincent’s has a few outward markers: most notably, the ring, a royal blue oval spinel with the school crest that adorns the right hands of graduates.

Another way to spot a St. Vincent’s girl, according to Crider, is by their parallel-parking ability honed by so much practice snagging a downtown spot in order to make it to class before 8 a.m.

Perhaps most important, the school’s legacy is manifest in its alumnae — working in law, business, education, government, science and a host of other professions — and in their dedication to service and support for one another.

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