Our History and Founders
The ministry of the Sisters of Mercy began in 1827 with one-million-dollar gift bequeathed to an Irish Catholic laywoman in Ireland.
The establishment of St. Mary’s Academy in 1851 was part of an effort by Arkansas’ first Catholic Bishop, Andrew Byrne, to support Catholic settlement in frontier Arkansas. Byrne traveled to Ireland and persuaded the Sisters of Mercy to send four sisters and five postulants to the newly formed Diocese of Little Rock. Upon arrival, the Sisters formed the nucleus of the little school that would eventually become Mount St. Mary Academy.
We continue to be sponsored by the Sisters of Mercy. Additionally, we are a part of the Mercy Education System of the Americas (MESA), which was founded in 2017. MESA is an international system of Mercy education ministries with ministries located in Argentina, Belize, Guam, Honduras, Jamaica, the Philippines, and the United States. As reflected in the first Spirit of the Institute Mercy Education System holds in trust the ministries of MESA and places its work in the tradition of the foundress of the Sisters of Mercy, Catherine McAuley. Mercy education ministries, the ministries of MESA, though geographically diverse, share a common heritage, legacy and mission. Committed to meeting current needs, Mercy education remains a vital component of the works of the Sisters of Mercy. The mission of MESA through its governance and service components upholds this commitment.
|“No work of charity can be more productive of good to society than the careful instruction of women…since whatever station they are destined to fill, their example and their advice will always have great influences…”
– Catherine McAuley, RSM
Timeline of Years Past
The sisters began their school in a small house at Seventh and Louisiana Streets in downtown Little Rock with an enrollment of 35 students. St. Mary’s grew rapidly as non-Catholic girls and boys were admitted alongside Catholic children. Consistent with Catherine McAuley’s innovative mission of melding spiritual and secular educations, the sisters offered courses in the present-day fine arts―guitar, painting and drawing―along with religious and general coursework.
St. Mary’s Academy moved to her present location in Pulaski Heights in 1908 after outgrowing her Louisiana Street location. The 10-acre site was purchased with funds from the sale of the downtown property and contributions from local residents and landowners. The five-story “old school” housed a dormitory for student boarders, living quarters for the Sisters and Chaplain, classrooms, instructional areas, and a chapel.
In conjunction with the move, instruction for boys ceased and the school became a women’s academy providing both grammar and high school level instruction. It was also at this time that the name of the school was officially changed to Mount St. Mary Academy to reflect the new hilltop location.
Shortly after this, Mount St. Mary Academy became the novitiate for the Sisters of Mercy in Arkansas and served as the state’s motherhouse, training all young women entering the order until 1929.
Enrollment increased significantly over the next two decades as the school became one of the most highly accredited primary and secondary schools in the state. The steady influx of new students and substantial growth in postulants entering the Sisters of Mercy prompted expansion of Mount St. Mary Convent and Academy. To accommodate the growth, a convent annex, auditorium, and new gymnasium with a pool (state’s first school with indoor pool) were added. The McAuley Center Gymnasium is the oldest building on the school’s campus today.
At mid-century, Mount St. Mary described herself as the “Little Rock Catholic High School for Girls.” The offerings boasted college preparatory classes, an accomplished music department, art, speech and commercial classes, religious clubs, academic organizations, swimming, tennis and basketball.
The 1950s brought growth in programs and activities as well as in numbers of students and boarders. To provide classrooms and dormitories, the school raised funds to construct a new building. In September of 1954, a new annex named Marian Hall, now called the M-Wing, was dedicated.
The dramatic social, economic and technological changes occurring across the nation fueled St. Mary’s growth in the ’60s and ’70s. Occurring at this same time, Vatican II called upon religious congregations worldwide to examine their constitutions, so that they might relate their current ministries to the spirit and purpose of their founders, and better meet the new needs of the 20th Century Church.
The Sisters of Mercy responded by broadening their ministries to include direct service and advocacy for economically poor persons in response to the social teachings of the Catholic Church. Because this period saw many sisters responding to a wide variety of needs, the number of sisters available to work in parochial schools shifted. In 1961, Mount St. Mary’s teaching staff included 16 sisters and two lay teachers. Ten years later the ratio of religious to lay teachers was 15 to 14. By 1981, it was 13 to 30.
The increase in lay teachers necessitated an increase in tuition in order to offer them just compensation. One of the most dramatic changes that grew out of the school’s staffing difficulties before 1976 was the closure of the girl’s boarding facility and the elementary school. The boarding facility’s closure in 1970 was prompted by the lack of sisters for staffing and the need to convert dormitories into badly needed classrooms to accommodate the expanding high school enrollment. In 1975, the elementary school was closed due to the growth and expansion of parochial schools in Greater Little Rock. A year later, a new wing of classrooms, now called the R-Wing, was added to the existing structure to accommodate the increase in enrollment.
Catholic schools were not immune to the new trends reshaping public education. Mount St. Mary’s curriculum in the 1970s reflected a growing emphasis on standard academics, basic business skill classes and the addition of psychology, speech, and physics. During the 1980s and early 1990s, several trends characterized the school’s growth and development. These included the need for annual tuition increases, a rise in non-Catholic enrollment as a percentage of the overall student body, and the hiring of additional staff.
In 1982, a controversial and difficult decision was made to tear down demolish the original convent and academy buildings. The aging of the religious community and the condition of the building made it increasingly unsafe as a residence for the sisters. In addition, the enormous expense of maintaining the deteriorating buildings led to the painful decision by the congregational leaders of the Sisters of Mercy- St. Louis Province.
In 1995, the school’s tradition of service was formalized into the theology curriculum as the Service Learning Program. The program includes one semester of off-campus service at various sites, as well as a semester-long class dealing with social topics such as hunger, poverty, and environmental issues. Other innovations of the 90s were the introduction of the “block” schedule offering teachers lengthened classroom time and the move to a President/Principal model for the administration of the Academy.
In 1998, Mount St. Mary Academy embarked on the first major capital campaign in 20 years to provide the facilities that would support the enhanced curriculum in math and science. This effort resulted in the Karen Elizabeth Flake Math and Science Building, now called the F-Wing, adjoining the 1954 and 1977 buildings.
Facility needs identified during the 1998 Campaign were incorporated into a comprehensive long-range development plan for the academy: Lasting Efforts: The Campaign for Mount St. Mary Academy. The Lasting Efforts Capital Campaign raised $13.2 million over 12 years for a two-phase plan that addressed the school’s need for facility improvements/additions, technology upgrades and long-range endowments in order to manage future challenges and meet the changing needs of the students.
Mount St. Mary’s completion of the Lasting Efforts Campaign brought with it a new state-of-the-art math and science wing, wireless infrastructure and classroom “Smart” technology for the 1:1 laptop program, upgraded and increased security systems, an athletic training facility, an expanded library, formalized spaces for music, drama and multimedia, an outdoor courtyard for students to use during lunch, and restoration of the McAuley Center gymnasium.