Ursuline Academy Artifacts

Rosenberg Library exhibited an assortment of historical items related to Galveston’s Ursuline Academy as its January Treasure of the Month. The small display included architectural remnants from the academy and convent, a 1967 Senior class ring, and vintage sketches of the Ursuline campus by Galveston artist Emil Bunjes. These items were gifts from the following donors: Charles Brown, Camille Downes, Galveston Wharf Company Board of Trustees, and the Ursuline Order.

The Ursuline Order
St. Angela di Merici founded the Ursuline Order in Italy during the 16th century. Its primary purpose was the education of young women. Ursuline Sisters first came to the New World in 1639, establishing a convent in Quebec. In 1727, the Ursulines opened a girls’ school in French-controlled New Orleans. Still open today, it is both the first Catholic school in the United States and the oldest continually operating school for women in the country.

 Ursuline Academy Artifacts
Pen and ink sketch of the Ursuline Campus. From left to right: 1854 convent, 1871 chapel, and 1895 academy.

One hundred twenty years after the Ursulines settled in Louisiana, a group seven Sisters from New Orleans accompanied Bishop J.M. Odin and three young priests on a steamship bound for Galveston, Texas. In February 1847, the Sisters moved into a nine-room, two-story house which the order had purchased from Galveston judge James Love. The ten-acre property was located along Avenue N and extended from 25th Street to 27th Street. Established in 1847, Galveston’s Ursuline Academy became one of first schools in Galveston as well as the first Catholic school for girls in the state of Texas.

Architectural History
During the first several years of operation, various rooms in the old frame building were used for classrooms, living quarters for the Sisters, and a chapel. The school, which accepted girls of all religious faiths, could only accommodate day students though there was a growing demand for a dormitory to house boarding students. A dormitory and a rectory wing were later added to the school.

In 1854, a fire damaged a portion of the original wooden structure, and it was decided that a larger brick building should be constructed. This three-story Greek Revival stucco building sat on the east end of the property. In 1871, an adjoining Gothic chapel and bell tower were added. In 1874, St. Angela’s Hall was built to conduct religious education classes for African American women and children. This building stood until 1882 when it was badly damaged by a fire. Salvaged lumber was taken to Dickinson and was used to build a small Catholic church and school — these were later lost in the 1900 Storm.

Expansion continued in 1891 when the Ursulines hired Galveston architect Nicholas J. Clayton to design a new building for the growing academy. Completed in 1895, it became one of the most magnificent examples of High Victorian Gothic architecture in Texas and in the United States. Of Clayton’s countless notable architectural achievements, the Ursuline Academy is considered his most spectacular work. With its massive walls, towers, turrets, lofty roofs, and flying buttresses, it was a visual masterpiece. The building provided space for classrooms and sleeping quarters for students in Kindergarten through Grade 12.

A Beacon of Hope During War and Disaster
Though trained as educators, the Ursuline Sisters in Galveston volunteered as nurses at various times in the city’s history. When a yellow fever epidemic struck the island in 1857 – 1858, students were sent home so that the school could be converted into a hospital for sick patients. During the Civil War, classes at the Ursuline Academy were again suspended so that the wounded from both sides could be cared for there.

 Ursuline Academy Artifacts
Wrought-iron architectural details from the 1895 academy.

During reconstruction, the Ursuline Sisters resumed their teaching duties and the academy saw a sizeable boost in attendance. However, the school’s funds were depleted after the Civil War, and tuition payments made using depreciated Confederate currency did little to cover the school’s operational costs. Students continued to flock to the highly reputable institution, however, and eventually the financial health of the school improved.

Just two days before the fall semester of 1900 was scheduled to begin, a devastating hurricane struck Galveston Island. The enormous academy structure designed by Nicholas Clayton stood as a beacon during the 1900 Storm, providing life-saving shelter to some 1,500 victims who rode out the storm inside the walled fortress. Hundreds more found refuge there in the days and weeks following the storm.

The Ursulines were once again plagued by financial troubles after the 1900 Storm. The debt from the construction of the Clayton commission coupled with extensive structural damage from the hurricane winds and floodwaters led administrators to question whether the Ursuline Sisters should close the academy in Galveston and relocate to a less vulnerable environment. The dedicated Sisters, however, maintained a strong desire to remain in Galveston and serve the needs of those in the island community through their activities as teachers, nurses, and social workers.

Hurricane Carla and the Closing of Ursuline Academy
In 1961, Hurricane Carla once again caused great devastation in Galveston. Additional damages resulted from a series of powerful tornadoes that touched down on the island just after the storm. Classes were temporarily moved to St. Mary’s Orphanage as the storm-damaged academy buildings were deemed unsafe. The school was relocated again to 2328 The Strand in the American Indemnity Insurance Company Building (currently Luigi’s Italian restaurant). Elementary classes were held on the ground floor of the building while high school classrooms were located upstairs.

The source of much controversy at the time, a decision was made to demolish the damaged historic buildings on the Ursuline property to make room for a modern school and chapel. Funds were raised for a new building at the original site, and a structure designed by Galveston architect Raymond Rapp was completed in 1963.

In 1968, Ursuline Academy, Dominican Girls’ School, and Kirwin Catholic High School for Boys all merged to become one co-educational institution — O’Connell High School. The five year old Ursuline Academy building became the home of O’Connell Junior Campus (later called Galveston Catholic School and presently Holy Family Catholic School). The educational legacy of the Ursuline Order continues to survive 166 years after that first group of pioneering Sisters stepped foot on Texas soil.

Past Treasures