Back In Time: St. Scholastica educated students for more than 100 years

Originally built as a military school in 1881, the three-story Victorian building on Pike and Seventh, known as St Scholastica, served the community for 111 years.

E.H. Sawyer, a Civil War veteran, was the first school commandant of the Colorado Collegiate and Military Institute and he, along with five teachers, oversaw the 1881 class consisting of 66 students, 18 of which were girls. Students were accepted as young as 6 and required to wear uniforms.

According to a 1960 article on the history of the school by the Cañon City Daily Record, classes offered included mathematics and commercial science, mining engineering and assaying, art, and general preparatory classes, as well as military tactics. Shortly after opening financial issues began, and a $100,000 donation was given by the Grand Army of the Republic, which led to renaming the school as the Grand Army Collegiate and Military Institute. Despite the donation, the school did not become financially stable. Some reports say that the high tuition costs, $600 for a 42-week school year, eventually led to the closing of the school in 1886.

The Benedictine Sisters of Chicago arrived in Breckenridge as missionaries in 1886, taking over a miners hospital that had been run by the county and eventually opening a school. However, when the mining industry and population declined, the sisters began looking for another location in which they could carry out the traditional Benedictine policy; establishing schools within a monastery as means of bringing Christ to the world.

The Benedictine Sisters purchased the vacant military school in 1889, and after arriving in Cañon City, they were met with hostility and fear by the community. Storekeepers refused to sell groceries to the nuns. Thankfully a stray cow wandered onto their property and they were able to milk it providing some nourishment. Local parishioners introduced the nuns to the store owners and guaranteed payment for their purchases. While the nuns were now able to purchase supplies, verbal insults and rocks were thrown at them whenever they walked through town, according to Royal Gorge Regional Museum and History Center records.

In the fall of 1890, the doors opened at Mount St Scholastica Academy, welcoming the 40 students who made up its first class. However, the success of the school did not last long, and in 1892, disaster struck and the school was forced to close. State Penitentiary prisoners using explosives to aid in construction for a new irrigation ditch going through the hogbacks, severely damaged the building, shattering windows and cracking the walls making it inhabitable.

Students were returned home to their parents and the three sisters lived in makeshift tents on the property until they were able to obtain a small settlement from the state allowing the needed repairs to be made. A new building was then built on the original foundation, as well as a chapel and the school reopened five years later in 1897. More construction followed and the school building and residence building were completed in 1900, as well as the chaplain’s cottage. The west building housed the study hall, classrooms, dormitories and recreation areas.

In the late 1930s, the elementary grades moved to St. Michael’s School and the academy transitioned to a girls-only high school, shorting the name to St. Scholastica Academy.

During the 111 years, the exterior of the school, as well as the students that came through the door, changed with the times. The first students were mostly orphans and as time went on, students arrived from across the country, as well as overseas, sent by their parents who desired a good Catholic education, though being a Catholic was never a requirement for admission.

Always centered on the mission as a college preparatory school, the way students learned varied throughout the years as St Scholastica adapted and modified its teaching methods. St Scholastica was one of the first schools in the country to use the intensive- study system. Initiated in the late 1970s, the program consisted of students studying one subject every day, all day, for three weeks, receive the credit and then move onto another course.

In the mid-1990s, women’s achievements were spotlighted with an annual Women’s’ Week dedicated to female leaders, visionaries, and artists, featuring some of the foremost women leaders in the country at the time. In 1996, the featured guest was NASA astronaut Major Nancy Jane Currie, and in 1998, the guest speaker list included Linda Tafoy, executive director of the Coors Foundation; poet, Naomi Ayala; holocaust survivor and author Eleanor Ayer, plus several other prominent women.

While academically things were always evolving for the school, its core mission and the desire to teach the students to help their communities and leave the world a better place never faltered. Interviews throughout the years paint a beautiful picture of the school in which the nuns cared for and created a loving family atmosphere for their students.

In February 2001, Sister Jane Smith, OSB, prioress of the Benedictine Sisters of Chicago, made the shocking announcement that the graduating class of 2001 would be St. Scholastica’s last. With almost 90 percent of its graduates going on to attend college, the closure was not because of the failure of the mission or financial concerns, as the school had no debt. The diminishing number of sisters was given as part of the reason for the decision, as well as dropped enrollment; the school had 72 students at the time.

A Cañon City Daily Record article around the time the announcement, features several student interviews, including this statement from Jessi Christian of Florence, “I think St. Scholastica will live forever. It will live in us and in what we give to others.”

Today, the former campus is undergoing an $8 million renovation to put in a 13‐lot, single-family residential area at the north end of the property. The planning area will permit both single-family residences and Accessory Dwelling Units, which would allow for the potential for up to 26 dwelling units.

While the grounds and buildings of St. Scholastica will transition to something new, the spirit of the school and the effect it had on all of the students who walked through its doors does indeed live on.

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