145 Years of Mount de Sales Academy
Founders Day: February 28
The book “Echoes from the Mount” was compiled in 1901, beautifully written by alumnae and meant for the Sisters and old classmates as a “Souvenir of the Twenty-fifth Anniversary of the founding of Mount de Sales Academy,” also known as the Silver Jubilee. Verses and articles written by alumnae are important pieces of this book as reflections of their time as students. Within its pages is a detailed account of the Sisters escaping the Civil War dangers in St. Augustine, FL, (1862) only to find them again after a harsh journey in Columbus, GA, and then expanding the Sisters of Mercy Community and its mission to Macon in 1871. The vivid illustration of their heroism was presented humorously with stories of how their faith was never shaken and their resolve unflappable, whether being caked with mud from “bonnet to shoes” on their journey or tackling a “blue-coat” soldier trying to steal their one cherished cow’s hay.
We owe a great deal to these brave nuns and especially the five who made their home in Macon: Sisters Mary Philomena Usina (Fl.), Mary Stanislaus Andreau (Fl.), Mary de Sales Wall (Pa.), Mary Genevieve Gibbs (Conn.), and Mary Frances McCabe (Ireland).
Education in Bibb CountyThe war ended in 1865 and the boarding schools and day-schools run by the Sisters flourished in Columbus. Even members of the aristocracy knew the value of a Catholic education as many of the students attending the day-school were of Columbus’s Protestant elite. It was said that the training the girls received at the Convent “gave them a quietude and elegance of bearing seldom found outside of European society circles.”
The Community increased and it was necessary for expansion to Macon. A dwelling sat next to St. Joseph’s Church on the corner of Fourth and Walnut streets, and it became their home. The Sisters thrived and had a happy existence there despite their run-down surroundings.
The schools run by the Sisters in Macon were also thriving. They operated an academy as well as a free school for orphan girls and wayward boys, Catholics and non-Catholics. The school was placed under the Bibb Co. Board of Education at the advice of others—the Bibb County Public School System was established in 1872. Mother Superior granted permission for two Sisters to work for the public education system, making them among the first to teach public school children in the city.
In addition to their teaching profession, the Sisters labored in the Macon community by spending their time visiting the needy and the sick “up hill and down hill, into gullies and washouts until their feet became blistered and their bodies stiff and tired.”
The Community continued to grow and the Mother house was to move from Columbus to Macon. Funds were raised and it was determined that Governor Towns’ old residence atop Bass’ Hill, at the corner of Orange and Columbus streets, would be the new Convent to accommodate the growing number of Macon nuns. It was named Mount de Sales.
Mount de Sales Academy is Born Five years after the Sisters of Mercy first made their home in Macon, they had their sights on a new Convent in the form of the old governor’s mansion on one of the city’s highest hills. The name it was given was Mount de Sales, in honor of Saint Francis de Sales, the French Roman Catholic Bishop of Geneva.
On February 28, 1876, Mount de Sales Academy was chartered as a junior college for women, a boarding school, with the right to confer degrees under the laws of the state of Georgia. And in August of that year, the nuns had full possession of their new residence and school.
The grounds were adorned with cedar, laurel, mimosa, crepe myrtle, and cherry trees. Such a grove was a sight to behold, so much so that Georgia poet Montgomery M. Folsom penned “The Trees at Mount de Sales,” an ode to the grove that would later succumb to a deep frost. The house itself featured wide halls and broad staircases, characteristics of any old-fashioned, stately Southern home of that day.
The first graduates of Mount de Sales Academy received their diplomas in 1882: Margaret McKervey and Mary McCreary, of Macon, and Annie Mahoney, of Atlanta. By this time, the school had three divisions: primary, preparatory, and senior. Three wings were added to the mansion as needs warranted through the years. To accommodate the ever-growing population of students, the entire structure, except one wing, was demolished in 1910 and a new brick building was completed in 1911.
The Sisters of Mercy were well-read, intellectual, spiritual women with a mission to carry out the works of Mercy in education as well as in charitable endeavors.
“Mount de Sales Academy has stood for efficiency rather than show, and for the harmonious development of the individual, due attention being given to each power of the mind, the memory, the will and the understanding, and all under the fixed moral standard of the Catholic church, religious instruction hold-in the first place in the curriculum.” —The Telegraph, 1923.
The curriculum taught by the Sisters was rigorous: algebra, geometry, literature, English composition and rhetoric, physics, Latin, French, Spanish, Cicero, Virgil, mental philosophy, and history—most courses required 2-4 years of instruction. Music and art were important subjects that featured music theory, instrument training, drawing, China painting, and dramatic arts. Catholic students received religious instruction through eleven grades.
In 1936 the grade school was discontinued, and the secondary school remained for day and boarding students who came from Georgia, Tennessee, Florida, and Cuba. At mid-century, the campus expanded with the addition of several buildings. MDS became co-ed in 1959. It was the first school to integrate in 1963; that same year, the boarding school closed. The Convent/boarding school building was razed in 1971. A new structure would not take its place until 1990 with the construction of Sheridan Hall. An athletic complex in west Macon, a performing arts center, and a dedicated middle school building all followed. In 2017, MDS received a historical marker commemorating the Academy’s heritage; this coincided with its recent campus transformation.
Fun Fact: The oldest building on campus is the Sisters’ laundry (1900), which is now Cavalier Hall, a science classroom.
The Legacy Endures
We celebrate the Academy’s birthday on this day, the 28th of February.
Catherine McAuley, the foundress of the Sisters of Mercy in Ireland (1831), heeded the call to educate the poor, minister to the hurting, and provide for the needy. She equipped young women with the power of knowledge and instilled in them the values of Mercy. In her words, “Mercy is more than charity for it not only gives benefits, but it receives and pardons again and again—even the ungrateful.”
Some of today’s finest and most renowned institutions—colleges, high schools, and hospitals—across the United States and the world were established by the Sisters of Mercy.
No other secondary school in Middle Georgia can match the breadth and depth of Mount de Sales Academy’s history in Macon and, more importantly, the greater story of the Sisters of Mercy. Its history spans post-Civil War Reconstruction, the invention of electricity, the arrival of the first automobiles, two World Wars, the Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam, the dawn of space exploration, the assassination of President Kennedy, and 9/11.
The faces have changed and the buildings have changed. But one thing remains: Mount de Sales Academy has withstood the test of time and continues to be a force in education and a pillar in the community.
We are indebted to the Sisters who carried out the mission to serve others and educate the youth of Middle Georgia, having a vision for the future of education, and creating a firm foundation for Mount de Sales.
Forever de Sales!