East St. Louis St. Mary High School

The History of East St. Louis St. Mary High School

East St. Louis (population 31,542) is located in southwestern Illinois along the banks of the Mississippi River in northwest St. Clair County. The town sits across the river from its namesake, St. Louis, Missouri. Several roadways lead to and from East St. Louis including Interstate Highways 55 and 64, as well as several Illinois Routes including 3, 111, 157, and 203. Several railroads also travel through town, including the Norfolk Southern and Illinois Central Gulf.

East St. Louis was first settled as “Illinoistown” in 1818 (http://www.eslarp.uiuc.edu/la/LA437-F95/reports/History/timeline.html), however it was not platted officially until 1859. The name was changed from Illinoistown to East St. Louis in 1861. The town has been the victim of flooding and tornadoes on more than a few occasions. After a promising start in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, East St. Louis has fallen into tough economic and crime-ridden times. Only recently has the town started to make a comeback from years of depression.

*From Michael M.:

“Saint Mary High School in East St. Louis had a short and somewhat obscure life that extended from September, 1949, to June, 1953, yet its story narrates a beautiful legacy of faith and fortitude well worth repeating.

Before our Nation’s Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s, our Nation suffered from the cancer of racism.  Given its somewhat southern location, in East St. Louis, many opportunities, including educational ones, were unjustly withheld from the African-American community.

In August 1893, four Sisters from the Springfield, Illinois, Dominican Convent had arrived to open the elementary school in Saint Mary Parish in East St. Louis.  The Sisters operated this parish grade school for decades during which the neighborhood experienced various changes gradually.  In 1937, these Dominican Sisters were asked also to assume responsibility for the neighboring Saint Augustine Catholic Mission School, which had been established some years earlier by another Order of nuns to care for the African-American community, whose members experienced incredible difficulties in finding a welcome in many other places.  Saint Augustine Church was pastored by a religious Order of priests called the Society for the African Missions, a community of Catholic priests who devoted their lives entirely to the pastoral care of the Continent of Africa and the African-American community Stateside.

Black children experienced great difficulty finding admission to local high schools at that time.  As a result, in order to provide for their children as well as possible in difficult circumstances, the Dominican Sisters, who were devoted to their students, developed the unofficial custom of allowing their 8th Grade graduates to continue attending the 8th Grade at Saint Augustine for a second year, providing them with as much advanced education as they could.

In 1949, the enrollment at the original Saint Mary’s School had dwindled so dramatically that the decision was made to close the school.  That meant that an empty Catholic school building would be in the vicinity.  Father Harrington, the pastor of Saint Augustine’s, and Mother Imelda, the Mother Superior of the Order of the Springfield Dominican Sisters agreed to open a real high school for the graduates of Saint Augustine’s in the abandoned Saint Mary’s building.  Thus, Saint Mary’s High School came into existence.

Saint Mary’s High School opened in the fall of 1949 with Sister Monica Finnegan as Principal, and a faculty consisting of Sister Michael Marie Deany, Sister Mary Isnard Marron and Father Benedict Burke, of the Order of the African Mission Fathers.  The Dominican Sisters were extraordinary educators who operated a vast network of excellent grade and highs schools throughout the State and beyond and Saint Mary’s faculty was drawn from the ranks of that network.

A supportive and intimate school environment flourished in that school for four years and despite short funds, the school became remarkable for the fine education it provided its students and its strong caring environment.  The only reason Saint Mary’s High School closed was because in 1953, the local Catholic bishop declared that segregation would not be tolerated in any Catholic institution, and the way was paved for African-American students to enroll in the other local Catholic high schools that had emerged by that time, all of which enjoyed better facilities and were more financially secure.  Even though this meant that Saint Mary’s students would enroll in schools with better accommodations and more opportunities, the small school closed its doors with much sadness.

Following the closure of Saint Mary’s High School, the building was occupied as an elementary school once again to serve the totally American-African neighborhood from Saint Augustine’s and Saint Mary’s parishes, under the name Saint Mary School.  Saint Mary’s Grade School and the Dominican Sisters continue to serve the children of the neighborhood until 1964 when the construction of Interstate 70 ploughed right through the land on which Saint

Mary’s once stood.”

East St. Louis St. Mary High School Quick Facts

Year GS classes begun: 1893

Year HS classes begun: 1949

Year HS closed:              1953

Year GS closed:              1964

School Team Nickname: unknown if sports offered

Ahletics & Extra Curricular Activities

It is not currently known if sports were a part of the St. Mary High School experience. We are certain other activities such as dances, student government, and clubs were available to the students. If you have any information regarding these activities at St. Mary High School please contact us via the means listed below.

Seeking Further Information

If you have any photos, articles, memories, or other information regarding St. Mary High School in East St. Louis please contact us via e-mail at ihsgdwebsite@comcast.net . You can also write to us at:

IHSGD Website

6439 N. Neva Ave.

Chicago, Il. 60631


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