Ottawa St. Columba High School

Ottawa St. Columba High School
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Courtesy of Mollie Perrot

                             The History of Ottawa St. Columba High School

Ottawa (population 18,400) is located in north central Illinois along Interstate 80 between the Quad Cities and Chicago. The Fox and Illinois Rivers meet in the center of the city, and also can be reached by US 6, Illinois 23, and Illinois 71. The Chessie Railroad also has a line that runs thru Ottawa, which it acquired years ago after the Rock Island went bankrupt in 1980.

This community is stepped in tradition with regard to Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas. Both men held the first of their seven debates in Washington Square in August 1858, and a boulder marks the spot where the platform stood. Ottawa was founded in 1837 and grew quickly due to its location along the rivers, plus had the benefit of the Illinois & Michigan Canal built in town.

Many immigrants from Ireland and thruout Europe came to Ottawa and other communities that hosted the canal, and settled there. Because of the population swelling, the need for a Roman Catholic Church was evident, and St. Columba was started in 1838. The church had several locations as it continued to grow, and settled into its current location in 1882.

The patron saint of the school was born 521 A.D. in what is believed to be Donegal, Ireland, who studied under St. Finnian at Moville, and continuing to learn at a monastery in Clonard under another St. Finnian. St. Columba was ordained a priest at the age of 25, and was responsible for establishing a foundation of faith for those living in Derry, Durrow, and Kells. Columba left Ireland at the age of 42 (about 563) following deaths that were the result of a family feud that the priest felt he had partial responsibility about.

From there, he settled on the island of Iona off Scotland where he built a monastery that became famous. In that location, he helped spread the Gospel to the Picts, and formed a monastic rule that was followed by others. Columba died on Iona on June 9th, 597 (which also happens to be his feast day), and has been referred as Colm, Colum, & Columcille.

St. Columba Grade School
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Opened as an all-boys’ school in 1892–courtesy of Jim Ridings

St. Columba opened its first school in 1892 for boys only at the corner of LaSalle & Washington Streets with 210 enrolled, taught by the Brothers of the Holy Cross from Notre Dame. The brothers would be joined later by the Sisters of Mercy, who were also located down the street at St. Xavier Academy (which was known as St. Joseph’s at the time). The sisters eventually took over the school in 1903, which continued to grow to the point that another building was needed by 1913.

That second building, which was north of the original school and is shown at the top of the page, was a two-story brick structure like the original building and was dedicated on the same day in 1913 along with new school buildings at St. Patrick’s and St. Francis on the city’s west side by then-Bishop Edmund Dunne.

The following information about the school building itself was located in the Ottawa Daily Republican Times by Mollie Perrot, a historian in Ottawa:

“Information given about the St. Columba High School noted that the contract for its construction was awarded to the Ottawa firm of Sinnott Brothers about April 1st of 1913. Orders were given to rush the work with all possible haste. The building was of red pressed brick, trimmed in Bedford stone, the general architecture being in harmony with the St. Columba’s boys’ school adjoining it. The basement held ‘the heating apparatus, lavatories and play rooms,’ while the first floor encompassed a large lobby, two class rooms, and a large library room. A broad staircase led to the second floor, where there were three large class rooms and coat rooms.

“The plumbing and heating contract for the building was awarded to J. M. Dougherty, of Ottawa, and a vacuum system of heating was installed. The whole building was designed with a view of taking the best care possible of sanitation, ventilation and lighting. Completed, the building represented an expenditure of about $30,000, and was ‘so designed that it will be possible to add to it without destroying its beauty. The building had a frontage of 90 feet on La Salle Street and is 47 feet in depth.'”

Four years later, after allowing both boys and girls in the grade school, it opened a boys’ high school in the newer building in 1917.

St. Columba’s was a compliment to the all-girls’ St. Xavier for those parents who wished to send their sons to a Catholic high school in town instead of elsewhere where they may have to be boarded. Unfortunately, St. Columba could not keep up with the demand of having the required equipment and available space for the  boys that they were teaching, and it was decided to close the high school down in June 1919.

Even though a high school no longer exists, St. Columba Grade School remains open and strong to those parents who wish to send their children to a private school in Ottawa. The school built another building that houses the administrative offices, classrooms, and gymnasium in 1963, and tore down the older two buildings in 1979. In its place today is an addition that was connected to the 1963 building in 1985 (pictured below) which houses more classrooms and a cafeteria large enough that it can hold weekend masses in the summer due to the fact that it is air-conditioned.

St. Columba School – 2008
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Photo by Kev Varney

Year opened:          1917

Year closed:           1919


If you know of anyone who may have attended the former St. Columba High School, then we would like to hear from you. We are looking for information such as courses offered, number of students enrolled, teachers that taught the courses, and photos of the school building. Please contact us at or by sending your information to:

Illinois High School Glory Days

6439 North Neva

Chicago, IL  60631

St. Columba Church – 2008
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Photo by Kev Varney

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