Development and History of the Academy of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart
Acaemy of Our Lady Cornerstone
The history of Catholic education and of the Catholic Church in central Illinois begins with the first explorers of the Illinois River Valley, Louis Jolliet or Joliet, and his principal companion, Fr. Jacques Marquette, S.J. Their journey down the Illinois River Valley, and up the Mississippi from the confluence of the two rivers, was a voyage of great discovery, but also one which first brought the Christian faith to those they met. Fr. Marquette offered daily Mass on their journey in 1673, including notable sites near Utica and present day Peoria, and upon their return, missionaries and explorers were sent forth.
The Frenchmen, of course, took advantage of the new economic opportunities, the missionaries established chapels and also taught lessons, helping the locals to learn and teaching them catechism. Priests established a mission at Pimiteoui, a native settlement near present day Peoria. Fort Crevecoeur was established across the river by the French. In addition to Fr. Marquette, other notable priest in those early years were Fr. Allouez, S. J., and Fr. Louis Hennepin, and Fr. Ribourde, who were Franciscan Recollects. Fr. Hennepin had been the first European to describe Niagara Falls, and after his work on the Illinois River, was asked to map the upper Mississippi River, and discovered the Falls of St. Anthony, at present day Minneapolis, in 1680. By 1698 the number of priest in Central Illinois was such that the a Solemn High Mass was celebrated on November 21, the Feast of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
By 1846 the Church of St. Mary was founded at Peoria. This would become the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception in 1877, when the Diocese of Peoria was erected, and a new edifice was constructed. In the mid 1800’s the Sunday School and catechism lessons, and other instruction which had been given piecemeal in the various settlements and parishes, started to be formalized with the foundations of schools. By the 1860 census, Peoria County had 36,000, by 1870, 48,000, many of them Catholics, all of them in need of education. In the 1860’s needs to educate young ladies in central Peoria would be met by the establishment of what would become the Academy of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, known usually by the shorter name, Academy of Our Lady.
Those who founded schools during this time were faced with difficulties. The Country was ravaged by Civil War. Fr. Ryan, the “poet priest of the Confederacy,” had been a local pastor, and so there was some strife even among Catholic. In addition, there was some controversy as to the education of women beyond basic skills. In 1863, amidst the trials of the Civil War, Father Abram Ryan arranged for seven Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet, an order of nuns based in the St. Louis area, to travel to Peoria to begin a school for young ladies. At that time, and indeed until 1877, all of Illinois was united in one Diocese, that of Chicago, which operated under the purview of the Archbishop of St. Louis.
Sr. Mary Frederica Jacques
Music Instructor 1923 – 1932
The nuns began their school as did most religious of that period, by opening their convent, and educating the young people who came. As can be imagined, with the vast growth in the area, the convent classrooms quickly became inadequate, and by 1874 the school was expanded, and officially opened under it’s name of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart.
There was some controversy over the education of women in the United States (not just in the Church, but through all society; the Church had long supported the education of women, as witnessed by the establishment and growth of religious orders of nuns at least since the fourth century. The nuns had to learn, as they chanted the psalms, most of which were in Latin). The first Bishop of Peoria, John Lancaster Spalding, noted authority throughout US society on the role of education, stated “If we leave half the race in ignorance, how shall we hope to lift the other half into the light of truth and love? Let woman’s mental power increase, let her influence grow….”
From the Foundation of the Spalding Institute in 1898, which was across the street from the Academy, both schools shared teachers and occasionally facilities. Benedictine and Viatorian priests, and also the Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, Heading Avenue, Peoria, all taught at the institutions through the years.
In 1973 the two schools joined in one administration and had a synthesized academic program. When Bergan High School was founded in Peoria in the 1960’s, secondary students in Peoria’s Catholic schools attended coeducational classes for the first time. The sharing of classes, then, did not seem curious when the two schools began to operate as one in 1973. The Academy of Our Lady, Spalding, and Bergan High School were merged to form Peoria Notre Dame High School in 1988.
The Academy of Our Lady will not be soon forgotten. Many of the alumnae of The Academy or Academy/Spalding are well known figures in the Church or throughout the state of Illinois. School facilities were extensive. The buildings of the Academy of Our Lady, including Dunne Hall (the main academic building) the Art and Music Building, which included a small theater, and the gymansium and “bridge” are currently used for the Children’s Home of Illinois, itself a Peoria institution, founded in the 1800’s. The former Convent Building, across the two story “bridge,” which also had classrooms, is currently used for Curial Offices of the Catholic Diocese of Peoria, and is named for Bishop Fulton J. Sheen. The Sheen Pastoral Center is located directly across Madison Avenue from the Spalding Gymnasium.
Alumnae have recounted that when they attended classes in the Convent, the domestic sisters or the other non teaching sisters, would peek at them through the small glass windows which seperated the classroom area from the cloister. The sisters would often wave at them, and if they were lucky, the sisters would bring them a fresh baked treat.
Peoria Academy of Our Lady “Quick Facts”
School colors: Blue & White
School Building: Still used for Children’s Home and Sheen Pastoral Center
School Fight Song: “All Hail to Our School” (words courtesy of Alice Brophy)
All hail to our shool, the best in the land!
Her story we love to tell.
She has stood for the right like a bright beacon light
For all who have loved her so well.
So, here’s our pledge, AOL, AOL,
To be true, to be loyal to you, AOL.
Here’s a cheer and a rah for the school we love so well.
Hand and heart are yours, AOL.
Academy of Our Lady School Song
Provided by Donna McNamara
Academy of Our Lady
Art and Music Center, including Little Theater
Great Athletic Teams
The girls of the sports teams of the Academy of Our Lady enjoyed many successes over the years. The IHSA website lists successes of the 1970’s and 1980’s, but there must certainly have been other successes in sports, drama, and other fields. Following are some of the known key successes of the Academy of Our Lady:
A couple of notes of interest about AOL’s hoops’ program: Rose Peeples was a three-time all-stater, selected in 1977-78-79 by the Chicago Tribune, and received the same honor from the Champaign News-Gazette in 1979. The girls also averaged 79.1 points per contest in 1978-79 (2,056 pts in 26 games), which is fourth best in single-season team scoring averages by the IHSA.
The Illinois Theatre Festival is the largest, non-competetive high school theatre festival in the world. It was organized in 1976 by teachers from the Chicago suburbs. This festival is still going strong as they perform at the University of Illinois (Champaign-Urbana) and Illinois State University every other January. Academy of Our Lady of Peoria participated in this festival in 1977, from 1980-83 and again from 1985-88.
**From Nancy Stein:
“I attended AOL – SPALDING from 1971-1975. I loved music and was in all chorus programs. Loved my education here and many memories made.”
Need your Help
If you have ANY information you can share regarding the Academy of Our Lady please complete a school submission form or guest commentary form. You can also e-mail us at email@example.com. or you may write us at:
Illinois HS Glory Days
6439 N. Neva St.
Chicago, Il. 60631
Convent of Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet
Now Diocese of Peoria’s Archbishop Sheen Pastoral Center