The History of St. Charles Mount St. Mary’s Academy
St. Charles (population: 32,000) is located in northeastern Illinois in Kane County, about 40 miles west of Chicago. The community straddles the Fox River near the towns of Geneva and Batavia, and its’ official slogan is “Pride of the Fox.” Illinois Routes 25, 31, and 64 all run thru St. Charles, and the DuPage Airport is also nearby.
After the conclusion of the Black Hawk War in 1832, Evan Shelby and William Franklin built the first dwelling in the area that would first be named Charleston in 1834 after they moved their families there. After discovering that there was another Charleston in the state, lawyer S.S. Jones made a suggestion that the name be changed to St. Charles, which the townspeople agreed upon in 1839. The community became incorporated as a city later in 1874.
Scores of Irish, Swedish, Lithuanians, and Flemish immigrants came to St. Charles during the 19th Century as the city slowly built its population from over 2,100 in 1850 to over 4,000 in 1910. It wasn’t until the 1960’s that the 10,000 mark was reached.
During those early days, Colonel John Farnsworth (a lawyer by trade) was St. Charles’ most prominent citizen. Not only did he support the Republican Party, but was a good friend of President Abraham Lincoln that was a cavalry leader in the Civil War, and served 14 years in Congress. His home was called “The Woodlawns” and was located on a hilltop along the Fox River.
Mount St. Mary Academy was opened August 15th, 1907 in the Farnsworth mansion, which had purchased by the Dominican Sisters of Adrian, Michigan after the pastor of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, Rev. Timothy Ryan, advised the Dominican order of this fact. Mother Mary Camillia was impressed enough by the English Manor-style building (which had already been burnt on the inside and rebuilt) that they purchased it and the land it stood on for $15,000.00.
Five sisters along with Mother Superior Mary Philomena were the first faculty members for a group of six female students that were boarders during that first school year, while boys and girls were accepted as day students. Grade and high school students attended the school, which also had a greenhouse, barn, and windmill on the grounds along with a farm for chickens and cows across the road.
The school added a building onto the Farnsworth mansion in 1910 with the Philomena building, then purchased land across from the Academy to create Jeanne D’Arc Athletic Field. Another addition took place in 1925 when a Gothic-style addition called the St. Augustine building was opened for administrative offices and classrooms, but by 1933, the Dominican sisters decided to end the grade school in order to concentrate on the all-girls’ high school.
Those female students took courses from a wide selection of curriculum that included foreign languages, mathematics, sciences, typing, home ec, and physical education. The school faced a financial crisis in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, and it was decided to close the school following the graduation of 110 students in the spring of 1972.
The building did not stay vacant for long as the Lutheran High School Association of Greater Chicago purchased the property in September 1972 to became the home of Valley Lutheran High School. That school stayed open until 1991 when it closed; however, it has since re-opened in nearby Elgin.
As for the former Farnsworth mansion and remaining buildings, they were razed in 1997, but the stones from the exterior of the mansion were retrieved in the hope that a replica of The Woodlawns could be reassembled in St. Charles in the future.
George Fornero provides some more facts about St. Mary Academy:
A. Enrollment in 1963-1964 was 210 girls with 13 Adrian Dominican Sisters and two (2) lay teachers;
B. Enrollment in 1966-67 was 205 girls with 13 Sisters and three (3) lay teachers.
C. Enrollment at the time of the school’s closing in 1972 was 147 students. Many of the girls transferred to Rosary High School in Aurora, IL.