History Of Diocese of Tucson Schools

History Of Diocese of Tucson Schools

TUCSON, AZ - A comprehensive history of our Catholic Schools in the Diocese of Tucson has yet to be written, but the glimpses we have of that history suggest that someone who might want to take on the task would have a good start by beginning with this title: "Our Catholic Schools – A Legacy of Faith."

I surely would like to read that history, because what I have come to learn about the origin and development of our Catholic Schools tells me it would be quite a story.

It is a story replete with heroines and heroes who met seemingly insurmountable challenges to bring about, nurture and continue the magnificent ministry we know today as "Our Catholic Schools."


Like most beginnings for our Faith here in the Diocese of Tucson, the history of our Catholic Schools begins with a missionary.

The year is 1707, and here is a mission church, built along a gently flowing river, shaded by cottonwoods. A black-robed Jesuit missionary and explorer built this church with the help of the Native People, and today he is teaching them the hymns of the Mass in Latin, the language of the Church.

Whether built by the black-robed Jesuits or the brown-robed Franciscans, the mission churches built by Padre Eusebio Francisco Kino and his successors in the 18th century fulfilled the ministry of education in the faith, and in doing so, the Native People learned about the world, its spoken and written languages of Latin and Spanish, its art and its science.

They were great students, and they, in turn, taught their teachers the language, art and science of the desert.

Three Men On Horseback

Jumping ahead to 1866, here you glimpse four men on horseback who are approaching the little town of Tucson, population 600.

Three of the men are priests; one of them, Father John Baptist Salpointe, is leading the expedition that was sent by Bishop Lamy of Santa Fe. The man who isn't a priest is Mr. Vincent, a young man and a school teacher, who has been recruited by Bishop Lamy to start the first school in Arizona.

Time Of Growth

Now it's 1870, and there is a caravan of soldiers on horseback accompanying a horse-drawn carriage. It's late at night, and the caravan is just outside of Tucson.

Having endured a journey through the desert from Yuma, the passengers in the carriage are hoping to slip quietly into town and find their quarters so they can rest.

But it is not to be a quiet arrival for the passengers, for just about everybody in town, nearly 3,000 people, has turned out to give the passengers a real Western welcome with bonfires, fireworks, pealing bells and gunfire.

That is how excited the people are to welcome the seven Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet who have come to establish the first teaching community of religious women in Arizona.

A Welcome Arrival

The happiest of all the Tucson citizens to welcome the Sisters was the Bishop of the Vicariate Apostolic of

Arizona, John Baptist Salpointe, who persistently had recruited the Sisters to come to Arizona to teach.

The Sisters took up residence in St. Joseph's Convent, which was adjacent to the Cathedral of St. Augustine, and it was in the convent that just a few weeks after their arrival that the Sisters opened their first school as a boarding academy for girls and a day school for boys.

The first curriculum consisted of Christian doctrine, reading, writing, spelling, simple arithmetic, music and domestic science.

Fulfilling the hopes of Bishop Salpointe and the Sisters, the school was soon overflowing with eager girls and boys.

Three years later, the Sisters opened a school for native American children at the San Xavier Mission.

The First School

It's 1886, and now we're in Prescott, where the Sisters of St. Joseph have just opened, in the buildings that had served as a hospital, St. Joseph's Academy, a boarding academy for girls and a day school for boys.

It is the first Catholic School in that part of Arizona.

Terrible Flooding

We're going back to Yuma for this next glimpse, and this one shows us just one example of the challenges our Catholic Schools have had to face from time to time.

It's February of 1891, and the Gila River is flooding with a terrible roar through the Yuma community, sweeping away half of all the buildings in town, including the Sacred Heart School.

Many Firsts

Now to 1900, and all Arizona is in the Diocese of Tucson, which had been established just three years earlier with Bishop Peter Bourgade as its first bishop.

The scene is the huge reservation of the Navajo People, few of whom are Catholics, but many of whom have great needs.

To help meet those needs for education and to offer the people the love of Christ in the Catholic Faith, a benefactress from the East has donated $3,000 to build a mission church and school.

Today, that benefactress is visiting the site of the mission, which has the name of St. Michael's. She is talking to Navajo tribal leaders, answering their questions about the nature of the school and discussing with them the advantages of education for their children. The leaders consent to send their children to the school, and they say they will urge other parents to as well.

The school opened in 1902, and the benefactress, Mother Katherine Drexel, was present with 12 Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for the solemn High Mass of dedication.

St. Katherine Drexel

It is 1902, and Bisbee is a booming copper mining town with a population of nearly 27,000.

Bisbee is booming so much that it is reported that more money goes in and out of the town in one day than in El Paso in one week.

Most of the population is Catholic, and they go about the work of building a church with their own hands for their new parish of St. Patrick.

With the encouragement of Bishop Henry Granjon, they also construct a school building with accommodations for 40 boarding pupils and eight grades.

The school is waiting for teachers, and it is on behalf of his flock in Bisbee that Bishop Granjon contacts the Sisters of Loretto of the Foot of the Cross to ask if they will staff a Catholic school for the children of the miners.

The Bishop writes the Sisters that St. Patrick Parish is "one of the best congregations in the Diocese and the most promising."

"The spirit is excellent," he tells the Sisters, "and I have no doubt that the people, both Catholics and non- Catholics, would welcome your Sisters heartily and act generously toward them."

And that is exactly what the people of Bisbee did when in 1907 five Sisters arrived and opened Loretto School and Loretto Academy with an enrollment of 145.

Father Bonaventura Oblasser

It is 1911 and a young Franciscan priest is gazing out over the desert surrounding Mission San Xavier del Bac near Tucson.

Father Bonaventura Oblasser is 26-years-old, and he is not where he thought he would be.

His heart had been set on becoming a missionary to China, but instead the Franciscans have sent him to the Papago People in Arizona.

Father Bonaventura immediately set out on a personal mission under the motto of "Every Catholic child in a Catholic school."

He establishes a structure of Catholic day schools on the huge reservation. Each large village with a mission church would have a school that children from outlying villages would go to each day on a school bus.

This is at a time when the government's prevailing educational system for Native Americans was boarding schools off the reservations.

"The family is where the child belongs," says Father Bonaventura.

A staunch supporter and advocate for the rights of Native Americans, an innovator in education for Native Americans, a much beloved priest and pretty good school bus mechanic, Father Bonaventura, the "Padre to the Papagos," ministered for 56 years with the Tohono O'odham People until his death in 1967.

Truly, he is one of the "saints" of our Diocese.

Historical Day In Douglas

It is Sept. 1, 1924, and it is an historic day indeed in Douglas, where Bishop Daniel J. Gercke is ready to dedicate the first school of his two-year episcopacy as Bishop of Tucson.

It is a grand occasion, with priests and sisters from as far away as Texas and New Mexico and the Bishop of El Paso gathered with the Catholics and the entire community of Douglas.

A very special guest is Mrs. William Brophy, for it is through her kindness and generosity that the beautiful and spacious Loretto School has been constructed and is awaiting Bishop Gercke's blessing.

The next day, classes began for 231 students in nine grades.

Search For Teachers

It is 1929, and the just completed Immaculate Conception School in Yuma is ready to open. But there is just one problem: no teachers.

There has been no Catholic school in Yuma for 40 years, and all the enthusiasm of Yuma's Catholics in building their new school is turning into discouragement as Father Felician Payas' entreaties to religious communities around the country to come to Yuma go unanswered.

Father Felician announces a public novena to St. Joseph for the special intention of securing teachers.

On the eighth day of the novena, Father Felician receives a letter from Mother Mary Inez of the Franciscan Sisters of Manitowoc, Wisconsin, informing him that she would come to Yuma to see what the prospects might be.

She made the visit, toured the school and experienced the enthusiasm.

In September of 1930, four Sisters from Wisconsin arrived, and in just two weeks Immaculate Conception School opened with 72 students in three grades.

Tough Going At First

It is 1931 in Tucson, and the community's second parochial school has just opened its doors.

It is the parochial school of Sts. Peter and Paul Parish, and even in the hard times of the Great Depression, Father Joseph Patterson and his parishioners have the faith that the new school will make it.

It is a tough go at first. Parents have a wait-and-see attitude. They want to see the school in action with other parents' children before they send their own.

And then there is the transportation issue. The parish and its new school are just too far away for parents to drive back and forth each day.

Father Patterson soon fixes that problem. He buys a school bus, and then another one.

The school begins to thrive.

Our Lady of Lourdes Academy

It is September of 1940 in Nogales, and Our Lady of Lourdes Academy in the border town has been dedicated by Father Louis Duval, pastor of Sacred Heart Parish, and is ready for its first students.

The school is housed a novitiate that had been built in 1926 by the Bishop of Sonora during the persecution of the Church in Mexico.

On the first day of classes, the Minim Daughters of Mary Immaculate from Leon, Mexico, welcomed eight girls and 10 boys as boarding students and 275 day pupils.

St. Ambrose School

It is September of 1949, and classes at St. Ambrose School on Tucson Boulevard have begun, but without desks, blackboards and bulletin boards.

It took a couple of weeks before those furnishings arrived, but it was a great first year that ended on May 26, 1950, with a Mass and a May procession and crowning of Mary's statue.

St. John School

It is Nov. 26, 1950, and Bishop Gercke is dedicating a "90-day wonder" at St. John the Evangelist Parish on Tucson's south side.

St. John School had opened in September after construction of its buildings had been completed in just 90 days.

Everyone worked on the construction: dads, moms, children, priests and sisters all had a hand in laying brick and pouring concrete.

St. John's School even featured the new-fangled green chalkboards in its classrooms.

Bright Future Ahead

There is so much more to write about the history of our Catholic Schools in the Diocese of Tucson.

Just the banner year of 1950 alone, with St. Anthony in Casa Grande and Salpointe High School in Tucson, would take far more space than I have here.

Let me close by saying that we are making history today even as we face daunting financial challenges to sustain and expand our Catholic Schools.

The need for Catholic Schools is as urgent or even more urgent than in the past.

Our Catholic Schools not only prepare young people for their future, they instill in them the faith that will sustain them in that future.

It took many hands and great sacrifice to build the schools in our Diocese over these past two and a half centuries, and now, as Catholics living in the first decade of the New Millennium, it is our awesome responsibility and opportunity to provide our gifts, talents, and resources to the ministry of our Catholic schools.

We, too, will leave our mark on the "Legacy of Faith" that we treasure today: Our Catholic Schools.

May God bless you!