In the midst of the Civil War, sometime during 1862, Father Henry Coyle, pastor of St. Mary’s Parish in Peoria, had asked Bishop James Duggan of Chicago to secure a number of sisters in order to establish both a parish grade school and a school for the higher education of young women.
Father Abram Ryan succeeded Father Coyle as pastor of St. Mary’s Parish in February of 1863. In early April of 1863, Father Ryan wrote a letter to Mother St. John, head of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, located near St. Louis, in hopes of finalizing the arrangements for the new sisters.
Mother St. John sent seven sisters to Peoria, and Mother Teresa Stuckhoff served as the local superior. They arrived in Peoria on Sunday, April 19, 1863. A core of dedicated lay Catholics gave generously of their time, talents and treasure to bring Catholic secondary education to Central Illinois. The sisters named the school for the patron of their congregation—the Academy of St. Joseph. This was the first Catholic secondary school in Peoria and the beginning of the legacy that would become Peoria Notre Dame High School.
Financial problems and other complications led to the selling of the current school and the purchasing of new land to build a bigger school. The four-story building was to have gothic arched doorways and a slate roof could accommodate sixteen sisters and seventy-five students. It was located on the corner of Madison and Eaton (later renamed Bryan Street). With the new building came a new name for the school when it opened in 1874: The Academy of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart.
Mother Teresa Struckhoff, the founding superior of the Academy of St. Joseph, returned to lead the school through the construction phase. To fill the school required attracting girls from all over Central Illinois. Horses and buggies traveling on unpaved roads made commuting impractical, so many girls boarded at the Academy living on the fourth floor.
Attending high school in the late nineteenth century might be likened to attending college today—it was not a common practice. Graduating from high school proved to be even more unusual. Students might attend for a year or more, perhaps leaving with a certificate. So it wasn’t until 1871 that Anna McKenzie of Pekin took the first Catholic secondary education diploma. It would be another thirteen years until the school had its next graduates—Elizabeth Cunningham and Mary Harmon in 1884.
The ever-expanding operation required more facilities for the Academy of Our Lady. Edmund Dunne Hall, named for the second bishop of Peoria, opened in 1930. The original Academy building would be enlarged twice more and it remained in use until 1957 when it was razed to make room for a new convent. Thirty years later, the convent became the Sheen Pastoral Center—the headquarters for the Diocese of Peoria.
Click here to read more about the consolidation of the schools and the creation of Peoria Notre Dame.