By the fall of 1961, the freshman enrollment hit 237 at the Academy of Our Lady while across Madison Street at Spalding Institute, 254 boys began their Catholic high school educations. In the previous nine years, new Catholic grade schools had opened in Washington, Pekin, Creve Coeur, Chillicothe, and Morton. A new interstate meant that students could commute to Peoria for high school, unlike a century earlier when students from outside the city boarded at the school.
Bishop Franz initiated a drive to build a third Catholic high school on the new north side of Peoria in November of 1963. The parishioners of the twenty-three Peoria area parishes responded with overwhelming generosity, raising $4, 446,896.00, of which about half went for the new high school. Architect William Ruoff, a 1942 Alum of Spalding Institute, designed the school in the shape of a cross on the twenty-three acre site at the corner of Sheridan and Glen. The new school boasted forty classrooms. Initially it could accommodate 1200 students, but the design permitted expansion in order to educate up to 1600 students. The school opened for 300 freshmen and seventy sophomores in the fall of 1963.
The power plant for the new school was described as a trail-blazing total energy system. The school could make its own electricity using number two fuel oil instead of natural gas—a much less expensive option at the time. Caterpillar diesel engines turned the generators. Bricks made up ninety percent of the building. Windows were few and far between and air conditioning would provide comfortable classrooms when outdoor temperatures soared.
The Christian Brothers, one of the largest religious congregations of men, operated the co-institutional school and educated the boys. Co-institutional meant that classes for boys would be held on the west side of the building while girls attended on the east side. Common facilities ran down the center. Religious women from five communities would educate the girls: the Sister of Saint Joseph of Carondelet, the Sisters of Saint Francis of the Immaculate Conception known as the Heading Avenue Franciscans, the Benedictine Sisters of Nauvoo, the Sister of the Third Order of Saint Francis, and the Sisters of Saint Dominic.
The new high school would be named for Gerald T. Bergan. He was born in Peoria to William and Mary Bergan on January 6, 1892. He graduated from Spalding Institute in 1909 and went on to study at Saint Viator College where he excelled in basketball and edited the school newspaper. He then studied at the North American College in Rome where he was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Peoria on October 28, 1915. Father Bergan became the bishop of Des Moines, Iowa on June 13, 1934. In the century and a half history of our school, he was one of only two graduates to be elevated to the Episcopacy—the other one was Fulton J. Sheen. In February of 1948, Bishop Bergan became the second archbishop of Omaha, Nebraska.
The dedication of Bergan High School occurred on Sunday, April 5, 1964. Two thousand attended the ceremony. Archbishop Bergan in full Episcopal attire officiated at the blessing held in the school gym. Bishop Franz gave the main address. He praised the Catholics of Central Illinois for their support and paid special tribute to the Bergan family noting their long-standing commitment to Catholic education.
Click here to read more about the eventual consolidation of the schools and the creation of Peoria Notre Dame High School.