More than 150 years ago, before the formation of the Colorado Territory, a key necessity was missing in Denver: a stable educational experience for the children of families new to the frontier. In 1864, three courageous and selfless Sisters of Loretto traveled by mail coach from their home in Santa Fe, New Mexico to Denver to open St. Mary’s Academy. “They transplanted knowledge from the East, but also tolerance and respect for diversity, and a commitment to justice,” as written by Colorado State Historian William J. Convery, Ph.D. In 1875, Jessie Forshee was the first graduate to receive her diploma, a year before Colorado became the 38th state in 1876.
Today the Sisters of Loretto continue a long and vital tradition of education by sponsoring St. Mary’s Academy as well as Loretto Academy in El Paso and Nerinx Hall in St. Louis.
Guided by more than 150 years of Loretto tradition, the ethos of St. Mary’s Academy is deeply rooted in the spirituality and mission of Loretto. The intangible imprint of Loretto is interwoven into the
very fabric of our school where the Loretto School Values of faith, community, justice and respect serve as a touchstone for all aspects of our community.
Every year St. Mary’s Academy provides experiences for students, teachers, and administrators to deepen the bond with Loretto and with the other schools. Since 1988 teachers have traveled each spring to the Motherhouse in Kentucky for an intensive weekend immersion in the community’s rich history and vibrant mission of today. For almost as many years, high school students from the Loretto schools spend a week of service at the Motherhouse, learn advocacy skills in El Paso and participate in a leadership conference in Denver culminating in a Loretto Leadership Statement to guide their year’s work.
As a school dedicated to educating young people to be loving and caring members of the world, we embrace the Constitutions of the Sisters of Loretto that encourage us to “educate others as well as ourselves to truth, beauty and the ways of peace, in the spirit of Jesus.”
March 1864 – Father (later Bishop) Joseph P. Machebeuf purchased the George W. Clayton residence at the corner of 14th & California for $4,000. The house was considered quite large for a residence and was reputed to be the first two-story frame house in the area. Locals referred to the residence as “The White House.” (Today the location is the site of the Hyatt Regency Center Denver at Colorado Convention Center where a plaque commemorates St. Mary’s Academy.)
June 27, 1864 – Sisters Johanna Walsh, Ignatia Mora and Beatriz Maes-Torres departed Santa Fe, NM with all their possessions in one trunk. After a five-day journey, they arrived in Denver and prepared to open the first “select school for girls.”
August 1, 1864 – Twelve years to the day before Colorado became the 38th state, St. Mary’s Academy for girls opened with 20 students. From the beginning, St. Mary’s Academy has welcomed students from all religious, ethnic and economic backgrounds. Currently 28% of the students are families of color; the school enrolls Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, and B’hai students, as well as those from various Christian religions.
St. Mary’s Academy issued the first high school diploma granted in the Colorado Territory to Miss Jessie Forshee. She became a Sister of Loretto and her religious name was Sister Mary Vitalis. She went on to earn a masters of arts at the Catholic University of Washington, D.C. and a music degree from the Chicago Conservatory. She served as dean of Webster College in St. Louis.
St. Mary’s Academy opened a new day school at 14th & Pennsylvania. Denver’s
legendary Molly Brown was a neighbor and benefactor of the school. Among the many anecdotes of that era are tales of children running into Molly’s backyard to retrieve balls accidentally kicked over the fence at recess. [The Denver Public Library, Western History Collectioin, #F27533]
St. Mary’s Academy moved to its current campus at 4545 S. University Blvd. What is currently the Sanders House served as the convent and school. The house had originally been the residence of the Hickerson family.
St. Mary’s Academy celebrated its 100th anniversary. The cornerstone for the high school building, Bonfils Hall, was laid. A generous $500,000 gift from Helen Bonfils, secretary-treasurer of The Denver Post, funded half the cost of the new high school building.
While still maintaining its Loretto heritage, the school’s governance moved to an independent, self-perpetuating Board of Trustees.
Students meet the Dalai Lama at Peace Jam.
200th anniversary of the founding of the Sisters of Loretto.
St. Mary’s Academy marks its Sesquicentennial with a year of celebration.