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As the adolescent City of Colorado Springs, Colorado, took shape and grew in the early 1880s, the area’s only Catholic priest had a vision. Fr. Robert Byrne recognized that Colorado Springs was a superior location for a Catholic academy to serve the needs of the many families moving into the area. He approached Bishop Matz and the Diocese of Denver with his vision but was met with disfavor. Fr. Byrne persisted until the Bishop agreed to allow the Sisters of Loretto to come to Colorado Springs. Three sisters arrived in the summer of 1885 and opened Loretto Academy at 425 N. Tejon on the first Monday in September. Nine female students were the first to enroll.
In the fall of 1886 as enrollment grew, the academy moved to a larger house at 106 N. Tejon, but it was clear that a school building would needed. In 1886, the sisters acquired property on Sierra Madre, between Kiowa and Bijou and began planning their building. Loretto Academy’s four-story building opened for school in September 1888 and the school began accepting boys under the age of 12. The fourth floor became the sisters’ residence. In 1897, St. Mary’s Catholic Parish completed its new cathedral next door to Loretto Academy after more than a decade of planning.
By 1901 enrollment at Loretto Academy had grown to the point that more space was again needed. The Sierra Madre building had been constructed to allow for additions, and in 1902 two new wings opened as the area’s first true parochial school. Given the changes in the school, the name also changed from Loretto Academy to St. Mary’s School. That fall there were 250 boys and girls enrolled from first grade through high school, although the high school remained for girls only. In 1904, St.Mary’s School graduated its first class comprised of two students. St. Mary’s Parish purchased St. Mary’s School in 1912, and retained the sisters as teachers at a salary of $25 each per month.
For the next four decades, St. Mary’s School was a thriving presence in both the parish and the city of Colorado Springs. School spirit grew and traditions took hold. Superintendent Monsignor William Kelly’s annual operettas were performed at the Fine Arts Center to standing room only audiences. Sports teams flourished and state champion banners graced the wall of the Knights of Columbus gym on Kiowa. Many families saw second generations attend and graduate from the school.
In 1950, a new grade school was built on the southeast corner of Sierra Madre and Kiowa, Old Green (as the original building built by the Sisters of Loretto was called) became the high school, and a gym was built on the southeast corner of Sierra Madre and Bijou. However, by the end of the decade, a shift in demographics caused the school to phase out the elementary grades to accommodate the large number of students in the high school classes. The high school grew and prospered and by the end of the 1960s the need for a new building was evident. Funds were raised and the Catholic Education Center was built on the property adjacent to the original grade school. The new high school was occupied on February 2, 1972, and Old Green was razed.
Although there were changes in appearance and location, the one item that remained constant from the very beginning was the uncompromising devotion and commitment to Catholic education exhibited by the Sisters of Loretto. But this one true constant would eventually be influenced by changes in the sisterhood. By the mid 1970s, St. Mary’s High School began to experience what became a national trend: a shortage of priests and sisters. Consequently, the administration and faculty shifted toward a predominately lay orientation. Although there were fewer nuns, their legacy of compassion and dedication continued to flourish as a new group of educators sought to preserve nearly a century’s worth of good works and success.
The Closing and Reopening of St. Mary’s
In the 1980s, the school’s mounting debt could no longer be ignored as the fledgling Diocese of Colorado Springs struggled to meet the many and varied needs of a rapidly growing diocese that spans several counties. On February 11, 1987, with great reluctance, the Diocese announced the closure of St. Mary’s High School. However, as we all know, this was not to be the end of SMHS. A dedicated and selfless group of parents formed the Committee for Catholic Secondary Education, and after negotiations with the Diocese, reopened the school in the fall of 1987.
A Permanent Home for St. Mary’s
In 1991, the downtown site became unsuitable and the school’s Board of Directors began a search for a new site. The Rocky Mountain Rehabilitation facility at 2501 E. Yampa St. was acquired and the school moved to its new location on Aug. 23, 1992. The current site has proven to be a wise investment. Enrollment has increased and the campus has improved with the additions of a chapel, classrooms, the Pirate Cove, stage, gymnasium, art and photography labs, and fitness center. In 2006, SMHS witnessed a century old dream come true with the opening of The Grace Center for Athletics and Community Service, a 25-acre state-of-the-art athletic complex. Serving as the home fields for the Pirates, The Grace Center accommodates the football, soccer, lacrosse, baseball, and track and field teams.
With more than 130 years of continuous operation, the future of St. Mary’s High School is very bright and, while it will bring a time of boundless opportunity and success, we must pause to reflect on the vision that came to the parish priest in a young western town so many years ago and say “thank you.”