On Jan. 5, 1818, Bishop Louis William Valentine DuBourg stepped off his steamboat and walked up the banks of the Mississippi River. He was greeted by the 4,000 people of the small, but prosperous town of St. Louis. There had been several efforts to establish schools, but none took hold. That would change with Bishop DuBourg’s arrival.
Bishop DuBourg set himself to improving the lives of the faithful. On Jan. 8, 1818, he said, “the people are most anxious that I should erect a college.” To expedite this, Bishop DuBourg donated his personal library and received permission to use the home of Madame Eugenie Alvarez. He named Father Francois Niel, rector of the cathedral, as headmaster of the new school, which he called Saint Louis Academy. The first classes began Nov. 16, 1818, making it the first Catholic school west of the Mississippi.
Bishop DuBourg continued working to improve his new school. On Oct. 30, 1819, he met with prominent citizens to secure funding and permission to build a new cathedral and a permanent school. They agreed, and in 1820 the school moved into a small, two-story brick building on the cathedral property. Classes were taught by Father Niel and three fellow priests. Renamed Saint Louis College, the school was open to young men, regardless of religion.
In March of 1818, St. Rose Philippine Duchesne, at the invitation of Bishop DuBourg, departed France for her new missionary work in the New World. She was tasked with building a school in the frontier town of St. Charles. In September 1818, she opened the Academy of the Sacred Heart, the first free school west of the Mississippi River.
Bishop DuBourg realized that he would need new priests to lead his small, but growing flock. In 1815, he met in Rome with Father Felix De Andreis, a Vincentian priest. Father De Andreis and his good friend Father Joseph Rosati, filled with missionary zeal, quickly agreed to join Bishop DuBourg. After securing 640 acres near Perryville, Father Rosati led a small group of missionaries and novitiates to the site. Landing on Oct. 2, 1818, they founded St. Mary of the Barrens, the first seminary within the boundaries of the future Archdiocese of St. Louis.
From these humble beginnings, Catholic education in St. Louis has grown to some 97 elementary schools serving 20,355 students and 25 high schools serving 10,386 students, making it the largest school system in the St. Louis metro area.
Fair is the director of archives for the Archdiocese of St. Louis.