Historical Markers
St. Xavier's Historical Marker
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St. Xavier's

Laurel Highlands/Southern Alleghenies


Marker Location:
U.S. 30 six miles east of Greensburg at Academy

Dedication Date:
October 12, 1946

Behind the Marker

Riot in Philadelphia, July 7, 1844. Lithograph by James Baillie and J. Sowle after Buchholtzer, New York.
Lithograph of the July 7, 1844 Southwark "Bible Riot," Philadelphia County,...
Known as an era of expanding democracy and westward expansion, the decade of the 1840s also was one of the most turbulent decades in all of American history. Powerful reform movements dedicated to anti-slavery, women's rights, and temperance challenged social ideals as controversies over sectionalism and states" rights transformed national politics. With the steady increase in foreign-born inhabitants, America experienced a rising tide of anti-immigrant hostilities.

Especially after mid-decade, when the devastating Irish Potato Famine propelled an the exodus of nearly two million Catholics to American shores, a smoldering nativist resentment boiled over into violent street rioting in places like Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. New political movements dedicated themselves to defending America from the imagined foreign threat. In Pennsylvania and elsewhere an expanding network of Catholic parochial schools became a special target of nativist protest.

The history of St. Xavier's Academy and Convent is inextricably bound to the story of an immigrant Catholic Church and the growth of parochial education in nineteenth-century Pennsylvania. Faced with a growing immigrant population, and the building anti-Catholic reaction, Church leaders believed strong institutions dedicated to defending and disseminating the faith were essential to the survival of Catholicism in America. Like the parish church, parochial schools staffed by nuns and priests were an important ingredient in maintaining a Catholic culture in United States.

St. Xavier's Academy, Unity Township, Westmoreland County, Pa.
Just as the Famine was taking hold in Ireland, Pittsburgh's Catholic Bishop Michael O'Connor invited a teaching order of nuns from Dublin to open a school in Westmoreland County. Founded by Catherine McAuley in 1831, the first Sisters of Mercy arrived in the United States in 1843. The Mercies, as they were called, were typical of women religious orders that dedicated their lives to teaching, hospital work, and other charitable causes.

In April 1845, the order moved into a two-story brick building in St. Vincent's Parish and opened Mount St. Vincent Academy for Young Ladies. With the help of a local benefactor the school moved two years later and was renamed St. Francis Xavier's Academy, in honor of the famous Jesuit missionary. In time, a convent house welcomed new recruits into the order.

Even as the nuns were getting settled into their routine, Bishop O'Connor extended invitations to several other religious orders. By 1846 a group of German Benedictine monks led by Fr. Boniface Wimmer arrived in the area to found St. Vincent's Preparatory School for Boys, which became the foundation for St. Vincent's Abbey and College. (That same year Irish Franciscans accepted O'Connor's invitation to start a school in marker Loretto that grew into St. Francis College.)

Like the Sisters of Mercy, the Benedictines used western Pennsylvania as a headquarters for opening schools across America. Even after they moved onto their own property the nuns continued to teach in a small day school in St. Vincent's parish.

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Saint Vincents Schools and Church, Labtrobe, PA, circa 1900.
From the outset, St. Xavier and St. Vincent Prep enjoyed what one commentator called a "particularly friendly association" that came to include academic and athletic programs, school dances, and other scholastic activities. Much like the priests at St. Vincent's, the St. Xavier nuns taught their students "first what is necessary, then what is useful, and finally what is beautiful."

St. Xavier's had a decidedly feminine and Irish character in its early development, reflecting the influences of the immigrant nuns who ran the institution. Not surprisingly, St. Vincent's Prep reflected the German culture that Wimmer and his colleagues brought from Europe.

St. Xavier's mission was to educate young girls to the faith and in the practical knowledge that would help them find their place in society. Like other parochial schools throughout Pennsylvania, the curriculum included all the subjects taught in the public or common school. What distinguished the academy's identity was the central place of Catholicism in the everyday life of the institution. The teaching nuns placed primary value on religion as the ordering point for knowledge, and faith as the foundation for a successful life.

Some critics felt the Church's approach to separate education discouraged assimilation into mainstream society. Advocates of the parochial system countered nativist suspicions by asserting that Catholicism posed no threat to American progress. One could be a good Catholic and a good American, a productive citizen who contributed to national life. Over succeeding generations and well into the twentieth century, this was the nature of the parochial school experience across Pennsylvania and the nation.
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