Mother Katharine Drexel (1858-1955)
In March, 1915, Mother Katharine Drexel received a very important message from Archbishop James H. Blenk of New Orleans. In it he informed her that Southern University would be sold at auction in the early days of April 1915 and that he believed it could be obtained at a good price. He pleaded with her to purchase the buildings and establish a Catholic high school and university for the colored students of the city.
Mother Katharine decided to visit the site and (along with Mother Mercedes) left Philadelphia for New Orleans on April 5, 1915. Together they spent an afternoon examining the buildings on Magazine Street. They went from room to room, measuring to see how the buildings might best meet their needs. They found that there were rooms for eight large classrooms on the ground floor (including a chemistry and domestic science area) as well as an auditorium, chapel, Sisters’ dormitory, dining-room and kitchen on the second and third floors.
Finally, Katharine Drexel decided to purchase the site but, since she was a well-known financier of schools for children of color, her presence at the auction would have alerted the uptown white community of her intentions to open another black school at the Southern site. For this reason, the Archbishop approached Mr. Henry McInery, a very influential white man in the state and a personal friend of Governor Luther Hall of Louisiana. McInery was instructed to attend the public auction and secure “Old Southern” for the cash amount of $18,000. Once the sale was completed, Mother Katharine Drexel allocated $5,000 more for needed renovations.
Southern/ Xavier Campus (5116 Magazine St.)
As the carpenters, painters, plasterers, pavers and plumbers were hard at work, seven nuns arrived in New Orleans to begin the task of opening the school. They called themselves the “7 Joys”. They were Sr. Frances Buttell, Sr. Barnabas, Sr. Bertha, Sr. Anselm, Sr. Angelica, Sr. Justine, and Mother Paul of the Cross. All were members of the Congregation of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People established by Mother Katharine Drexel of Philadelphia in 1891.
Life was not easy. The Sisters began the task of arranging desks, purchasing shades, linoleum, bulletin boards, books, lab equipment, and preparing brochures for registration. They wrote (in a daily journal they kept) of the intense heat in the building, the hard floors they had to kneel on in the chapel since they had no pews, and the forty-nine steps they had to climb several times a day to get to their living quarters on the 3rd floor.
They wrote of the many Catholic Creole families in the city and how the community reacted when the Sisters (on September 9, 1915) visited their homes looking for potential students:
“The people are so delighted to have us there that they are doing everything to help us. We were strangers in a strange land and yet we managed to find our way to all the homes of these people. These colored families were most refined and in better circumstances than the colored people of the North. They promised to send us many scholars. Mother Katharine is praying for at least two hundred children; boys too, but only manageable boys.”
Registration was held starting September 13th and by opening day (September 27th) all the grades were crowded, some overcrowded despite the fact that they did not want more than fifty students in each room. Mother Paul and Sister Frances begged for more teachers. They thought it was funny that they had prayed for children but were now praying for more teachers.
Xavier’s Handbook for 1915-1916
The Sisters wrote that the boys and girls were refined and studious, all anxious for an education. The school housed seventh and eighth grades plus a full high school curriculum for both boys and girls. It was originally called “Southern University of New Orleans” under the patronage of St. Francis Xavier.
Just two days later, the Great Storm of 1915 struck. Students still came in large numbers but were sent home at two that afternoon. With winds up to 120 miles an hour, wash bowls were being used as receptacles to catch the water pouring through the ceiling. The Sisters mopped all night long while Father Clark tied the front door to the staircase to keep it from blowing away. The spreads on the beds were black and dirty and a tree on Constance Street uprooted and fell against the Chemical Laboratory and Domestic Science rooms, breaking all the windows on the side of the building.
Great Storm of 1915
Once the storm ceased, more students came to enroll. Some had to be turned away but the desire to get a Catholic education was so great that one young 8th grader refused to give up. His story was recounted in the journal.
“This lad came to make application for the 8th grade. Mother Paul told him this grade could not accommodate more pupils. Mother even took him back to the room to show him that all the seats were filled. The boy spied a vacant desk, and mother told him that the boy who occupied that seat was absent. Then our brave lad replied, ‘Perhaps someone will be absent every day.’ He pleaded that he was a Catholic, had his friends take up his cause, and finally returned the next morning, offering to sit on a chair, if only we would enroll him. Needless to say, he became a member of that 8th grade.”
In addition to the seven Sisters, the faculty in 1915 included Professor Nickerson (orchestra director), Mr. Albert Boucree (carpentry instructor for boys), Mrs. Cora Wilson (sewing department), Mr. William Lewis (mechanical drawing), and Mr. H. Crozier (masonry department). Although the school began with instruction at the high school level, Mother Katharine had always intended for Xavier to become a university.
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First Graduating Class (June 1916)
Tuition was a dollar a month, and if two of the same family attended the school this sum was reduced to 75 cents each. In May of 1916, the school’s name was officially changed to Xavier University. By 1917, a two year Normal School was added for the purpose of training young people to become teachers and the first graduation of 26 students took place in June of 1917.
The high school graduates often asked the Sisters when they were going to open the college, so in 1925, Xavier University was established as a Teachers’ College and a College of Arts and Sciences. A Pre-Med department was added and in 1927, the College of Pharmacy. Finally, by 1932, the high school’s name officially became Xavier University Preparatory and the university moved to a larger location.
Hopefully, this article has served to provide a glimpse into the makings of an institution that was established 100 years ago. It is an institution that has educated thousands of young men and women who credit Xavier University Preparatory “The Prep” with providing them the academic and spiritual growth they so needed at a time when other local Catholic high schools would not.
Sources: Annals of St. Francis Xavier’s, New Orleans, daily journal of Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament 1915-1916, housed at Xavier University of LA Archives; Sharing the Bread in Service, Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament 1891-1991, Sister Patricia Lynch, SBS, Xavier University of LA Archives.
Lolita V. Cherrie