Saint Agnes School is 135 years old
It was raining hard in Towanda 135 ago on Sept. 6, 1877, when the first group of Religious Sisters of Mercy arrived at the Towanda Depot to establish a convent and school in Towanda. In an account of one of the sisters who arrived in the first group, "It was raining and continued to rain for more than a week. It seemed as if the heavens were weeping because of their arrival."
The Sisters were invited to Towanda by the Pastor of SS. Peter and Paul’s parish Rev. Charles F. Kelly. The Sisters of Mercy were not his first choice, as he had previously asked the Sisters of the Holy Child Jesus from Sharon, Pa., to return to Towanda and establish a parochial school. The Sisters of the Holy Child had opened a school in Towanda in 1862. The Holy Child group stayed in Towanda for two school years and then moved to Sharon. They had no interest in returning to Towanda, so Father Kelly then sought out the Sisters of Mercy.
In his plan to establish a school for the children of his large parish, Father Kelly purchased the estate of Christopher Longstreet Ward. The Ward property would lend itself well to be a convent and a school for the children.
The Sisters arrived at their new convent to find carpenters, bricklayers, housecleaners and other workmen busily engaged in preparing suitable conveniences for them. The convent was the Ward mansion, which had been occupied by the Ward family since their arrival in Towanda in 1838; the house was originally owned and built by Charles Toucey. The Wards called their palatial home "Tredinnock," which means "the house on the hill."
The Sisters were accompanied to Towanda by Mother Mary Regina. She stayed with the band of sisters for several days before her departure. The naming of the convent was discussed and the name of Saint Agnes was fixed upon. The new mission from thence was under the patronage of the Holy Child Saint Agnes. Mother Regina left Sister Mary Clement Confer in charge of the new convent and school. Under her charge was Sister Mary Ildefonse, Sister Mary Sylverius, Sister Mary Imelda and Sister Mary Bernadette.
SS. Peter and Paul’s parish in 1877 consisted of Towanda, Ulster, Wyalusing, Pond Hill, Durell, Long Valley, Barclay (where the Catholic population was so large they had their own church, Saint Patrick’s), State Road and Rummerfield. Before the mines at Barclay closed, the parish numbered 5,000 members. One can see why Father Kelly was so anxious to open a school, as he needed assistance in the religious education of the children of this very large rural parish.
The original school rooms were constructed in a carriage house on the Ward property, and it was in these rooms that the first day of school began on Oct. 1, 1877. The first group of Sisters consisted of five. Three of the Sisters were to teach school, and the other two were to run the convent. The number of students far surpassed the 100 that were expected to attend the new school, and two more sisters were sent from Pittsburgh to join the others in running the school.
Saint Agnes School continued on in the outbuildings of the Ward estate until 1898, when a new school building that was being constructed on the property was completed. The new Saint Agnes School was dedicated on April 14, 1898. The building stood on the site of the present gymnasium of the current Saint Agnes School. It was of red pressed brick and Hummelstown granite, 119 feet long and 67 feet wide, with two stories and a basement. The basement contained a kitchen, banquet hall, two large play rooms and a boiler room. On the first floor were five school rooms. Also on this floor were the teachers’ and ladies’ rooms.
The second floor was a large entertainment hall with a seating capacity for 900, a complete stage, drop curtains, wings, etc. The proscenium arch of the stage was of white pine lumber, covered with relief work. The auditorium had flexible sliding rollback doors.
The building was lighted by electricity. In all halls, school rooms, entertainment hall, society and ante rooms, banquet room and rear entrance, the wainscoting was of Southern pine, moulded cap, while in the front entrance the wainscoting was paneled. The ceiling was of paneled iron. The vestibules and staircases, exposed to view, were of paneled steel.
Ventilation came from studded partitions extending from the basement through the attic to the ventilating tower floor. The building was heated by steam radiators of neat design in each room. The building cost $25,000.
Saint Agnes had been a grade school until 1897 when a three-year high school program was added. The first high school graduation took place in 1900. There were six graduates in the class. The high school continued as a three-year program until 1915 when the first class of four-year high school students graduated.
In 1899, Rev. J.J. Coroner succeeded Father Kelly as pastor. He was confronted with a debt of $5,000 on the school. Father Coroner was successful in reducing this debt. During the time of Father Coroner the convent was enlarged when a third floor was added to the building, bringing the number of rooms in the convent to 43. The addition to the convent was necessary as the Sisters took rural girls in as boarders so that they could attend Saint Agnes School.
In 1945, Very Rev. Maurice Hughes was appointed pastor of SS Peter and Paul’s parish. He turned his attention to the 47-year-old St. Agnes School. He had new floors placed in many of the classrooms, and realizing the need for a gymnasium, organized successful parish parties to raise a sum of $10,000 for that purpose. The auditorium in the school was converted into a multipurpose gym and auditorium.
Rev. Joseph A. Griffin (later Monsignor) became the pastor of SS. Peter and Paul’s on Sept. 16, 1953. The condition of the school required continuous renovations and the State Fire Inspectors aroused by a disastrous fire in Chicago condemned Saint Agnes School. The entire second floor had to be sealed off and was not available for any use.
A fundraising campaign was started in January of 1961; the minimum goal was to raise $125,000. The goal was met and ground was broken on May 16, 1962. The new school building was built behind the old St. Agnes School, where the students continued on until February of 1963. The classroom section of the new school was blessed by His Excellency, The most Reverend Jerome D. Hannon, D.D. Bishop of Scranton, on Sunday Feb. 23, 1963. The new school was opened on Monday, Feb. 25, 1963.
I can remember that day well. We assembled in the old school and each carried what we could to the new school. The old school was torn down and the rest of the school building and parish center was completed. The cornerstone for the entire project was laid on Dec. 8, 1963. The new school was completed at a cost of $492,000. A one-story structure of contemporary architecture has nine classrooms, a lobby, library, science rooms, administrative offices, a completely equipped kitchen and storage area, a student store, gymnasium with bleacher seating, storage and locker rooms, and a stage with dressing rooms. The elementary and high schools were separated by the library.
The large marble statue of Saint Agnes erected by Father Kelly in 1898 was moved to a new location near the main stairway that leads from Third Street to the school.
In 1967, during the last semester of the school year, Very Reverend Joseph Shaughnessey, pastor of SS. Peter and Paul’s parish, announced that Saint Agnes would close its high school department at the end of the semester. This was not accepted easily in the parish, as so many of the parishioners made great sacrifices to donate to build the school and were told at the time of the fund drives that the high school was going to continue.
In June of 1967, 12 senior students received their diplomas at the last commencement of Saint Agnes High School.
Saint Agnes opened in September of 1967 as an elementary school consisting of eight grades. The elementary classes, until this time, had been doubled in classrooms. Now each grade could have its own room. Sister Susanne Stutz, R. S. M. was the first principal of Saint Agnes elementary school, a role she served in for the next four years.
In 1977 the Sisters of Mercy celebrated 100 years in Towanda. A Pontifical Mass was celebrated followed by a reception and dinner. Many of the Sisters who taught in Towanda over the years returned for the celebration along with Towanda natives and Saint Agnes graduates who entered the religious order.
The Sisters moved from the Ward Mansion to 100 Third Street, the old Burchill Home, in 1971. The old convent, which was very hard to heat and maintain, was scheduled to be torn down, but this did not happen, as the building burned in May of 1972. As time passed the number of Sisters teaching at Saint Agnes dwindled, and in 1992 when Sister Rose de Lima Moran left Towanda, the convent was closed. The Sisters of Mercy after 115 years no longer has a presence in Towanda.
The school year of 2006-07 brought another blow to Saint Agnes School. The Diocese of Scranton, under the direction of Bishop Joseph F. Martino, D.D., Hist., E.D., engaged Meitler Consultants to do a thorough, in-depth review of educational, demographic, financial and enrollment figures throughout the diocese. The results of the Meitler study recommended that Saint Agnes School close grades seven and eight. In a letter to the parents of Saint Agnes School dated March 28, 2007, they were notified by Bishop Martino that he had decided to accept the recommendation of the Meitler group.
In September of 2007 Saint Agnes School opened as pre-k through grade six. The spirit of the school has not been broken and the faculty and family of Saint Agnes are moving forward doing everything necessary to keep the school operating. For the past eight school years the school has been under the leadership of Kathleen DeWan. DeWan, a 1960 graduate of Saint Agnes School and a retired Towanda Public School teacher, serves as principal of the school. DeWan has a wonderful ability to lead, and through her leadership many new programs have been added at the school, along with a renewed spirit to keep the school operational.
Saint Agnes School continues to be an integral part of the education system in Towanda as the school opened this year for the 135th time; not many schools in Bradford County or in the Diocese of Scranton have the honor of that grand age.
Father Edward Michelini is currently the pastor of SS. Peter and Paul’s Parish.