The Catholic community in Fredericksburg was organized in 1846 by a number of the original settlers. The fledgling parish was without the service of a regular religious leader for most of the early years of its existence. Despite many hardships, this original group built a church and a priest’s house, and after ten (10) years they nurtured the ambitious plan to start a school that would teach not only the standards or reading, writing and arithmetic, but also religion.
Franz Stein, a newly arrived immigrant, was hired as the first teacher at St. Mary’s School. Mr. Stein opened the school on August 26, 1856 in the unoccupied priest’s house with seven students. In November of the same year, the parish purchased two lots with two log houses for $250. The two log structures were connected to form a school building and residence for the teacher. Within a month of the completion of this structure the enrollment had risen to 47.
A severe crop failure caused the school to close for a few months late in 1857, but the school was reopened in February, 1858 when Christian Kraus was employed as school master. Mr. Kraus taught until January 1862. His successor was William Kelly who taught for a little more than one year. In his short tenure at the school, Mr. Kelly gained a wide reputation as a strict disciplinarian. A lay brother named Fridolin relieved Mr. Kelly in April, 1863, but he taught only a few months. He was succeeded by Franz Stein, who took over the school for the second time and remained as teacher until September, 1870.
The Sisters of Divine Providence took charge of the school in October, 1870, their association with St. Mary’s School would continue for the next 109 years. Their presence in Fredericksburg and their dedication to Christian instruction had a profound effect on the Catholic community. The enrollment increased rapidly. In 1873, Reverend Peter Tarillion, Pastor of St. Mary’s Parish, arranged the purchase of a large building for $2,130. This second building was large enough to also serve as a residence for the sisters.
The building adequately housed the school and the sisters for the next 30 years, but shortly after the turn of the century, overcrowding was again a problem. In 1906, the new St. Mary’s Church was completed so the old church, the “Marienkirche” was converted into a business college, but the continued growth of St. Mary’s School forced the college to find a new location.
In 1916, Monsignor Henry Gerlach purchased for $3,000 a lot 100’ x 100’ which was adjacent to a similar lot already owned by the parish. He and the parishioners envisioned construction of the “ultimate school building” that would include facilities for a new high school. The vision became a reality in 1924 with the dedication of the fourth St. Mary’s School building; an imposing two story edifice with accommodations for 400 children, the sisters’ living quarters and a spacious basement with a kitchen. The cost of the construction in 1924 was $60,000 without desks or equipment. Such an investment at that time reflected the parish’s commitment to Catholic education. The first two high school graduates received diplomas in 1925.
The school flourished in the new structure and the enrollment continued to increase. By 1949, the number of students exceeded the building’s capacity once more. The parish, under the leadership of Monsignor F.X. Wolf, solved the problem by purchasing a large building to house the sisters. This move provided additional classroom space in the school building and temporarily alleviated the overcrowding.
The 1950-s brought continued growth, and this time the parish responded with the construction of the fifth St. Mary’s School building in 1959. The modern glass, steel and brick structure was completed through the leadership of Reverend Joseph Hillebrand. The new school building housed the elementary students, while the high school students remained in the old school. Both schools continued to grow; the peak years were the mid 1960’s when the enrollment exceeded 600.
Ten years later, however, the school’s condition had changed. A trend of declining enrollment and increasing expenses placed the school system in jeopardy. In 1975, the Sisters of Divine Providence notified the St. Mary’s School Board that they would no longer be able to provide staff members for the high school. The high school was officially closed at the summer graduation, July 13, 1975. During its 50 years span, the high school lay claim to 1,100 graduates.
The high school operated for fifty quality years. The sisters and lay staff created a Christian atmosphere of service and academic excellence. This excellence was reflected in the success of the extracurricular programs throughout the school’s history. Athletic teams won state championships in football, baseball, and track while the music programs won numerous awards in varying types of competition.
In 1976, the elementary school started a trend of modest growth in enrollment which continues through this year. In 1979, the Sisters of Divine Providence ended their 109 years of work in St. Mary’s School. Today St. Mary’s School carries on the tradition of service and excellence; in the past 150+ years many things have changed, but some of the most honored traditions remain. A glass and steel building has replaced the log structure, and electric bells have replaced Franz Stein’s hand bell, but the school still exists to serve the same need as it did in 1856. The school is possible because parents and parish members are still willing to make sacrifices for the sake of Catholic education.
St. Mary’s School is rooted in tradition, but is continuously changing to meet the needs of the children who enter its doors seeking a good education. By providing high-quality programs for its pre-kindergarten through 8th grade students, St. Mary’s School continues to strive for the best as the community and parish so long ago envisioned for its children.