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A last look at St. Mary’s School by the Riverwalk

by Carol Sowa
Staff Writer

    SAN ANTONIO — There was no light at the end of the tunnel for soon-to-be-closed St. Mary’s School by the Riverwalk, but the 94-year-old academic institution is going out in a blaze of glory.
    When the current school year ends on June 4, St. Mary’s will close its doors for good, a victim of dwindling resources and parents unable to pay the cost of a Catholic education. Principal Randy Wilhelm said the plan for the school’s final days was to keep the students “so busy and so active that they wouldn’t notice we were closing.” This included participating one last time in the Fiesta Battle of Flowers parade.
    St. Mary’s was the first free parochial school in Texas, opened in 1910 by the Sisters of Divine Providence (CDP) at the request of the Oblates at St. Mary’s Church across the street. In 1913 it became the first free high school in Texas. Situated on the San Antonio River in the heart of downtown, it was a special educational institution in many ways. The close relationship between church and school is evidenced by the memorable tunnel that connected the two buildings beneath St. Mary’s Street.

    Mildred Vorpahl Baass (class of ’33) remembers the students’ trips to daily Mass at the church via the tunnel: “We’d all walk down four flights to the basement and go through the tunnel under the street, emerging in the basement of the church and then go up the steps into the church, where each class had a section.”
    Sister Rita Louise Petsch, CDP, principal for 11 years and teacher for two at St. Mary’s (1977 to 1990), recalls the tunnel was used infrequently during her years there. “We didn’t use it except if the weather was real bad and it was time to go to Mass,” she said. Mass by then had become a weekly event. They also used the tunnel during downtown construction. Eventually, it was closed by the city for safety reasons.
    St. Mary’s was totally rebuilt in 1953 and its high school (always girls only) closed. The school thereafter continued as coeducational up through eighth grade. This closing marked the opening of the new Providence High School, which consolidated five high schools.
    “There’s nothing left of the old building,” noted Principal Wilhelm. “It’s a shame, because when you see pictures of the old building it was an extraordinary structure. It was a beautiful building with Corinthian half-pillars on the facade.” Sister Rita Louise remembers, in her younger days, hearing the old nuns reminisce about the disastrous flood of 1921 there, when the San Antonio River inundated downtown with up to 10 feet of water. “They’d tell stories of how they saw one of their pianos float down the river,” she recalled.

    It was this flood, along with previous ones, that weakened the old building’s foundation and finally led to its demise. “They had to either gut it and rebuild it or tear it down and build a new building because of safety concerns,” said Wilhelm.
    He noted that the newly rebuilt school, with its modern, 1950’s facade, made use of a plentiful and inexpensive commodity of those days — green tiles made with army paint left over from World War II.
    St. Mary’s produced a number of distinguished alumni, including District Court Judge Solomon Casseb and Mildred Vorpahl Baass, 1933 Valedictorian, who was Poet Laureate of Texas for 1993-94 and 1994-95. Many future religious passed through its doors, as well.
    As the years went by and the number of religious dwindled, the school gradually went from being taught solely by nuns to a staff of lay teachers. It also ceased to be a parochial school and was run in its final years by the archdiocese.
    When Wilhelm took over as principal three years ago, the school had been in trouble for some time and little remained of its former glory. “By the time I got here,” said Wilhelm, “the library was closed, the cafeteria was closed, all the library books were strewn about the floor, the files were stacked on the office floor.” And Stanford test scores were in the teens and twenties.

Intense efforts were made to turn the school’s decline around. Computers were put in all classrooms, new science equipment was purchased, along with modern VCRs and TV sets. Textbooks were upgraded, the athletics department went back into full swing, the cafeteria (serving only healthy food with fresh ingredients) began to make money and Stanford test scores soared to the 70th percentile. Still, it was not enough time to reverse the decades of decline.
    Sister Rita Louise said she could see the end coming when she left in 1990, as the schools financial situation continued to worsen. “The school board worked many times until 2:30 in the morning,” she said. “We did raffles and sold tacos. We always had a booth during Fiesta to raise money.” Parents could receive tuition credits by working at school fund-raising events. However, in the school’s past two years, over fifty students were finally turned out when their parents could no longer afford tuition and had fallen far behind in payments.
    Sister Rita Louise’s second-to-the-last winter at St. Mary’s is particularly telling. “The boiler broke,” she recalled. “We had no money to buy a new one. So, for the winter, the children wore two jackets to school, the sisters in the convent slept under blankets at night.” Finally, they were able to purchase a new boiler on payments, and heat was restored by the following winter.
     The school nearly came to an untimely end that same year, when Sister Rita Louise smelled an unusual odor in the school one morning. The fire department was called and the nuns hurried the students out of the building, half being led down to Commerce Street and the other half to Houston Street.
A fireman announced, “Sister, you have seconds to get out. This building’s going up!”
There was a frantic search for a gas outlet, until Sister Rita Louise recalled a pipe coming out of the sidewalk in front of the building. The firemen raced out front, to discover someone had unknowingly capped the boiler’s gas outlet. The cap was immediately broken off with hammers, and everyone breathed a sigh of relief.
    Later, when all gas had been cleared from the building and the children returned to class, she announced over the PA system, “I want you all to kneel down on your knees and thank God that we are here with our school.”

    Good memories overshadow any tribulations at the school. Sister Rita Louise remembers taking the students, one class at a time, down to the river walk for an ice cream treat if they had been good.
    The students also were thrilled to be taken down the block to watch the Battle of Flowers and Rodeo parades every year. And from her bedroom window in the convent on the third floor, Sister Rita Louise could look down on the Fiesta River parade. Another unique and well-loved feature of the school was a rooftop playground, since the school was hemmed in by downtown buildings and had no yard.
    Mary Elva Mize Sanford (class of ’48) and Leota Hurt (class of ’50) reminisce about high school dances in the auditorium and the nearby “Coney Island” stand that tempted students to break the “off limits” rule. Mildred Vorpahl Baass (class of ’33) fondly recalls being editor of the school paper, Four Flights Up — so named because the high school classes were taught on the school’s fourth floor.
Since the boys and girls attended separate high schools, the priests across the street at St. Mary’s Church formed The Medieval Club in the 1930s to introduce the students to each other and to the social graces.
    “ We were ‘ladies,’ the fellows were ‘knights,’ as in medieval times,” recalls Baass.
Callie Kaupert Welborn (class of ’42) remembers bringing her roller skates to school and skating on a path that ran alongside the build- ing then. In those and earlier days, students walked to and from class to homes as distant as the King William and Five Points areas.
    “You didn’t realize you were walking though,” said Welborn, “because all these kids were walking with you and one would drop off here and one would drop off there.” By the 70s, parents dropped their children off at the school in the morning and picked them up in the afternoon.
Around 100 former students and teachers came together for a final farewell to St. Mary’s on April 20, treated to a barbecue lunch and tour of the school that featured old photos, school trophies and a cheerleading performance.
    “Your parents made extraordinary sacrifices so you could attend St. Mary’s,” said Wilhelm to the group, noting nuns and priests had been relied on in the past to run our schools. This is no longer the case. “We, as Catholics, must get involved,” he said. “We have to take the baton.”


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