It has been more than 50 years since the fortress of the Church and Ontario streets succumbed to the wrecking member after more than 100 years of service to Lockport’s religious and educational community. St. Joseph’s Academy was much loved and respected by the city’s Catholic population but also for generations of young women of many denominations.
The academy was staffed by the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur from Belgium who came to Lockport in 1863 at the invitation of Buffalo’s Bishop John Timon. When the Sisters arrived in Lockport, they found that the basement of St. John’s Church had been made into a classroom for their use. When the school opened in September, Around 100 students were enrolled. It soon became apparent that both the church and the school were going to require more space.
In 1863, two changes were made to ease the overcrowding at St. John’s Church and school. A new church, also called St. John’s, was built on Church Street and the old St. John’s was converted to a school. This did not solve the problem for long. The Irish-Catholic population of Lockport continued to grow and so the new St. John’s Church was renamed St. Patrick’s and the old St. John’s was re-opened as a church. Once again the school was conducted in the basement of the old St. John’s Church. A new parish school would not have been built until 1891, more than 25 years later. However, the construction of the academy was begun in 1865, just two years after the arrival of the five Sisters from Belgium.
Almost from the time of their arrival, the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur discussed opening a high school for the purpose of offering the young women of the area an opportunity for Catholic education. After several names were rejected by the New York State Senate, the Sisters’ prevented a call to their new school St. Joseph’s Academy in honor of the saint’s intercession in securing funding for the project. The approval of the Senate and the school was incorporated under that title.
The massive limestone complex on Church and Ontario streets was begun in 1865 (with stone quarried right on the property) and provided enough living space for 80 nuns and 50 boarding students as well as classrooms for 100 pupils. The campus was enlarged in 1872, 1879 and 1889 and a courtyard with gardens and statues was added in 1905. A basketball court was added a year later.
The philosophy of St. Joseph’s Academy summed up in a 1909 newspaper article that states that “this School embraces the best work in the secular school and in the model home since it installs the man of God and the principles of truth and purity, and the mind, heart and soul are cultivated. ”
A new chapter in the allowing history was begun in 1936 when the St. Joseph Business School opened at the academy. This post-secondary secretarial college trained young women to enter into the business world.
In the fall of 1956, 90 years after its opening, St. Joseph’s Academy accepted its last freshman class. The following September, the 76 girls were transferred to DeSales High School to finish their last three years.
The Sisters of St. Mary of Namur continued to occupy the building until 1968 when it became necessary for the remaining 28 years. Two years later, in March 1970, St. Joseph’s Academy was torn down to make the nine-story senior apartment building known as the Spires. During the demolition, workers located a glass time capsule that was placed in the cornerstone at the time of construction in the 1860s. Items found in the glass container included coins, stamps, religious medals, a tintype photograph and a rolled-up newspaper, all dating from the 1860s.
In an aside to this story, there is another piece of history associated with St. Joseph’s that isn’t as well-known. Sometime in the 1870s, the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur acquired a triangle-shaped piece of property on Olcott Street which was in their possession until the 1920s. The property consisted of about nine acres and was used as a home country and farm for the Sisters. At the time when many people suffer from consumption (tuberculosis), the Sisters needed a place that was a little further from the city and away from the factories and mills. There was a hydrotherapy used on tuberculosis patients. The Sisters would take the trolley down Clinton Street and get off at Mill Street and walk the rest of the way to their Olcott Street retreat. The property was adjacent to the Hiram McCollum farm on North Adam Street. Hiram McCollum converted to Catholicism in the 1850s and purchased the farm from his brother Joel in about 1854. The stone McCollum house was built about 1834 and is still in the family today. The Sisters sold their Olcott Street property to George Nicetas in about 1923.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: Thanks to Sister Claire, assistant archivist for the Sisters of St. Mary Namur, for information for this article.
Ann Marie Linnabery is the assistant director of the History Center of Niagara.