In 1875 Saint Mary's Academy was established by the Holy Cross Sisters as a boarding and day school for young ladies in Salt Lake City. The original adobe cottage was situated on First West and between First and Second South, roughly on the site of the present day Salt Palace.
Although Salt Lake City had only eight to ten Catholic families in total, by the end of the first school year in 1876, there were 100 day pupils and 25 boarders. Students, both Catholic and non-Catholic were arriving from all over the Frontier. Apart from Utah, they often came from Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Nevada.
The Holy Cross Sisters had a "Programme of Studies for Academies and Select Schools" which became a pattern of education for all community academies, including the one in Salt Lake City. The program in general consisted of 3 primary classes, 3 preparatory classes and 4 academic classes. The academy represented a no-frills curriculum emphasizing the arts, languages and humanities, very similar to Catholic schools curricula even today. The sisters taught piano, zither, organ, guitar, banjo, harp, mandolin, flute, cello and violin as part of their musical education. Saint Mary's Academy had its own orchestra as well. The academy offered the following subjects in the art department: drawing; oil painting and water colors; plain sewing and ornamental needlework; china and mirror painting; portrait drawing in crayon; sketching scenes in pastel; and the making of an elegant English lace known as Honiton.
At the end of every school year exhibition days or commencement programs were held for parents and visitors, during which the students demonstrated their newly developed skills and knowledge. Programs included musical numbers from operas and other musical works. The students also demonstrated their level of literacy in literature and philosophy by reading literary works such as poems, drama excerpts or even their own essays. At times these presentations were given in foreign languages. During this occasion gold medals were awarded to the best students in Christian doctrine, penmanship, studies, drawing, painting, vocal and instrumental music, plain sewing and ornamental needlework. Apart from the series of presentations, student works of art such as needle work, paintings, maps and class work of papers in mathematics, history, grammar, languages and bookkeeping were exhibited.
In 1898 Mother Lucretia introduced the annual May procession, which was held on the last day of May. The Children of Mary carried banners and sang hymns, as they passed in procession through the academy grounds to an outdoor shrine, where the Sodality president crowned the "Lady Queen of the May".
Seeing the example of commitment shown by the Sisters, some of the students later joined the Holy Cross Congregation. Louise Heffernan was among the first graduates. She was the daughter of Brigadier General Heffernan- commander at Fort Douglas. Louise became the first postulant to enter the novitiate from the West. She received her holy habit in 1878 and made her profession in 1881. Louise Heffernan, later known as Sister M. Rita completed her graduate studies at Harvard University and became the head of the English department at Saint Mary's Academy in Notre Dame, Indiana.
Saint Mary's Academy was the first female Academy in the Western region run by the Holy Cross Sisters. The Academy was most attractive to those students that aspired to a liberal education of the highest quality, an education that would "best qualify them for active participation in the affairs of every-day life, to embellish their characters with the refinement of art, and above all make them noble, God-fearing women."
Because of the growing numbers of students a decision was made to purchase a new home for the academy. In 1923 the Holy Cross Sisters purchased a building from the Country Club on the Thirteenth South and Thirtieth East Street in Salt Lake City.
The new St. Mary of the Wasatch, under the direction of Sister Madeleva Wolff CSC was opened in 1926. This school had, beside the high school program, a full liberal arts college program and a pre-nursing program taught in cooperation with the Holy Cross Hospital. Student enrollment began to decline in the late 1940s and it was decided to close St. Mary of the Wasatch in 1970. Neither the Sisters nor the diocese had the resource to provide the major renovations the facilities required. In 1972 the building was sold. The memory of the school still carries on in the hearts of its students.
Andrea Ventilla is a doctoral student in the History of Education at the University of Pecs, Hungary.