St. Agnes Wraps 160th Anniversary Celebration

By Sarah Baker

St. Agnes Academy opened its doors in February 1851 with 20 boarders and 20 day students. Today, with an enrollment of more than 900, the school is celebrating its rich 160-year-old history and tradition of academia.

St. Agnes Academy, as seen in this 1926 photo, opened in 1851 at Vance and Orleans in Downtown. More than 4,000 girls have graduated from the school since its founding.
(Photo: Courtesy of St. Agnes Academy)

On Friday, Jan. 20, hundreds of students, alumnae, sisters, priests, faculty, staff and former administrators gathered to celebrate the 160th anniversary of the founding of St. Agnes – the oldest continuously operating school in the city of Memphis.

The celebration is the highlight of the yearlong celebration that kicked off in January 2011. During the Mass, both a student choir and faculty choir performed; proclamations from Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. and Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell were read; and a grand finale musical presentation honored the occasion.

At its founding, St. Agnes was the first Catholic institution of any kind in Memphis, with the exception of St. Peter Parish. The faculty consisted of six pioneering Dominican Sisters who had traveled from Kentucky and Ohio to open the first Catholic girls’ school in West Tennessee.

The school was originally located in Downtown Memphis at Vance and Orleans, and the first graduating class had only two students. Despite the Civil War, four Yellow Fever epidemics and several fires, St. Agnes never closed its doors.

In 1951, the Dominican Sisters relocated the academy to its present location at 4830 Walnut Grove Road, at the intersection of Walnut Grove and Mendenhall Road, which then was the eastern boundary of the city. Five years later, in 1956, St. Dominic School was founded.

Since 1851, more than 4,000 girls have graduated from St. Agnes. The school today has a record enrollment and state-of-the art facilities, including a Distance Learning Center and new Early Childhood Center. Every student in the first through 12th grades has a MacBook, and the entire campus is wireless.

The school operates its own funds independently, meaning it doesn’t receive any funding from the Dominican Sisters or the Catholic Diocese of Memphis, said president Barbara Daush.

“We are in charge of making sure that we operate properly through tuition management,” Daush said. “We don’t have a sizeable enough endowment to help subsidize the operations, so it is quite a miracle that we can operate the school in the black, charge less than what it really costs for tuition, and yet receive the wonderful gifts through our annual fund and other projects that subsidize the budget.”

While much has changed at St. Agnes-St. Dominic over 160 years, much remains the same – the dedication to academic excellence; devotion to the Dominican charism of study, prayer, community and service; and the close-knit environment.

“We expect that the experience here will empower our graduates, boys and girls, to understand that they have an obligation to give back to the community and to serve others,” Daush said. “If we can do that, I’m certain that our world will be a better place.”