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Jack Klasey: The Boarding School Era

May 6, 2018 GMT

For more than a century — from the 1860s to the 1960s — families from Chicago and other Midwestern cities placed their daughters “in the care of the good sisters” as students at boarding schools located in the Kankakee area.

The “good sisters” were Catholic nuns belonging to the Congregation of Notre Dame and the Servants of the Holy Heart of Mary.

The Notre Dame nuns operated boarding schools in Bourbonnais, Kankakee and St. Anne; the SSCM sisters had institutions in Beaverville, Manteno and Momence (as well as operating St. Mary’s Hospital in Kankakee).

In addition to boarding students, the schools also accepted girls (“day students”) from the community.

In the earlier days of their existence, the schools accepted boarders from both grade school and high school classes, but, eventually, the “boarders” were exclusively high school girls.

Notre Dame Academy was the first of the schools to be founded, tracing its beginnings to Sept. 20, 1860, when three French-speaking nuns from Montreal, Canada, stepped off an Illinois Central train at the Kankakee depot. They were escorted on their journey by the Rev. Alexis Mailloux, pastor of Maternity BVM Church in Bourbonnais. Father Mailloux had obtained the services of the nuns to open a school for girls in the town. Throughout the next half-century, the school grew from a small frame building to a large, four-story brick structure containing classrooms, dormitories for the boarding students and living quarters for the nuns.

Only five years after arriving in Kankakee County, the CND sisters expanded their educational activities by opening St. Joseph Seminary in Kankakee. The seminary (the title “seminary” is used today to designate an educational institution for priests, ministers or rabbis; in the 19th century, however, it was generally used for boarding schools) evolved over the years from a small frame structure to a large and substantial brick building. At first, it was located on Station Street near Fourth Avenue; then, in 1867, it moved to a new building on Merchant Street, just east of St. Rose of Lima Church.

The Kankakee Gazette reported to its readers on Nov. 14, 1867, that work on the seminary’s new building was “progressing rapidly. ... It will be a splendid ornament to that part of the town, and an educational blessing to many.”

Describing the educational benefits of the school for its pupils, the Gazette noted: They can receive instruction in all the solid branches of an English education, French, vocal and instrumental music, drawing and painting, every kind of useful needlework, etc.”

St. Anne Academy traced its beginnings to 1873, when two CND nuns began teaching classes in the basement of St. Anne Church.

By 1884, the academy was educating both boarders and day students in a four-story building.

Holy Family Academy in Beaverville, first of the boarding schools here operated by the Servants of the Holy Heart of Mary, opened its doors in 1895. Two more SSCM boarding schools opened in later years: St. Patrick Academy at Momence in 1906, and Our Lady Academy at Manteno in 1908.

When they first opened, the schools served local (“day”) students; “boarders” were accepted once facilities became available. For example, Notre Dame Academy began in 1860 with an enrollment of 140 local children; the first 10 boarding students arrived in 1862. By 1911, the school was serving 103 local students and 105 boarders. At the peak of their popularity in the early 1900s, each of the local boarding schools had enrollments (including local students) of several hundred pupils.

As times changed, so did the schools. Some eliminated grade school classes and concentrated on high school instruction; eventually, all closed their doors or became grade schools operated by local parishes. The first of the boarding schools to open also was the first to close: Notre Dame Academy went out of existence as a boarding school in 1949.

In 1964, St. Joseph Seminary in Kankakee graduated its last class, merging its student body with St. Patrick Central High School (now Bishop McNamara Catholic School).

In Beaverville, Holy Family Academy eliminated grade school classes in 1965, then held its last high school graduation four years later.

Our Lady Academy at Manteno closed its doors in 1968, St. Patrick Academy in Momence in 1972 and St. Anne Academy in 1978.

Today, almost all the former boarding school buildings have been demolished; the schools live on only in the memories of a declining number of women who recall their younger days as “boarding school girls.”