History of Catholic Education in St. Marys
The town of St. Marys was founded in 1842 primarily as a haven from religious discrimination for German Roman Catholics from Bavaria. The Roman Catholic parish called St. Mary’s was the center of the town in its early days. Sacred Heart Parish was formed a few decades later. From the 1850’s to the 1890’s, priests, sisters, and brothers taught in the public schools in the community. One exception was St. Benedict’s Academy which was opened by the Benedictine Sisters who came to the community in 1852. Their school was located where Elk Regional Health Center is now. It remained there until 1860; then the sisters moved to their present location on Maurus Street. St. Benedict’s Academy was built on the convent grounds in 1868. It was an all-girls school with both boarding students and day students from the community.
As a result of the 1895 PA Smith Garb Act which stated that no one dressed in religious habit could teach in public schools, St. Mary’s Parish and Sacred Heart Parish each opened its own grade school in 1896. Soon after, in 1901, St. Mary’s Parish built the St. Marys Catholic High School. In 1902, Sacred Heart Parish started its own high school in the parish hall located next to its elementary school. Both were wooden structures.
In the early 1920’s, Sacred Heart Parish built a sturdier, brick elementary building, Sacred Heart School, which opened in 1923. More room was also needed for high school students, so the two parishes in town joined to build St. Marys Central Catholic High School, which opened in 1925. In 1934, when the local hospital was destroyed by fire, the Benedictine Sisters offered St. Benedict’s Academy to become the community hospital. As a result, the girls’ academy was permanently closed with its last graduating class being the Class of 1935.
In response to the population explosion following World War II, the births now referred to as baby boomers, St. Mary’s Parish replaced its wooden structure with a stone school and moved its students into the St. Mary’s Parochial Grade School in 1952. In response to continued growth, Queen of the World Parish was established in the early 1950’s and opened its own grade school in 1957.
As the baby boomers grew older, Central Catholic High School no longer met the needs of the community. A new high school, Elk County Christian High School, was built and opened its doors in 1962 as a regional high school serving the three St. Marys parishes as well as the Roman Catholic parishes of Ridgway, Johnsonburg/Wilcox, Kersey, Bennetts Valley, Emporium, and Kane as well as students of other faiths. Control and responsibility for the high school was assumed by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Erie, PA. The school was subsequently renamed Elk County Catholic High School in 2001.
In 1999, the three St. Marys parishes, with the permission of the Bishop, formed a committee that resulted in a consolidation of the three parish elementary schools (St. Mary’s Parochial School, Sacred Heart School, and Queen of the World School) into a legal entity known as the St. Marys Catholic Elementary School System. In 2002, in connection with this consolidation, Pre/K through grade 5 were located in the former Queen of the World School, renamed St. Marys Catholic Elementary; grades 6 through 8 were located in the former St. Mary’s Parochial School, renamed St. Marys Catholic Middle; and Sacred Heart School was closed.
A further study was undertaken, and in 2010, the St. Marys Catholic Elementary School System was dissolved. St. Marys Catholic Elementary and St. Marys Catholic Middle were absorbed along with Elk County Catholic High into a new legal entity known as the Elk County Catholic School System. Then, in the spring of 2013, it was announced that due to declining demographics, the St. Marys Catholic Middle School would be moved to the Elk County Catholic High School building. ECCHS and SMCMS now operate as two separate schools in the two wings of the former high school building.
ECCSS now operates Pre/K through grade 12 in two buildings: St. Marys Catholic Elementary School (Pre/K-grade 5), St. Marys Catholic Middle School (grades 6-8), and Elk County Catholic High School (grades 9-12). Students of other faiths are welcome in all three schools.