Once Upon A Time ...
The Academy of the Sacred Heart is a legacy of the Society of the Sacred Heart, an international teaching order founded in France in 1800. The story of these nuns and their endeavors in and around New Orleans parallels the history of the city itself.
St. Philippine Duchesne, a missionary to the New World, arrived in New Orleans on May 29, 1818, exactly one hundred years after Bienville founded the city. After almost fifty years of pursuing missionary work in unsettled areas along the river, the nuns returned to establish a convent in the Vieux Carré in 1867 and named it Mater Admirabilis.
In the late 19th century, the Quarter was in decline. Most importantly, the established French, Catholic families from the Quarter and Esplanade Ridge, whose daughters were the mainstay of the student body, were moving across town into what was the American sector. In addition, second generation English and Irish families, who were already uptown, were seeking for their daughters a school that provided the same type of education that the religious had been providing downtown.
It was therefore no surprise that the religious sought refuge from their deteriorating urban environment and turned their attention upriver. Demographically, the nuns and the city were moving in the same direction.
The new location chosen by the nuns was the John Calhoun-S. J. Peters Greek Revival mansion built in 1847. The estate comprised two squares. The first contained the main house set far back from the major thoroughfare, St. Charles Street. The second was separated from the first by Apollo Street, now Carondelet. It was spacious enough for a vegetable garden, orange grove and farmyard. When the Mother Superior requested permission in June 1886 to purchase these two lots for $30,000, the Mother General in Paris sent a one-word telegram: "Achetez." Soon after this concise mandate "to buy," the Academy was ready to open in 1887.
This charming villa served the nuns admirably for thirteen years. By then, however, the house proved inadequate for the volume of students. As a result, the religious decided to demolish the old house and to construct a new building. The lone reminder of the Academy's origins is the large, wrought iron fountain with a swan atop that still stands today.
The new building, Colonial Revival in style, designed by the architects Diboll and Owen, was dedicated in 1900. Of particular note is the intertwining S and C for "Sacré Coeur" inserted at the top of the central panel of the stained glass doorway by the builders, Darcantel and Diasselles. In a niche on the second floor gallery, the nuns placed an iron statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus cast by the Pustet Brothers in Europe.
As spacious as the new Academy was, it underwent several expansions. In 1906 the same architects added two wings to the front of the building. One wing housed a chapel of French Gothic design and the other wing consisted of two cavernous rooms, one above the other. The one below served as an assembly room where students gathered for feast days, holiday programs and plays. The one above functioned as a study hall where pupils shared wooden, lift-top desks.
In the 1913 expansion, the structure grew vertically rather than horizontally. The architects added a third floor to the original building. In the 1950s and 1960s, a gymnasium and the preschool and primary school buildings were constructed on the back square of the campus which had originally been an orchard.
A new three-story wing on the corner of Jena and Carondelet Streets opened in the fall of 1998 for Middle School (grades 5-8) and Upper School (Grades 9-12) students. The building includes six state-of-the-art science labs, additional classrooms and 2 computer labs. The attractive Jena Street courtyard now functions as a gathering area for students and the Sacred Heart community.
In 2005, the new Mater Campus was opened on the corner of St. Charles and Napoleon avenues. It is the new home of the Little Hearts Program (for 1 year olds, 2/3s and 3/4s students), the Preschool (prek and kindergarten), and the Primary School (grades 1-4).
The 105,320 square foot campus is also home to the Nims Fine Arts Center, a large auditorium that is used as a multi-purpose facility hosting the school’s auction, concerts, liturgies, drama performances, and more. Additionally, the campus has its own gym, kitchen, dining hall, library, chapel, art room, admission office, science lab, two computer labs, over 30 classrooms and its own parking lot. The expansion project represents a substantial investment on the part of the Academy of the Sacred Heart in the City of New Orleans and more than doubles the size of the school’s campus.
In the fall of 2011, Sacred Heart opened its new Arts and Athletics Complex. The 37,000 square foot facility has a 13,000 square foot tournament size gym; a weight training and fitness center; an indoor, three-lane elevated running track; and a student rehab room. The connected Favrot Arts Center has a dance studio with sprung floor, a multi media center with a television studio, graphic design computers and software, digital photography, a music wing for instrumental and choral music, a Middle School art studio, and a conference room.
In this manner the campus evolved, more than doubling its size while retaining its classical style. The Academy celebrated its 125th anniversary on St. Charles Avenue in 2015 and continues to stand as a registered New Orleans landmark in uptown New Orleans. Like the city itself, it is characterized by change, but it remains a harmonious blending of the old with the new.