November 2, 1995
The other day Dr. Art Brown passed along a small French language textbook, "Le Tour de la France," which he had rescued from a pile of discards. The book is covered with brown butcher paper neatly folded at each corner and signed by "Mary G. Ley, St. Joseph Academy, February 28, 1924." Mary, the late sister of Frank Ley, eventually became Mrs. Walt Kehres. She was a student at the Academy and was studying French that year. Carefully written notes in the margin indicate that she applied herself diligently to the course.
The book was interesting for several reasons, including the signs of Mary's scholarship, but it also conjures up an image of the Catholic school which once stood at the corner of Ninth and Elm, where the present St. Rose of Lima fellowship hall is now located. At various times the Academy offered different levels of education, including kindergarten and a full 12-year program plus post-graduate studies, all taught by a cadre of nuns provided by the mother house in San Antonio, Texas, and Wichita.
In addition to the parochial school, the nuns also gave private music lessons to boys and girls in piano, violin, the harp, and assorted other genteel instruments. I was one of their piano students but my time with them went for naught. It was not their fault. At different times I also took piano lessons from Mrs. Ivan Kennedy and Mrs. Florence Crowder and although I briefly mastered "Three Tin Soldiers" and noodled around with "Chop Sticks" and other elementary compositions, today I am virtually illiterate, musically speaking. I enjoy music, I just don't totally understand it.
St. Joseph's was a two-story wooden clapboard building, very plain in design but clearly functional for classroom instruction. I remember the sisters in their white wimples and flowing black robes. They could be very stern and serious, but then a smile would lighten their countenance and perhaps a word of reassurance would make the hours of practice seem worthwhile. It wasn't that my resistance surpassed their skills as teachers. I was willing enough, but it just didn't take. Most of their other charges proved much more apt and became proficient musicians. I was considered to be that well known "exception to the rule" that teachers everywhere are always citing.
St. Joseph's was established here in 1900 when Rev. Willebrord Voogden was the priest at St. Rose of Lima Catholic church. The original school was built largely by parishioners. It cost $3,000 and measured 64 x 40 feet. The building had four classrooms, a private chapel and living quarters for the Sisters of Divine Providence of San Antonio, Texas. Ground was broken on July 5, 1900, and the new school house was ready for its first students by Sept. 8 that year when the fall term began. It was first chartered under territorial law on March 24, 1902. A new charter was granted under state law on May 1, 1914. Average enrollment the first 10 years was 175 pupils. The Sisters of St. Joseph, based in Wichita, took over the staffing and teaching of St. Joseph's in September 1950. At one time a cottage at the rear of the Academy served as a boarding house for students from Covington and other nearby towns. School buses were virtually unknown at the time.
Frank Ley was among the last students who attended high school at St. Joseph's. During his senior year, 1934, he played in the Perry high school band under Prof. Leopold Radgowsky and took manual training at PHS under Euel Leach, but about half of his classes were at St. Joseph's. His graduation certificate was issued by Perry high school. St. Joseph's discontinued the high school after the 1934-35 term when Lilly Cooper Dunford was the lone graduate.
Attendance at St. Joseph's began diminishing after the upper grades were dropped, but a strong Kindergarten-8th grade program was maintained. At times they also had some outstanding grade school basketball teams, even though they had to borrow a gym for practice. I remember Tony Macias was on perhaps their last squad, and he was a deadeye shooter. Later of course he became a state champion wrestler and a fine football halfback at Perry high school, but he starred in basketball at St. Joseph's before that.
In 1953, during the post-World War II era, St. Rose of Lima parishioners razed the old wooden building and constructed a new one-story brick school of contemporary design to replace the Academy. They also built an attractive brick nunnery for the, teachers' residence. The mother house found it difficult to supply teaching nuns as time went on, and soon simple economics made it financially impossible to maintain the school, so finally it was closed altogether. The building was converted into a fellowship hall. Lions and Rotarians, who had met each week in the St. Rose of Lima church basement, relocated to the fellowship hall dining room when the school was discontinued. The Catholic ladies served wholesome home-cooked dinners to both groups.
Many of today's Perry citizens received their elementary education at St. Joseph's Academy and they will tell you they were well grounded in the basics when they transferred to the public school to complete high school. Graduates of St. Joseph's did very well in academics and in extra-curricular activities when they became part of the Perry high school student body.
Thanks to Art Brown for passing along the copy of Mary Ley's "Le Tour de la France," and to Frank Ley for his recollections, all of which brought back some pleasant memories of St. Joseph's Academy.