Our School’s History
Located in the heart of the historic district of Wilmington, NC, St. Mary School lays claim to a rich and unique past. In 1869, Bishop James Gibbons requested assistance from the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy in Charleston, SC to open a Catholic school in Wilmington. Under the title of the Academy of the Incarnation, the school began in a house at 202 Nun Street with an enrollment of thirty-six students. With several donations and tuition contributions from the Academy, the Sisters added a parochial school for poor girls of the parish called St. Peter’s Parochial School for Girls in January 1871. The Peden House, located at the corner of Fourth and Ann Streets near the site of the present St. Mary Lower School building, housed St. Peter’s. The Academy was later closed.
In 1876, to provide Catholic education for boys, work began on a separate school building situated on the site now occupied by the Basilica Shrine of St. Mary at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Ann Street. It formally opened on October 1, 1878, with an enrollment of fifty boys. Over the course of time the boys’ and girls’ schools were merged into St. Mary School.
Separately, on the opposite side of Ann Street, Amy Morris Bradley, with a monetary award from the philanthropist Mary Tileston Hemenway of Boston, began construction on a structure that would become the first school in Wilmington to offer free education. Plans for the Tileston School were drawn by John A. Fox, Esq., noted designer of the Boston Museum. Following its construction in 1871, the Tileston School on Ann Street continued its own storied history. After Amy Morris Bradley’s retirement in 1891, Tileston School, which had undergone five additions over the century, continued to educate Wilmington’s youth, serving as a public elementary, middle, and high school. The city of Wilmington abandoned the buildings in the 1980s. Unattended, they quickly fell into disrepair.
Construction of a new church began in 1908 on the site of the old boys’ school. Built on the plan of a Latin cross in the Spanish Baroque style, the church is constructed of brick and tile with no steel, wood, or nails used in the structure. With its twin steeples and domed roof, the Basilica Shrine of St. Mary graces the lovely skyline of downtown Wilmington today.
The St. Thomas School, at Second and Orange St., was home to the African American Catholic children. In the 1960s, prior to the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the Diocese of Raleigh desegregated Catholic Schools. Later, St. Thomas School became affiliated with St. Mary School. The Sisters of the Franciscan Handmaids of Mary joined the faculty of St. Mary and taught for several years with the Sisters of Mercy. In 2000, the Preschool and Kindergarten were moved to the St. Mary School.
Eventually, in 1988, under the direction of Monsignor Thomas P. Hadden, St. Mary Parish purchased the Tileston complex for $17,000. Renovations were soon underway. The historic Tileston Center is currently home to the Basilica Shrine of St. Mary parish offices and meeting rooms, St. Mary Tileston Outreach Ministry, and clinics. Additionally, St. Mary Middle School (grades 5-8), the Art and Music classrooms, Science Lab, Computer Lab and Media Center and the beautiful Upper Room (auditorium) call the Tileston Center home. The full-court gymnasium, although detached from the main buildings, is part of the Tileston Complex. The buildings are once again a living part of the neighborhood filled with the bustle of school children and the ministries of an active Catholic parish.
Joining the St. Mary Parish on September 8, 1982, were the Sisters of the Society of St. Ursula. This order contributed to the parish and school with work in the areas of education and especially in the development of social ministry.
The Sisters of Mercy continued to serve the students of St. Mary School until 1991. From its humble beginnings with thirty-six students in 1869 as the state’s first Catholic school, the school now serves over 200 children in grades preK through eight.