About St. Mary Catholic School

Welcome to the heart and soul of St. Mary Catholic School! 

The Tileston Building prior to the 1937 additions
The Tileston Building prior to the 1937 additions

Our "About" page is a portal into the rich tapestry of our educational institution—a place where tradition meets innovation, and faith is intertwined with knowledge. Here, you'll discover the vibrant history, unwavering values, and unwavering commitment that define us as a community. From our dedicated educators to our eager students, St. Mary Catholic School is a testament to the power of education, faith, and community coming together to shape the future. 

Explore our story, our mission, and our vision as you embark on a journey to understand what makes us more than just a school; we are a family, a home, and a place of boundless opportunity. 

Welcome to St. Mary Catholic School—where education is not only a pursuit but a way of life.

Our School's History

A Tale of Three Schools

Sisters of Mercy and The Academy of the Incarnation

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.  Three sisters, Rev. Mother Augustine Kent, Sister Mary Charles Curtin, and Sister Mary Baptist Sheehan, arrived via train and were ferried across the Cape Fear River.  The sisters had previously been to Wilmington to nurse the sick of the yellow fever outbreak, and they almost immediately went to work serving the sick at the local hospital.

Under the title of the Academy of the Incarnation, the sisters "resolved to erect a first class day academy for young ladies" in the Benjamin Beery 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.  In 1888 the Academy of the Incarnation and the Parochial School for girls merged into "St. Mary's Female Parochial School."

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 can now serve 200 children in grades PreK through eight.

Catholic Education for Boys

In 1872, St. Thomas's Parochial School for Boys is opened in the basement of St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church. The three Catholic schools listed in the state of North Carolina at that time were all in Wilmington.  In 1876 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 which served briefly as St. Joseph's Male Academy.  The Academy for Boys closed due to lack of pupils, but the parochial school was moved into the building. It formally opened on October 1, 1878 with an enrollment of fifty boys.  In 1888 the Catholic Register listed "St. Mary's Parochial School," which combined the girls' and boys' schools. 

Wilmington's First Public 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 public school in Wilmington to offer free education. Plans for the Tileston Normal School were drawn by John A. Fox, Esq., noted designer of the Boston Museum. 

The Unitarian Church sent Amy Morris Bradley to Wilmington with the intention of educating black and white children together, but upon arrival she noted that another organization (later to become Williston Grammar School) was operating a school for freed black children.  She focused then on educating poor white children.

Sister Mary Curtin wrote of Tileston Normal School, "We might probably have overcome the surrounding prejudices so far as to gain some Protestant patronage were it not for the erection of a very fine public school... and which is now the most fashionable school in the city."

Following its construction in 1871, the Tileston School on Ann Street continued its own storied history.  The City was given control of the complex in 1897.  Additions were made in 1910 (center part of Ann Street annex), in 1919 (wing and stair halls to the south of the original building), and 1937 (lateral additions). 

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 eventually as Wilmington High School.  With the growth of Wilmington, the city eventually constructed New Hanover High School in 1922 and moved students to that new building.

Sister Mary Curtin was prophetic perhaps in writing in her annals, "... the work begun by us shall be continued, and the children of Wilmington may yet assemble beneath the shade of the great oak sprung from this little acorn."

The city of Wilmington abandoned the buildings in the 1980s. Unattended, they quickly fell into disrepair.

The School for Black Students

In 1888, the Sisters of Mercy opened a school for black children, with 75 pupils.  In 1890 the school had grown to "about 200 pupils."  The schools operated in three distinct locations just blocks apart. In 1900, after the events of 1898, the school is noted to have only 68 black students.

Upon starting construction of the new church in 1908, the St. Thomas School, at Second and Orange St., was purchased by Mother Katherine Drexel to be the home to African American Catholic education. 

On September 14, 1913, Franciscan Sisters arrived from Baltimore to teach at the St. Thomas's Parochial School at 206 Dock Street which at the time had 240 pupils.  Later, in 1940, St. Thomas' high school was closed, but in 1941 an eighth grade is added to the elementary school, one of the first schools in the state to offer this addition.

In the 1960s, prior to the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the Diocese of Raleigh desegregated all Catholic Schools. 

The Sisters of the Franciscan Handmaids of Mary joined the faculty of St. Mary and taught for several years with the Sisters of Mercy.  The preschool and Kindergarten continued to be taught in the former St. Thomas school complex.  In 2000, with the departure of the Franciscan Sisters, the Preschool and Kindergarten were moved to the campus on Fourth Street.

The Construction of the Basilica

St. Thomas the Apostle was constructed in 1846, and was the first Catholic church in Wilmington.  Over the decades the Catholic parish grew.  In 1864 the funeral for famous Confederate spy, Rose O'Neil Greenhow was held at St. Thomas.  The famous black opera singer, Caterina Jarboro, was baptized at St. Thomas as well.

In 1905 due to overcrowding of the congregation, plans were begun to erect a new "Pro-Cathedral" a few blocks away on the land occupied by the schools.  

Construction of a new church began in 1908 on the site of the boys' school.  Designed by the Spanish architect Rafael Guastavino and 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.  Consecration was attended by Cardinal Gibbons in 1912.

St. Thomas the Apostle Church was to be demolished, but was instead purchased in 1911 for $12,000 by Mother Katherine Drexel, Mother Superior of the Blessed Sacrament Sisters, for use by black Catholics in Wilmington.  In 1966, St. Thomas suffered from a devatating fire, and the two parishes merged.

With its twin steeples and domed roof, the Basilica Shrine of St. Mary graces the lovely skyline of downtown Wilmington today.  St. Thomas the Apostle was deconsecrated in 1979 and is now St. Thomas Preservation Hall and Cultural Arts Center.

The Acquisition of the Tileston Complex

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 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.

The Sisters of the Society of St. Ursula

Joining the St. Mary Parish in July 1983, 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.

Faculty outside the newly constructed "Lower School" of St. Mary Catholic
Faculty outside the newly constructed "Lower School" of St. Mary Catholic