The Holy Names Sisters added wings and a garden to St. Mary’s Academy in Jacksonville by 1894. 

The Holy Names Sisters added wings and a garden to St. Mary’s Academy in Jacksonville by 1894. 

MEDFORD — In fall 1858, Archbishop Francis Blanchet of Oregon City visited Jacksonville, then a mining town on Oregon’s southern frontier. By the next month, construction began on St. Joseph Church. From that church, which still stands, 16 missions were founded —plus one school.  

Medford’s St. Mary’s School and Sacred Heart School trace their history to that era.

In the early 1860s, Archbishop Blanchet sent his nephew to Jacksonville. Father F.X. Blanchet, who also became a Jacksonville fireman, wrote to his uncle and explained the urgent need for a Catholic school in Southern Oregon.

For a year, class was held upstairs in Father Blanchet’s rectory, a small corner house that still stands. Meanwhile, the resourceful priest raised $2,139 from a variety of sources in southern Oregon and northern California, using some of the funds to buy property and a piano.

The archbishop asked the Holy Names Sisters, who had begun St. Mary’s Academy in Portland in 1859, to venture south. The women agreed. Father Blanchet traveled to Portland and accompanied three Sisters on the 360-mile journey.

St. Mary’s Academy of Jacksonville opened on Sept. 11, 1865 with 12 boarding students and 33 day students.

Within three years the school had outgrown its original quarters and the Sisters bought the James Drum home on California Street. They would later enlarge the building and landscape the gardens.

Many non-Catholics sent their children to the school because Jacksonville was still rough and a refining influence was needed. The Sisters taught music and art and had strict academic standards, making St. Mary’s Academy a cultural center of Southern Oregon.

In 1868, when the school was still fledgling, smallpox broke out in the town. A house for the dying was set up at Kanaka Flat in an effort to halt spread of the deadly disease. The Holy Names Sisters and Father Blanchet staffed the hospice, bathing, feeding, comforting and praying with patients. There was a lot of soothing to do, as mothers who brought their sick children to die could not even kiss them farewell for fear of sickening family back at home.

For decades afterwards, any of the Holy Names Sisters would be stopped on the street and thanked. Of the Sisters, the Jacksonville newspaper, the Table Rock Sentinel wrote:

“Scoff as we may — doubt as we may, we must view with admiration the power and truth of a religion that bestows on the weakest and gentlest of humanity a courage so unfaltering, a faith so powerful and so everlasting. Let prejudice be silent now; and as those gentle messengers of mercy have done to ours, let us do unto them.”

The old St. Mary’s Academy in Jacksonville is gone. Terri Gieg, a Jacksonville Catholic historian and a member of St. Joseph Parish, has not been able to trace when it was razed. But she knows it was about five blocks from St. Joseph Church in what is now Beekman Square, off California Street near Fifth.

In 1908, St. Mary’s Academy was moved from Jacksonville to Medford, which had then become the hub of the Rogue Valley.

A new three-story frame building was erected at 13th and Holly Streets and was dedicated by Archbishop Alexander Christie. Enrollment at this time was 126 students with a faculty of six Sisters. By 1920, student population had grown to 150.

Enrollment spiked in the Baby Boom era and in 1952 Sacred Heart Parish, which had bought the school, built the current building on the same site. Growth continued and by 1962 the high schoolers were sent to a new site in east Medford on Black Oak Drive. The grade school took the name Sacred Heart and the high school would retain the St. Mary’s name.

In 1965, 100 years after the school was founded, there were eight sisters teaching at St. Mary’s as well as two priests and five laypeople. Ten years later the balance had shifted to eight laypeople, one priest, and two sisters.

In 1971, the decided it could no longer afford to support two schools and voted to close the high school. A “Save St. Mary’s Committee” was formed, community support was sought, and the school stayed open as Oregon’s first independent Catholic school.

Sacred Heart School’s first lay principal was hired in 1984 when only one Holy Names Sister remained.  

Katie Jantzer graduated from Sacred Heart in 1985. Her mother is a graduate, and five of her children have attended Sacred Heart and St. Mary’s.

“Our favorite part of it is that kids get to go and participate in their faith,” Jantzer told the Catholic Sentinel in 2010. “They get to live the whole liturgical year with their friends. They get to pray together. It builds a really nice community.”

In the 21st century, St. Mary’s sees itself as imparting the faith to Catholic young people, Patrick Naumes explained in the Sentinel in 2005. He was a longtime history and religion teacher.

“St. Mary’s continues to work hard at developing a strong and relevant religion curriculum for all seven grades it teaches,” Naumes wrote. “It also sees itself as the Church’s gift to the community, providing a safe haven within which people of all faiths and backgrounds can educate their children.”