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Terry McLaughlin: Catholic school a local treasure

Catholic schools have faced tough times for years, but in the aftermath of the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic the National Catholic Educational Association announced that about 100 schools would not reopen in 2020.

Most of the closures were at the elementary level, but a number of venerable high schools also closed.

One of those was Cristo Rey High School in Newark, NJ, which had been praised for years for its work helping low-income students go to college. Every one of its graduates from the past 10 years was accepted to a college.



How fortunate we are that Grass Valley’s only Catholic school is not on that list of closures!

Steeped in the history of the Sierra Nevada, the oldest continuously operating Catholic school west of the Mississippi, Mount St. Mary’s Academy, celebrated its first day of class on Dece. 5, 1859, when the Rev. Thomas J. Dalton gathered 120 students in the chapel, site of the original St. Patrick Catholic Church. The May 14, 1860, entry in Father Dalton’s account book read: “Miss Johanna Fitzgerald took charge of the school” at the magnificent salary of $30 a month.




At the time, eager settlers were coming to Grass Valley in search of prosperity in the gold-riddled hills. But mines and mining settlements were dangerous places, and as quickly as the town filled with fortune seekers, it also filled with orphans. As the town grew and the parentless children multiplied, Father Dalton sent word back to County Cork in Ireland that he desperately needed sisters to operate an orphanage.

In 1863. Katherine Russell, better known as Mother Mary Baptist Russell, and four other nuns from the Sisters of Mercy arrived in Grass Valley to help the California Gold Rush miners’ orphans.

The Sisters of Mercy registered 66 girls and 43 boys the first day they took over the school in 1863. In 1866 the school, then called “academy,” moved into the brand new, three-story, multi-use structure it shared with the Sacred Heart Convent and Holy Angels Orphanage on the west side of South Church Street between Dalton and Chapel streets. The orphanage was operated by the Sisters of Mercy until 1932, and the convent was active until 1968.

Today, after more than 160 years of continuous operation, the school is housed in a red brick building at the rear of the Chapel Street parking lot and continues to offer outstanding education from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

One thing has remained constant: the exceptional educational experience provided by Mount St. Mary’s Academy for the children of Nevada County.

The students returned to in-person education in August 2020, pivoting frequently to safely comply with the mandates imposed by the state and the Diocese of Sacramento.

As with so many Catholic schools right now, Mount St. Mary’s Academy has experienced a dramatic increase in enrollment. “All children need routine and consistency,” says Principal Edee Wood. “We have had a huge influx of enrollment this year because people recognize that we are committed. They can feel confident in the protocols we have in place.”

Teacher Dina Rubino adds: “We have embraced and welcomed students of every faith. Parents who have never thought about a Catholic school now see what we’re all about and wouldn’t think of leaving.”

One of the Mount St. Mary’s parents says it best: “I can’t sum up all the blessings that come with this special place. … One of the most important benefits is the community and the culture. Our students are so good at welcoming and making each other feel valued and loved. … The mercy they are shown and engage in every day are things that one can’t quantify but make each student better people. … There is a deep connection between students, families and staff, a blurring of lines that allows for more positive encouragement for all. … We are all encouraged to look beyond and outside of ourselves to help others and be our best selves.”

To celebrate more than 160 years of quality education, and to make sure that future generations of Nevada County students are able to have the opportunity to share in this experience, 4-The-Kids Fundraising, a new local non-profit organization, is sponsoring a drive-through charity event on June 11 to benefit Mount St. Mary’s Academy.

The event includes a take-out dinner, beverages, game and prize opportunities, and a look into the history of Mount St. Mary’s Academy. Prizes include special events or gift certificates from local businesses. For more information, visit http://www.4thekidsfundraising.com.

Terry McLaughlin, who lives in Grass Valley, writes a twice monthly column for The Union. Write to her at terrymclaughlin2016@gmail.com.


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