Peter Andre often recalled one of the saddest moments of his life.
In 1935, he had to tell his dying mother that he had to leave The Old Mission School. Because of Great Depression-era financial problems, the school was going back to girls only. Pete’s mother, a baptized Lutheran from a Danish immigrant family, loved the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart.
Catholic nuns, in an era when women did not have the right to vote, built schools, hospitals and orphanages throughout the American West. The majority of the sisters were from other countries, often speaking English with an accent. They aroused curiosity and suspicion wherever they traveled. Yet, without their presence many of the basic human services that we take for granted would not exist. They soon became integral, often beloved members of the communities they served.
Public education had begun at the Old Mission in San Luis Obispo when the Mexican alcalde (mayor) appointed David Amador as schoolmaster for the pueblo in 1835. The mission buildings continued to house the public school throughout the first decade of the American period beginning in 1848.
The early school was irregularly taught. It was difficult to keep a capable schoolmaster in this isolated community. Many families did not like sending their daughters to a man, invariably a bachelor, for instruction.
Catholic families with sufficient resources would send their daughters to the Sisters of Notre Dame Academy in San Jose or St. Vincent’s College, operated by the Sisters of Charity, in Santa Barbara.
In 1857, this so distressed Don Dolores Herrera, a man with a number of daughters, that he donated a large parcel of land behind the mission for the construction of a convent school.
Building and staffing that school proved impossible during the years of drought that followed. It wasn’t until the dairy boom of the 1870s that $3,000 was raised from parishioners and non-Catholics to build the school. When the bids came in at a much higher amount, Gen. Patrick Murphy, the owner of the Santa Margarita Ranch, made up the difference.
A three-story, wood-framed building was erected on the west side of Palm Street in early 1876. The foundations of the building can still be seen beneath the 1925 portion of the present-day Mission College Preparatory School.
In August 1876, eight sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary arrived in San Luis Obispo from their motherhouse in Gilroy. The community emigrated from Spain in 1870 at the invitation of the Spanish-born Thaddeus Amat, bishop of Monterey-Los Angeles. Mother Raimunda Cremadell, the prioress, quickly founded schools in Gilroy and San Juan Bautista.
Bishop Francisco Mora had a Steinway piano shipped down from San Francisco via Port Harford (Port San Luis) from which it was brought to town by horse cart. A second piano was donated by the parish. Classrooms were fully furnished and instruction began Aug. 16, 1876. There were four teachers and 50 students, 12 of whom were from distant ranches and boarded at the convent.
Mother Raimunda and three of the nuns were from Spain. Sister de Sales Pierce, Sister Joseph Kelleher, (in those days the nuns often took the names of male saints) Sister de Pazzi Phelan and Sister Margaret Stephens were from Ireland.
During the first year, enrollment increased to 80 students. The spring commencement was celebrated with a citywide fiesta that lasted for two days.
The guest of honor was locally born José Antonio Romualdo Pacheco Jr., who had served as governor of California in 1875. Two of his nieces received academic honors. It was the first academic celebration in San Luis Obispo history.
The Immaculate Heart Sisters had become part of our community.
Dan Krieger is seeking stories for future columns from individuals and families who were taught by the Immaculate Heart Sisters. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and past president of the California Mission Studies Association.