Unity’s former Catholic academy could be reborn as a nature reserve
It’s been 50 years since Susan Scherff stood in the grove outside St. Xavier’s Academy, huddled with the rest of the evacuated students as they watched the black smoke billow from the burning convent and chapel attached to the Catholic school of Unity.
“Then it started to rain,” she recalls. “It was mid-March, so it was cold and we had no coats.”
Eventually, the students took refuge in Bellbrook, a large red-brick building nearby that served as a retreat for the Sisters of Mercy, who had run the academy since the 1840s.
Hempfield’s Scherff was a sophomore at St. Xavier at the time, part of a class of just seven students.
“I only stayed there for two years,” Scherff said, but she was among the students who boarded in the large academy building, sharing a third-floor room with another student during the week and returning home. them on weekends.
Although the flames did not reach Scherff’s dormitory, she said, “Everything reeked of smoke and needed to be cleaned up.”
Bellbrook is the only building remaining on the property off Route 30 – across from the Wimmerton housing estate – since the academy and convent were demolished after a fire on March 16, 1972 damaged them.
A blue state historical marker on Route 30 and St. Xavier’s Road informs passers-by that the academy was the oldest institution of the Sisters of Mercy, a religious group of women who came to America from Ireland in 1843 in the purpose of serving the sick and needy. The group, whose members served as nurses and teachers, also founded the Pittsburgh-area institutions that would become UPMC Mercy Hospital and the University of Carlow.
St. Xavier got its start as Mt. St. Vincent’s Young Ladies Academy on the neighboring site of what is now Saint Vincent’s College. It opened in 1845 in a 12-room, two-story brick house provided by the Reverend Michael Gallagher and graduated from its first class of 16 students in August 1846.
The grounds for the academy began with 108 acres of farmland donated by early Catholic settler Henry Kuhn. It has grown over the years with additional properties obtained from the Boyd, Geiger-McCaffrey and Miller-Steele farms.
The first version of the main academy building, a three-story brick structure, housed students in 1847 but was gutted by flames in 1868. A new schoolhouse took its place two years later and was extended over the following decades. In 1928 it was joined by a hall for boys’ boarders in grades 1-8.
After the 1972 fire, St. Xavier’s students ended the school year farther west along Route 30 – at St. Joseph’s Hall, now known as Christ Our Shepherd Center. Retired nuns who had lived in the convent were welcomed into the Sisters of Mercy motherhouse in Pittsburgh or transferred to another convent. Those who were infirm were taken in temporarily by the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill in Greensburg.
Scherff completed high school in the Hempfield area school district.
Even before the fire, Scherff did not expect to graduate from St. Xavier due to declining enrollment. “The school was going through a transition at that time,” she said. “They had planned to close the high school portion for students in grades 9-12.” A hallway served as a dividing line between designated separate areas for secondary and primary students, she said.
The academy’s outdoor gathering space, known as the “grove”, was popular with St. Xavier’s students.
“There were walkways and statues,” Scherff recalls. “The class planted a tree every year. After class, we would go for a walk. It was a beautiful campus.
At least one statue remains. Solitary figure of Mary, it is perhaps the one who figured in the May coronation ceremonies that Scherff remembers. “Everyone dressed up in dresses and voted for the May Queen, who would place the flower crown on Mary,” she said.
Another springtime tradition in St. Xavier was a balloon mass. Scherff said the students would go to the grove to release helium-filled balloons carrying messages.
The multi-section academy building faced Route 30 at the end of a driveway and featured a large wraparound porch, Scherff said.
“I’m sorry there aren’t any more,” said Rosanne Henigin of Blairsville. She attended St. Xavier throughout her high school years, boarding on the dorm floor and graduating in 1971 in a class of 19.
“Some of the things in there were beautiful,” said Henigin, of selected students who attended St. Xavier on a scholarship, based on a qualifying exam. “They had a large library and music rooms with grand pianos.”
“What I learned there was really top-notch,” said Henigin, whose favorite classes included French. “I tested at least a year of French at university.”
In addition to the grove, the grounds included an isolated grotto with another image of Mary. Some classmates went there to surreptitiously smoke cigarettes, but Henigin said, “I was afraid to try.”
Much of St. Xavier’s property is posted to keep out trespassers, and its fields have been farmed for some years by the local Firestone family who sell seasonal produce along Highway 30 just to the east from St. Xavier’s Road.
But, if all goes as planned, the public will eventually be invited to experience the terrain once trodden by students and nuns.
The Westmoreland Land Trust has reached an agreement to acquire approximately 250 acres of property from the Sisters of Mercy, aided by a $1.1 million grant from the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
“Our plan is to keep it as a sanctuary and preserve it with public access for nature’s enjoyment,” said Betsy Aiken, executive director of the Land Trust. “We are working through all due diligence required to complete the acquisition.
“We plan to build trails, walkways and interpretive material in the old campus. There are farm roads in other parts of the property which will be retained as walking paths.
Aiken said the Land Trust hopes to plant vegetation to reinforce protective borders along a 6,000ft section of Monastery Run that crosses the property.
A new use for Bellbrook has yet to be determined. But, Aiken said, “our hope is to continue farming the farm area along Highway 30.”
The Sisters of Mercy will retain ownership of the adjacent cemetery, where many of their members rest. They include six of the original seven women from Carlow, Ireland, who founded the order in America in the mid-19th century, and some who served as nurses during the Civil War.
“We’re still like family, like brotherhood,” said Scherff, who helps administer a Facebook group for St. Xavier alumni. Former St. Xavier students gather regularly for reunions. The next one is scheduled for April 30 at Ferrante’s Lakeview Restaurant and Banquet Hall in Hempfield.
“It doesn’t matter what year you were there. You have that kinship,” Scherff said.