Saint Mary’s campus community celebrated Founders’ Day in Chapel, Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2019, 11 a.m. Each year, Founders’ Day honors Saint Mary’s founder the Rev. Aldert Smedes; the Rev. Bennett Smedes, who succeeded his father as the second rector/head of school; and all those who have gone before us at Saint Mary’s.
Members of the Granddaughters Club shared stories in Founders’ Day Chapel about some of the significant women and men memorialized by stained glass windows, the altar rail, and other memorial objects in the Chapel.
The Rev. Theodore DuBose Bratton, third rector/head of school, instituted Founders’ Day as part of the All Saints’ observance on November 1, 1902, and it is celebrated annually during the week of All Saints’ Day. This year’s Founders’ Day is the school’s 118th observation of this important celebration of our rich 178-year history.
Founded by the Rev. Aldert Smedes, Saint Mary’s School opened its doors on May 12, 1842, and has remained open ever since on the same site in Raleigh. History tells us that 13 girls, “The Original 13,” arrived on May 12, 1842, for the first day at Saint Mary's, as Aldert Smedes stood in the Grove to welcome them. A total of 21 students enrolled for the first session.
With the support of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina and landowner Duncan Cameron, Smedes founded Saint Mary’s as a school for young ladies “designed to furnish a thorough and excellent education equal to the best that can be obtained in the city of New York, or in any Northern school.”
The school was founded on the site of the Episcopal School of North Carolina, a short-lived school for boys in the 1830s. Three of the present school buildings―East Rock, West Rock, and Smedes Hall (then called Main Building) ― formed the original campus. The first two buildings, East Rock, built in 1834, and West Rock, built in 1835, were constructed with stones leftover from the construction of the North Carolina state capitol building. The center section of the main building (Smedes Hall) was built in 1836 at a cost of $15,000, which bankrupted the boys’ school. As Saint Mary’s thrived, the school added the east and west wings to the building in 1909 and named it Smedes Hall in memory of Aldert Smedes.
The first Chapel service was held on opening day in the large parlor in Smedes Hall. Chapel services were then held for 15 years on the first floor of East Rock, where there were pews that could seat 150, an organ and an altar. The Saint Mary’s Chapel was built in 1856 using a design created by renowned church architect Richard Upjohn, who designed Trinity Church Wall Street in New York City and Christ Church in Raleigh, among many others. Saint Mary’s Chapel was originally brown, called by the girls, “the little brown chapel we love.”
Smedes kept the school operating throughout the Civil War, which was a great feat considering that most schools, including the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, closed for a time during the war. In 1865, General Tecumseh Sherman’s Union troops camped in the Grove on front campus, and Sherman visited Smedes in the parlor of the main building. Sherman wanted to take the main building at Saint Mary’s for use as a hospital, but Smedes was able to convince him not to do so, allowing him to keep the school open. Instead, the Union Army took the main building at Peace Institute (now William Peace University) for its Raleigh hospital facility.
Today, Saint Mary's School is an independent, Episcopal, college-preparatory, boarding and day school dedicated to academic excellence and personal achievement for girls in grades 9-12. Saint Mary's School remains true to Aldert Smedes' time-honored mission of providing an excellent education for young women.
Saint Mary’s is the fifth oldest girls’ boarding school in the nation and the oldest existing school in Raleigh. The historic core of the school's 23-acre campus is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a stop on the North Carolina Civil War Trails. The Saint Mary’s Chapel is a National Historic Site, and five of the school’s 25 buildings are Raleigh Historic Properties (Smedes Hall, the Chapel, East Rock, West Rock, and Eliza Battle Pittman Auditorium).
For a more detailed history of Saint Mary’s School, pick up a copy of “The Heritage,” written by Saint Mary’s historian and former professor, the late Martha Sprouse Stoops. Copies of the book are available in Shop1842.