Ursuline Academy Wilmington’s History

First convent and school on Delaware Ave & Harrison Street in 1893

Ursuline Academy Wilmington was founded in 1893 at the request of Bishop Curtis to relocate the Ursuline Sisters of Bedford Park in New York City to Delaware and occupy a convent and boarding school at the corner of Delaware Avenue and Harrison Street. With their faith in God’s plan, they courageously moved to Wilmington and set to open a school dedicated to the ideals and values of their trailblazing foundress St. Angela Merici. With direction and support from the Bishop, the sisters successfully opened a kindergarten in 1895, the same year they celebrated their first graduating class, and added a boys department the following year. In 1909, Bishop Monaghan appointed Mother Olympias Gleeson to the role of school leader. She was mentored by Mother Seraphine from New Rochelle to help with the transition. While in Wilmington, Mother Seraphine established a music conservatory, teaching choir and instrumental music and creating events for musical performance. Under Mother Gleeson’s guidance, the school began to grow in both size and reputation.

As a result of Mother Gleeson’s success, community support for the school took hold, created more opportunity for expansion. In 1911, the Alumnae Association of Ursuline Academy was formed to support the school, and Mary Rossell, class of 1895, was named its first president.

In 1919, John J. Raskob purchased the Grant Estate, facing Delaware Avenue, and gifted it to the Ursuline Sisters, as he recognized the need for larger facilities to accommodate the growing institution. At first, the mansion was used for the Upper School, but within four years, work on an addition of the Kennett Lodge began, creating a facility that housed both the convent and boarding school. The sisters and their students moved into the new quarters in 1924.

In 1926, the school purchased the Downward Estate, an adjacent property bordering Franklin Street. With the new space and support from the parent and alumnae associations, the community began a capital campaign to fund the construction of an entirely new building to be used as a school. The campaign’s lead gift was $75,000 from the Raskob Family to build the Anna Raskob Auditorium in honor of their mother. Construction on the new facility began in 1926 and was completed in September 1927, just in time to welcome 300 Ursuline students and 24 sisters for a new school year.

Experiencing financial challenges with the rest of the country in the 1930s, Ursuline sought new streams of revenue to offset the national crisis. The sisters opened their facility to the community, hosting weekend religious retreats for women and young girls attending public schools. This decade also marked historic milestones for Ursuline’s founding order, celebrating both the 400th anniversary of its formation in 1935 and the 300th anniversary of its arrival in North America in 1939.

Emerging from the Great Depression, the next few decades brought new growth and continued expansion to the school, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in Wilmington in 1943. During this time, the Lower School and Upper School grades were separated into their own divisions to better facilitate student learning, and in 1955, under the leadership of Mother Maguire, the Lower School building (then called the junior school) was constructed to meet the demands of a student body that had grown to more than 500 children. Less than a decade later, Montessori of Delaware transferred its location to Ursuline in 1964 and fully integrated as an early childhood program within the school.

As a result of their successful founding and nurturing of this well-respected institution, the Ursuline Sisters received praise and accolades for their work. In 1948, Mother Agatha became the first Delawarean to receive a commendation from the National Conference of Christians & Jewish for her community outreach efforts in building relationships between people of different religious backgrounds. Sister Aloysius Peach was named Delaware’s eighth Poet Laureate from 1963-64, with her poem “Field of Honor,” receiving national recognition and special acclaim from First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. In 1963, Sister Alfred Ashby was presented with keys to the City of Wilmington for her contributions to community service projects. In the late 1960s, Sister Frances deSales Mitchell received the Science Teacher of the Year from the Delaware Association of Biology Teachers, becoming the first woman to receive this top science award.

In 1975, Ursuline Academy formed its first Board of Trustees to assume responsibility for the school’s operations. Sister Magdalen O’Hara was elected as the first board president, and Taylor W. Hanavan was named board chair. At that time, the Convent and Academy became separate corporations, and for the first time in its history, lay principals were appointed to head the schools. A further reorganization occurred in 1988 when the Board of Trustees created the position of President of the Academy to oversee daily school operations. Angela M. Boyle ’53 was the first to hold this position. This rejoined the divisions of Ursuline Academy under one administration, as it had been in the beginning.

At the same time, it became clear capital improvements were needed to address aging facilities in the face of growing enrollment, and a development office was formed to support these efforts. Sister Catharine Morse became Ursuline’s first director of development. Under her leadership, funds were raised, and renovations began in the 1970s, including alterations and additions to the Early Childhood space in 1976 and the construction of the Laffey McHugh Gymnasium and locker rooms in 1980. The completion of the gym made space for further renovations, including the completion of the Upper School’s library, guidance and college counseling offices, and the principal’s office.

Continuing the momentum of the previous decade, the 1990s brought additional growth to the school. In 1991, Martha Corona Fetters ’73 was the first woman and first alumna named as chair of the Board of Trustees. At the same time, a separate Middle School division was created to serve the needs of 7th and 8th graders, and in the fall of 1992, students and faculty moved into their new classroom space, which was added to the Upper School building. In 1993, Ursuline Academy Wilmington celebrated its centennial anniversary.

At the end of the decade, Ursuline made Delaware history by becoming the first school in the state to institute a 1:1 laptop program for its students. This innovative program would eventually become a technology model for other schools throughout the region looking to embrace computer technology for daily learning.

Ursuline’s physical campus underwent significant change in the early 2000s. In 2001, Ursuline acquired land to build its first athletic complex, named in honor of Alice B. Ripsom, a dedicated parent and trustee, and Lou Olivere, an Ursuline Hall of Fame Inductee and one of the most accomplished track & field coaches in Delaware’s history. In 2002, the Board of Trustees and administration expanded the campus footprint through the acquisition of a former church located behind the Lower School, becoming the Ursuline Performing Arts Center. Around the same time, the Middle School was expanded to include the 6th grade, which joined the existing the 7th and 8th grade, becoming Delaware’s first all-girls middle school.

As the number of Ursuline Sisters living in the Wilmington convent continued to decrease in the early 2010s, the final five sisters living on campus graciously moved off-site, so the convent could be used for educational space to support the growing Academy. This decision paved the way for the school’s next chapter. A Mass of Celebration was held in honor of the Ursuline sisters in January 2014 to thank them for their commitment to our school and celebrate their historic legacy.

During this time, fundraising efforts were underway to support the creation of a state-of-the-art, expansive campus for the benefit of the students and the community. In 2017, construction began to renovate the former Ursuline convent into a new, multi-functional space with classrooms, art studios, a chapel, library, cafeteria, atrium, Innovation Center, administrative offices, and more. The Anthony N. Fusco Sr. Student Life Center was officially opened in January 2019 and has become the centerpiece of Ursuline’s campus. In that same year, the newly renovated Early Childhood classrooms were also unveiled.

Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, Ursuline moved to a remote learning format in March 2020, along with the rest of the United States. Reopening in late August 2020, Ursuline Wilmington became the first Delaware school to reopen for in-person learning, serving as a model for other local schools.

Since 1893, Ursuline Academy has served as an academic cornerstone in Wilmington, teaching, inspiring, and developing our students to become leaders both in and out of the classroom. Ursuline Academy’s distinguished alumnae now number more than 4,000 women. The strength of the Ursuline community, both past and present, and the influence of our academic excellence not only ensure the growth of our legacy for decades to come but also create a comprehensive and collaborative learning environment for our students to thrive today.