St. Mary’s School has survived the Civil War, two world wars, countless economic cycles and social changes while continuing its mission to educate young women to make a difference in the world.
On Saturday, St. Mary’s kicked off its 175th school year as the oldest continuously operating school in Raleigh and one of the oldest girls’ boarding schools in the United States. St. Mary’s legacy of sisterhood is something that the current high school students at the independent Episcopal college-preparatory school embrace.
“It’s incredible to be on a campus that has been here for 175 years and to consider how many lives it has touched and changed more, or just as much, as it has changed mine,” said Reagan Massey, 16, a junior from Wake Forest.
St. Mary’s opened on May 12, 1842, with 13 girls. Some of the buildings on the campus, on Hillsborough Street near downtown Raleigh, used stone discarded from the construction of the state Capitol.
The school opened when there were fewer education options for girls and 78 years before women received the right to vote.
The school was known as St. Mary’s College for many years, offering 11th and 12th grades and the first two years of college. But the school switched to being only a high school in 1998.
St. Mary’s has had to adapt to the changes going on around the Raleigh campus. Monica Gillespie, the head of school at St. Mary’s, said the school has always provided an education relevant for its time.
“We’ve endured times of social upheaval and we have been able to meet the needs of girls so that they can serve the world, and that’s something we’ve been very proud of,” said Gillespie, who is leaving at the end of this school year.
Some of the graduates who’ve made their mark include Betty Ray McCain, a former state secretary of cultural resources and the first woman to lead the North Carolina Democratic Party; and Bevin Prince, an actress best known for her role on the television show “One Tree Hill.”
St. Mary’s has developed a loyal following among its alumnae. Of the school’s 270 students, 69 are members of the Granddaughter’s Club, which is open to students who are direct descendants of alumnae.
“I’m thankful that my parents sent me here to school,” said Kim Norfleet Collie, a 1988 graduate who is now president of St. Mary’s School Parents Association. “St. Mary’s still to this day is doing that great thing in growing girls in confidence, the belief that if girls are confident they can do anything.
“I’m very grateful to St. Mary’s for the ways my girls are growing to become young women.”
St. Mary’s is not cheap, although financial aid is available. This year’s tuition and fees are $26,175 for day students. It’s $52,185 for boarding students who make up the majority of the enrollment.
St. Mary’s stands out as being the only all-girls private school in Wake County. The Wake school system has only one all-girls school.
Students and faculty at St. Mary’s say single-gender schools are still as relevant now as they were when the school opened.
“Although we are not in 1842 anymore, there’s still a need for a woman’s voice and that an educated one, as our founder Aldert Smedes said, is something very powerful,” said Jane Brown, 17, a senior from Raleigh and student body president. “I feel like we have an opportunity through our institution to make a difference and that’s something that is special to all-girls schools.”