Inspirational History: St. Pauls Academy in Riverside

May 18, 2014 1 comment Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

There are very few stories as important to the social development of Jacksonville than the remarkable history of Catholic education and educators. This year, St. Pauls Catholic School in Riverside celebrates its 90th year of operation, but there is a very deep and inspirational story behind the beautiful architecture and sedate campus of well behaved little children of the academy. Join us after the jump for one of the great battles for equality and civilization in Florida.

"St. Paul's Catholic School is a place where Catholic school history and tradition combine with contemporary knowledge and wisdom to educate students, who will become productive, caring citizens of the world in which they live.

St. Paul’s Parish which includes a Catholic elementary school was established in 1923 by Bishop Michael J. Curley. The original church which housed the school on the second and third floor, was dedicated on September 16, 1923 by Bishop William Barry and one hundred twenty students were welcomed a week later. The first class of eighth graders graduated on June 15, 1924. "

This is the pithy history of the beautiful little school on Park Street as set forth on the schools website under 'history'.  But the brief recitation does very little to emphasize the giant story behind the founding of the school, or the emotional and spiritual journey of the men and women who struggled to bring education to the children of the City of Jacksonville.

The roots of the School rest in the good works of Bishop William Kenny, a priest who came to Jacksonville in the late 1800's and who was present when the Great Fire of 1901 ravaged the downtown and left behind a smoldering pile of blackened ruins.

Often, when calamity strikes, the good deeds and the acts of heroism and kindness of a few unexpected individuals can change the hearts of the public and change the course of history, and so it was that Bishop Kenny faced the Great Fire of 1901 and secured the affections, and esteem of the city of Jacksonville.

Accident and perhaps Providence provided one of the more inspirational symbols of the aftermath of the great fire in the charred ruins of the Church of the Immaculate Conception.  The fire had been so intense, and the destruction so mind-blowing, that the stone exterior of the church collapsed in a pile of blackened rubble, joining the smoking wreckage of the surrounding few hundred blocks of what had been a great and lush resort metropolis.

Somehow, impossibly, one structure remained standing of the old church of Immaculate Conception.  The front facade.  And high atop that facade, untouched by the fire, standing mutely above all the terrible destruction was an eternally compassionate and serene statue of the Virgin Mary.  The statue became a symbol of grace to the afflicted citizens of Jacksonville, and masses of people gathered in front of the old church daily for Mass services conducted by Bishop Kenny.

From across the nation, Catholic churches were sending emergency food and supplies intended for the catholic flock at Jacksonville after the fire, and Bishop Kenny instructed that the food (and whatever comfort was available) be distributed to all who came regardless of their faith (or lack thereof).  As the ships were unloaded and ferried across, the good bishop saw to it that many women and children left homeless by the blaze were fed and clothed.  Within days a small tent city was in existence and the workers of the church (themselves affected by the fire) worked tirelessly to distribute the stream of supplies coming in from other Catholic churches along the eastern seaboard.

From that time forward, Kenny was a beloved and admired man in the community.

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