The Journal of San Diego History
Summer 1982, Volume 28, Number 3

by Sister Mary Jean Fields, C.S.J.
Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet

Images from the article

IN THE spring of 1870, seven Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet stepped upon the soil of San Diego. They were the first Sisters ever to venture to what was then a distant part of the Pacific coast. But they were not to stay. They were busy arranging for a covered wagon and a driver for their final trek to Tucson where they were to open a school at St. Augustine’s Cathedral. Their courage, however, must have impressed the zealous “padre” of Old Town, Father Antonio Ubach, for time and again he requested that Sisters of St. Joseph be sent to the little community in the far corner of California. He even made the long trip himself to Carondelet, Missouri, to plead with Reverent Mother Agatha Guthrie, who felt that San Diego was too far away. An unpublished, typewritten manuscript in the archives of the Academy tells the story:

In his disappointment, he told of his thirty days of Masses and of his confidence in St. Joseph, who had never before failed him. The Superior General was much affected by the priest’s faith in the power of St. Joseph and answered, “This request must have come directly from our Holy Patron, and the Sisters of St. Joseph will open your school in far away San Diego.”

By this time, Alonzo Horton had bought up acreage farther south along San Diego’s bay, a short distance from Old Town, and “new” San Diego was flourishing. Father Ubach, too, had left the tiny Immaculate Conception Church in Old Town, and in 1875, had built St. Joseph’s Church on Third Avenue and Beech Street in New Town. The manuscript continues:

On April 18, 1882, (he first community, consisting of Sisters Ambrosia O’Neill, Eutichiana Piccini, Amelia Leon, and Coletta Dumbach arrived at San Diego. On May 10, they began their day school in a small frame house on a terrace overlooking the bay, registering on that day twenty-eight girls and two boys. On June 13, the first Mass was said in the tiny chapel of the convent, which was dedicated to Our Lady of Peace.

Numerous incidents in the lives of those four Sisters who formed the first community of Sisters of St. Joseph in San Diego reveal the courage it must have taken to blaze new trails in the early days. Sister Ambrosia O’Neill had been appointed superior. She was destined, four years afterward, to become superior at the Indian Mission in Yuma, Arizona, where she was known throughout the scattered Yuma tribes as “El Capitan.” It was against her that hostile Indians planned an attack. Warned by a faithful neophyte, she escaped from the convent. When the attacking Indians rushed into the building they found instead of their victim a well-armed band of Yumas. The marauders were defeated and their leader sentenced to a prison term by the United States Government.

Sister Amelia Leon had been one of the first postulants to enter Mt. St. Joseph’s Novitiate in Tucson, where descendants of her family still rank among the city’s leading citizens.

Sister Coletta Dumbach had come from St. Louis, as had Sister Eutichiana Piccini, although the latter had come west six years before the opening of the school in San Diego. In 1876, together with two companions, she formed the first group to join the original seven pioneers in Tucson. The labor in such distant outposts was strenuous enough, but in those days, the difficulties of travel made getting to the mission fields an arduous struggle in itself. These three had traveled by train from St. Louis to San Francisco. From there, they had sailed by steamer around the Cape of San Lucas, up the Gulf of Baja California, to the mouth of the Colorado River, where they boarded a small river boat which took them as far as Yuma. The journey to Tucson was completed by covered wagon.

These four Sisters, according to carefully preserved records, with $50.00 received from Father Ubach, opened the little school on Second Avenue and G Street. The records also disclose that they paid, at first, $15.00 a month rent for the house and $6.00 a month for a piano. Later the house rental was raised to $20.00. In August of that year, they collected $65.00 from the people for furnishings, and in December, someone gave them a gift of $5.00!

By 1884, the two houses which the Sisters had been renting proved inadequate and both their records and the typewritten manuscript give a picture of the next step. The records for 1884 show that they received from Reverend Mother $650.00 (two years later the Mother House sent $200.00 for the grading of A Street), $700.00 from a Father Fisher, and $488.25 collected from miners! They also list $2598.42 paid out in cash for the moving of two buildings which were to serve as school and convent on the newly purchased land at Third Avenue and A Street. The manuscript reads:

Accordingly, a block of ground was purchased in a part of the city known as Horton’s Addition, which was then a beautiful park in which grew the choicest plants and flowers. The house on this property was used temporarily for the school. Two years later, four lots were sold [the strip along B Street] to obtain means to build the Academy that for so many years housed the school at Third and A.

Present day San Diegans will recognize this as the site of the tall downtown Medical-Dental Building. Mother Valeria Bradshaw had replaced Mother Ambrosia O’Neill when the latter was transferred to Yuma in 1885, and she remained the superior in San Diego until 1895. During this time, the Academy Hall, facing Third Avenue near B Street was built. Also on the grounds St. Joseph’s Boys’ School, affectionately dubbed “The College,” was erected facing Second Avenue close to B Street.

While Our Lady of Peace Academy was growing in these early years, another project, dearest of all to the heart of Father Ubach, was begun by the Sisters of St. Joseph. An Indian school near the Immaculate Conception Church in Old Town was opened by Sister Hyacinth Blanc and Sister Teresa Ortiz. The Indian School was named St. Anthony’s in honor of Father Ubach’s own patron saint.

Some records have been lost through the years, and only a few scattered memories can be drawn together to restore the picture of the busy school in Old Town. One former pupil, a Mrs. Julia Stewart, recalled that the children sang a great deal. She told how they would hike to Ocean Beach for picnics, and how the baker, each morning, would leave the bread stacked on the doorstep of the school. Pupils and teachers at the Academy in New Town at that time recalled a priest, whose name they could not remember, who would stick his head into Academy classrooms once a week and call out, “A bag of beans for Old Town!” No one remembered the implication of the request, whether he was begging food for the Indians, or whether he was simply picking up a purchase to be delivered to the Sisters. But everyone claimed that the expression came to be an inseparable part of their memories of St. Anthony’s.

Later, when quarters became cramped in Old Town, Father Ubach decided to move St. Anthony’s out to the old Mission San Diego de Alcalá in Mission Valley, which had been abandoned for years. He built two large frame buildings, one for boys and one for girls, while the Sisters occupied what part of the shambled adobe buildings they could. Mass was celebrated there November 1, 1891, for the first time since the withdrawal of the Franciscan padres earlier in the century. Here again, memories of the Sisters who taught at the Academy help give an insight into life at the Mission. The Sisters recalled going there for picnics, outings which required long preparation because of the great “distance” of the Mission from San Diego. Also, at certain times of the year, the river was so high that the Mission could be reached only by boat! So on picnic days the Indians would meet the Sisters and girls from the Academy on the San Diego shore to row them across. It was considered a memorable treat when an Indian boy could be persuaded to row them up and down the river a bit before landing them on the banks by the Mission. At times, the trip could even be dangerous. Once Sister David, returning to San Diego from a trip to Los Angeles, stopped at the Academy for a brief visit and then expressed her desire to go immediately to the valley. The river was at an in-between stage, not high enough for boating, but considerably deep in places. Mother St. Claire asked for volunteers to accompany Sister David. The livery stable rather reluctantly sent a surrey and driver. When they came to the river, he instructed the Sisters to sit on the top seat with their feet under them, and not, on any condition, to cry out if they were afraid, because if they did, the horses would stop and refuse to go on. The Sisters huddled themselves up as commanded and pressed their lips to keep from screaming as the water filled the surrey right up to the level where they were perched.

In 1907, Father Ubach died. From the time he had come to San Diego in 1886, he had worked for his beloved Indians, traveling from village to village caring for his “favorite children.” Many times the Sisters at the Academy had been without Mass during the week because Father Ubach would be out in the mission field, and his one or two assistants would be caring for some other of the scattered fold. It is told that when Father Quinlan opened Our Lady of Angels parish, the second in San Diego, he asked Father Ubach what his parish boundaries were to be. The padre answered unhesitatingly, “Sixteenth Street and the Colorado River.”

Father Ubach’s funeral was said to have been the largest ever held in San Diego. It was more than the romantic linking of his name to the Father Gasparra of Helen Hunt Jackson’s famous novel, Ramona; more than the handful of sugar candies with which he rewarded the good deeds of little ones. It was the caring faith that was within him—in spite of his gruff exterior—that Protestant as well as Catholic, Spaniard, American, Mexican, Indian, all recognized. The San Diego Union carried stories and pictures at the time of his death. But one amusing incident appears to have escaped the reporter’s eye. Bishop Canaty had said the funeral Mass at St. Joseph’s Church. Either he had lingered at his thanksgiving, or had taken particularly long to unvest, but when he came at last to the steps of the church, not one conveyance was left. All had gone to the cemetery—all but two Sisters. One had been instructed to toll the bell at the nearby academy until the last carriage was gone from sight. The other Sister had been posted at the window so she could signal to the bell ringer when to stop. Fortunately, the vigil-keeper saw the frustrated Bishop and called to her companion to open the door immediately while she put some coffee on the stove. The two Sisters, Sister Generosa, who was later to return as superior and Sister Lilia spent the remainder of the morning placating the stranded Bishop Conaty.

Father Ubach’s will, still preserved at the Academy of Our Lady of Peace, was a lengthy document drawn up by Judge Mannix. Among numerous bequests is $500.00 to Mother St. Claire with the provision that for ten years she would give $1.00 a month for Masses to be said for the repose of his parents’ souls.

At the time of Father Ubach’s death in late March of 1907, plans were being made to celebrate the silver jubilee of Our Lady of Peace. However, out of reverence for their pastor’s death, the celebration was postponed until 1908. Father Ubach’s passing affected far more, however, than mere celebrations. Almost immediately, the Indians felt the loss of their beloved teacher, and many of those who lived close to San Diego sadly gathered their families about them and moved quietly into the back country. By 1908 there were so few children left at the old Mission that they were taken to St. Boniface Indian School, which had been established by the Sisters of St. Joseph at Banning in 1890. Mission San Diego, once more, was left to the elements in the lonely valley.

By this time the Sisters were also faced with the challenge of teaching catechism to children in the little mission churches that began to spring up in the outskirts surrounding San Diego. A number of these churches, later erected into parishes, were built by Father Mesny, an historic and revered figure in the annals of San Diego. The Sisters of St. Joseph generously accepted the obligation to instruct the children of these outlying districts as well as those within the boundaries of the city who did not attend the Academy. After a full day of teaching school in San Diego proper, transportation would have to be provided for the Sisters to go to St. Joseph’s; St. Vincent’s; Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, East San Diego; St. John’s; and across the bay to Sacred Heart, Coronado. They had to take a train to go to Mary, Star of the Sea, in La Jolla.

The Sisters had taught longest at the parish on Golden Hill, Our Lady of Angels, and it was there, in 1912, that they opened their second school in San Diego. Two Sisters started classes with eleven girls and twelve boys. Sister Perpetua Malloy and Sister Serena McCarthy were the first faculty.

In 1921, St. John’s School was opened by Sister Isabel Walsh, who died in San Diego in 1953, and by Sister M. Florina. In 1925, St. Joseph’s Grammar School was begun under the direction of Sister M. Estelle Hanley. June of that same year marked the last graduation from the Academy of Our Lady of Peace on Third and A.

When Mother St. Catherine returned as superior in 1923, after her term as provincial superior had been completed, she noticed how San Diego had grown out over the hills and canyons and how the “downtown” section was up to the doors of the Academy. It was time, she felt, for another move. After a year or so of thoughtful investigation, Mother St. Catherine purchased two blocks at the end of Sunset overlooking Old Town in St. Vincent’s Parish. Shortly after this purchase the city planned to put a street through the property. Since only half a block farther was a canyon, the Sisters could not see the good to either the city or to them of such a street, hence the opposition was taken to court. No sooner had the case been won and the plans for building actually begun, when a very quiet little priest rang the doorbell one early afternoon. He asked to see Mother Catherine. “Tell her,” he said, “it is important. I won’t keep her a minute if she is not interested.” Mother sent word that she was busy, but the priest repeated, “It is just so important that I see her.” Persuaded, Mother Catherine came downstairs and received Father Sullivan in the fine old parlor. He had heard of a piece of property overlooking Mission Valley that had fallen into the hands of a trust company. Mother consented to accompany him to look at it simply because, as she said, “I can’t refuse him.”

The property was known as the Vandruff Estate, and an article in The San Diego Union describes it:

. . . at Copley and Oregon Streets, comprising about 20 acres of land, adorned by three large buildings . . . and featured by spacious gardens, luxuriant shrubbery, a swimming pool, and a casino.

The buildings were begun in 1916. Two were planned as residences, the third was to be used as a scientific laboratory. With the outbreak of the war, work was discontinued, and the interior of the structure was unfinished.

Mother St. Catherine returned with a new determination gleaming in her eyes. Reverend Mother Agnes Rossiter, Superior General, was holding visitation in the West, and was, at the time, in Los Angeles. The next morning, Mother St. Catherine boarded the train for Los Angeles and returned that evening with Reverend Mother. Proceedings began the very next day. Word of the desired purchase spread quickly and struck the flint of a fiery opposition on the part of a gentleman in San Diego. Long distance calls up and down the coast kept the wires buzzing. The struggle reached its climax the night of January 25, 1924, and the Sisters spent that night in vigil. Their prayers were answered, and the following morning The San Diego Union carried the triumphant news, “Catholic Sisters Acquire Vandruff Property As Site For New Academy.”

Classes began at the new Academy of Our Lady of Peace, called Villa Montemar, in September, 1925. The property at Third and A was sold and the buildings themselves sold to Whiting Mead to be wrecked. An agreement had been reached that anything attached to the building was to go to the wreckers. A bell rested on the rafters high up in the already condemned belfry. It was not attached to the building because in Mother Generosa’s time the cupola had become so unstable that the winds blowing in from the sea had often tolled the bell. But the bell had been forgotten in the excitement of moving, and by the time it was remembered, it had been claimed by Whiting Mead. The great old bell, bearing the inscription “San Juan, 1790” is believed to be one of seven bells brought to San Diego from Mexico in 1834 at the time of the secularization of the missions. It has now disappeared with the years.

In the meantime, the city of San Diego continued to expand, and soon a Commercial School was opened at St. Joseph’s. In 1936, San Diego was, for the second time, marked with the distinction of being made a diocese. Many year before, Bishop Amat had found little to encourage him in the unkempt village, and in two months had moved his episcopal throne to Santa Barbara. His Excellency, Bishop Charles F. Buddy came to San Diego, courageous and willing to meet the challenge of the distant diocese with its far-flung boundaries and scattered cities. He was welcomed by the priests, Sisters and lay-people who loyally placed themselves under his guidance.

In 1937, a ninth grade was added to St. Joseph’s Grammar School, and in 1939 Cathedral Girls’ High School was established, the first graduating class receiving their diplomas in 1943. For nine years, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange taught with the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, but in 1948 the former withdrew and the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet moved into the convent on Fourth and Cedar and completely staffed Cathedral Girls’ High School under the direction of Sister M. Adrienne. Eventually the Commercial School became incorporated with the high school.

The Sisters opened St. Patrick’s School in 1944, with Sister Margaret Clare in charge; St. Brigid’s, Pacific Beach, in 1948, under the direction of Sister Mary Helen. Regina Coeli Academy, a high school located in Our Lady of Angels parish, opened in 1947, with Sister M. Carmelita as principal. St. James School, Del Mar, under the direction of Sister St. Anne was established in 1952. A parochial school in Banning, Precious Blood, was erected in 1953 with Sister Agnes Francis in charge. Our Lady of Perpetual Help School opened in Lakeside in 1961; and, lastly, the Sisters staffed All Hallows School in La Jolla from 1964 to 1977.

When in 1907, a lady of the parish visited the failing Father Ubach to ask about plans for the silver jubilee of the Academy, he had answered, “You have my full approval. Do all and everything to manifest the appreciation of the work of the good Sisters. They have been in my parish for so many years, and I have always found them the same humble, obedient, and unselfish women—such as we know them today.” Half a century later, a Sister begged for reminiscences of early San Diego from a valiant woman who had spent much of her young professed life as well as many more of her mature years as superior at Our Lady of Peace Academy. Suddenly, Sister Generosa straightened up and in her firm way answered, “Yes, I can sum up for you all the years in San Diego. It was a lot of work, but we always did it together.”

One hundred years! It is misleading to measure this span of time in years, for it has worked changes that tend to dim our appreciation of the past. Eighteen-eighty-two! San Diego was not the beautiful city we know today. Dirt roads ambled about uneven hills, and deep canyons gorged between streets. Travel was, at best, uncomfortable, and the Sisters of St. Joseph had traveled far.

No neatly furnished convent or well-equipped school awaited them. Theirs was actual poverty and hard physical labor. But San Diego grew, and with it grew the Sisters of St. Joseph. A spacious day and boarding school emerged from an old frame building. The select school for young ladies gave culture and finish to its graduates in the early years of this twentieth century.

With World War II, San Diego’s strategic harbor drew thousands, and industry and commerce insured further growth. Broad streets joined hill and canyon, and homes dotted the slopes far behind the bay. The Sisters of St. Joseph kept pace with the expanding city and opened parochial schools. The Academy, too, meeting the demands of today’s youth, now crowns one of the lovely hills overlooking Mission Valley where once the padres toiled and where the Sisters, too, had spent so many years.

These one hundred years have witnessed a growth surpassing that of centuries preceding them, and as San Diego looks to the future and to the startling heights of progress, so the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet look forward to still new challenges.



Archives of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet. St. Louis, Missouri and Los Angeles, California.

San Diego History Center Library and Manuscripts Collection.