CATHOLIC HIGH SCHOOL
OVER 81 YEARS PRESENCE IN PENSACOLAPensacola Catholic High School is operated under the auspices of the Diocese of Pensacola- Tallahassee--a diocese that stretches across North Florida's panhandle from the Alabama line on the west, through Tallahassee to the east. It is, and has always been, a co-educational institution. Through its seventy-five year presence Catholic High has served as the center of education for more than 7,300 young men and women who have become productive citizens in this and other communities. Pensacola has a rich history and long association with the Catholic Church and with Catholic education. The first Catholic school to last for any duration in the area was opened in June 1840 by the Ladies of the Retreat. The next known one was St. Michael's Academy, with a first mention in 1862. Then in the 1870's, there was frequent reporting of St. Michael Parish School, operated by the Sisters of the Holy Cross. By 1875, the Sisters of St. Dominic operated two schools in Pensacola and the Sisters of St. Joseph conducted one in Warrington. In the Fall of 1877, the Sisters of Mercy arrived to take over the educational system of what was then known as the Catholic Congregation of Pensacola, or St. Michael Parish. Their arrival marked the beginning of continuous Catholic education of children at the primary level in Pensacola from that time to the present. Exactly when that educational system extended to the secondary level has not been clearly documented, but is believed to have been around the turn of the century. When the Sisters of Mercy first arrived, their convent and school were located on Palafox Street about a block and a half south of the location of the present St. Michael Church. In 1909, a new three-story brick building opened at the corner of Chase and Baylen Streets in the center of town. It was this building that would house St. Michael School, one of three predecessors of what is now Catholic High School. Although records regarding the actual beginnings are scarce, there are handwritten ledgers indicating that there were graduates of Catholic secondary education in Pensacola in 1902. Additional records show that a Catholic high school in Pensacola was accredited by the Florida Committee of Secondary Schools of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools as early as 1928. In 1938 St. Stephen School, operated on Garden Street by the Benedictine Sisters, extended its elementary school by adding ninth and tenth grades. Before a junior class was readied, Diocesan plans for a central high school were finalized. The Elk's Club Building on the comer of Garden and Baylen Streets was revitalized to house all Catholic secondary students in Pensacola in one location. Along with the all-important accreditation, scientific, library, classroom and office equipment were transferred from the former St. Michael High School. On Sept. 14, 1941, the day before the 180 students reported to school, Bishop Thomas J. Toolen dedicated the building. At the dedication, the Very Rev. William J. Cusick in the opening address, spoke of the importance of Catholic education and noted that this centralized high school represented months of planning by the local pastors. If one person is to be credited with the fulfillment of that dream, however, it was Bishop Toolen who had vowed to have every Catholic child in a Catholic school in the Diocese of Mobile. Toward that end, Msgr. Leo M. Byrnes, Superintendent of Schools for the Diocese since 1939, said that establishing a centralized Catholic high school in Pensacola was one of his first priorities: "Centrally located within the reach of all bus lines, this school offers an opportunity to every Catholic High School student," stated an early commentary. "The building is modern, up-to-date, imposing in appearance and perfectly planned to meet the requirements of every student. Courses are offered in the scientific, general, commercial and liberal arts fields."
The first faculty included priests, sisters from two different congregations, and lay men and women. Sr. Mary Consuella, RSM, served as principal pro-tem. In 1942, Fr. Frederick O. Hughes became the first priest in a number of years to head a school in the Diocese. He was succeeded in 1947 by Fr. J. Edwin Stuardi, a faculty member when the school opened, who would serve as principal until 1953 and later become Superintendent of Schools for the Diocese. He was succeeded by Fr. William Houck who came to CHS soon after his ordination in 1951 and who would later become auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Jackson in Mississippi. From the school's beginnings, there was growth: in spirituality, in academics, in athletic programs, in social activities, in enrollment, and in facility enhancements. In the Fall of 1952 a building was constructed to house home economics instruction. However, by the 1957-58 school year, enrollment had grown to over 500, and it was necessary to once again utilize space on the fourth floor at St. Michael's School across the street to accommodate the increased numbers of students. Having reached its capacity and with no further room to expand, the school began to look toward relocation of its campus. The Diocese of Mobile had received the gift of a large tract of land bordered by West Scott and "W" Streets in 1916. The Diocese decided that this tract, still undeveloped in 1958, provided the much-needed room for expansion and began the construction of the new campus for CHS at this site in January of 1957. The structure, designed and built with an eye to future expansion, was completed for the opening of the 1958-59 school year, opening its doors to 485 students.
Archbishop Toolen celebrated the first Mass in the school's new Chapel where he stressed the importance of school spirit to the growth of the school. That spirit is reflected in the growth that followed. An enrollment of 600 by 1960 saw the beginning of a steady increase which neared 800 before the end of its first decade at the new site, although the stated capacity of the school was approximately 700. CHS opened its doors at the sprawling new campus under the direction of then-principal, Fr. Desmond Regan.
Fr. Regan was succeeded by Fr. James Amos who served as principal for ten years, from 1959-1969, before being transferred to St. Augustine. Some well-known members of the faculty when the campus moved to its current site were Sr. Mary Consuella and Fr. John Licari. Sr. Consuella, after serving as principal pro-tem the first year the school opened, remained at CHS for many years serving in a number of different capacities. For some of those years she was Assistant Principal and also taught numerous subjects throughout the 1940's-70's, still teaching several Latin classes in the early 1970's. In total, she spent more than 30 years helping to mold the students who passed through the doors of CHS. Fr. Licari was another long-time faculty member. Arriving at CHS in 1952, he remained some 20 years, serving in various capacities: teacher, moderator, athletic director, and even drama coach, having directed a number of school plays during the early 1950's. In May, 1968, the 10 westernmost counties of Florida were transferred from the Diocese of Mobile to the Diocese of St. Augustine. It was the first time in almost 30 years that a bishop other than Bishop Toolen was approving assignments and making decisions affecting schools and parishes in the Florida Panhandle. That transfer marked the beginning of many changes for the area, and the year would mark a change that would affect both of the Catholic high schools in Pensacola.
In June of 1968, Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Vath presented diplomas to some 24 members of what would be the final class to graduate from St. Joseph High School, opened in Pensacola in 1942 by the Sisters of Charity of Convent Station. According to a parish history, the sisters opened it to fill an educational gap created "as a result of many of the creoles refusing to attend the public schools." From 1941 until February, 1953, when it moved to its own building, the high school was housed in the old Creole school- -a building constructed almost a century before. With graduation of the Class of 1968, the school was closed. That fall, the remaining students and faculty transferred to Pensacola "Central" Catholic High School. Fr. Amos was replaced by Fr. Walter Miller in 1969. That year there were 12 new members of the faculty with more than 60 percent of the 40 faculty members either holding or pursuing a master's degree. Enrollment marked an all-time high of over 800 students in 1969 and 1970. The increase was reached in part because of the closing of St. Joseph High and also due to changes in the Escambia County School System. The concerns of parents whose children were facing double sessions in the public high schools when kindergarten was mandated and junior highs restructured provoked the transfer of a significant number of students into the Catholic school system. In summer of 1971, Bishop Paul Tanner restructured school management at CHS. Fr. William Joseph, who had taught computer key-boarding, electronics, and physics, was named president. Wayne Merritt, a 1956 CHS graduate, became the first layman to serve as principal. That following year, Father Joseph was succeeded as president by Fr. Francis McMahon, who served for one year.
In 1973, Fr. Thomas Pyne became president and Wayne Merritt was succeeded as principal by R.C. Lipscomb. Mr. Lipscomb, who was retired from the Escambia public system where he had been both a principal and an assistant superintendent, remained in that position through the end of the 1977-78 school year. Fr. Pyne, recognizing that the facility no longer adequately housed the number of students enrolled, began a program of classroom expansion and renovation. Until this capital improvement was undertaken, the only major change that had been made to the building after the school opened in 1958 was the addition of a music and band facility and additional locker rooms in the 1960's. Even though the existing instructional wings had been able to expand for record enrollments late in the 1960's, the building was in need of renovation, particularly for science instruction and guidance operations. The new construction included enclosing the outside hallways between the first and second wings to create interior halls and additional classroom and office space. Throughout the late 1970's, 1980's, 1990's, and early in the new millennium, many exciting changes and developments have continued to add to the long and proud history of Catholic High. In 1975 the Church again re-structured the diocesan structure in Florida by creating the Diocese of Pensacola- Tallahassee under its first Bishop Rene Gracida. For the first time CHS was led by a resident Superintendent of Schools, Sr. Elizabeth Doyle, SSF. Changes in school administration throughout these years brought a number of new leaders to the halls of CHS, including Fr. Robert Morris, Mr. Joseph Chodkiewicz, Sr. Barbara Gallagher, Fr. Phil Halstead, and Sr. Kierstin Martin.
School enrollment began to decline in the early 1980's bringing with it the fiscal difficulties which often accompany such a decline. The combined efforts of Diocesan bishops and leaders, dedicated school administrators, faculty members, parents, and alumni and the contributions of spirited caring students stemmed that decline. Since the mid-1990's CHS has operated near its present capacity of 650 students. These factors have made it possible for CHS to operate in a sound fiscal manner which has enabled numerous capital improvements, curriculum enhancements, and new programs to be realized.
In 1989, the new Memorial Field Football Field was dedicated by Bishop Keith Symons, the first of numerous projects spearheaded and funded by parents in an effort to upgrade the campus and to provide quality facilities for CHS students and families. The Spring of 1993 saw the dedication of the Casey Crongeyer Memorial Track and Field Facility, which included a certified latex rubberized track financed and installed by the volunteer energies of numerous CHS parents and alumni. The Crusader Baseball/Softball Fieldhouse, dedicated in the Spring of 1994, was funded largely through parent donations and was conceived, designed, and constructed through volunteer parent time and efforts. With baseball and softball field lights, a concession area, rest rooms, dressing rooms, and a press box, the facility adds greatly to what has become a premier sports complex at CHS. The Spring of 1996 saw the renovation of the Weight Building and the Football Locker Room, followed that summer by the paving and landscaping of the student parking lot and the renovation of the Gym Foyer, adding glass entrance ways, a new concession stand, trophy and art display cases, new lockers and storage areas. During the summer of 1999 Catholic High embarked on the implementation of a five-year Master Growth Plan ensuring that we continue to provide for the academic, spiritual, physical and social needs of our students. A new HV AC system for approximately the campus was installed as was the air- conditioning of the gymnasium in December 2000. The Brent Library and Media Center was dedicated in August of 2001 and the Ruth Johnson Chadbourne Chapel in December of the same year.
The caliber and excellence of Catholic High's students and programs have brought several significant accolades to the CHS community. In the Spring of 1993 Catholic High was recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as a Blue Ribbon School of Excellence, an honor bestowed that year on only 260 public and private middle and secondary schools in the nation. In 1995, in response to its first-ever project in the national Make a Difference Day service effort, CHS received one of 50 Honorable Mention Awards given to the over 7,000 projects applying from throughout the nation. In its project, over 400 CHS students, parents, and friends joined in over 10 different service and enhancement projects in the immediate neighborhood. In 1996 and 1997, the CHS Athletic Program capped powerful seasons by earning the State's top athletic honor, the Floyd E. Lay All-Sports Award for Division 3-A schools, based on cumulative points earned by the school's athletes competing in postseason competition.
Changes in dioceses, shifts in populations, enrollment increases with public school crowding then decreases as those problems were remedied, combined with the ever-increasing cost-of-living and rising school operational expenses have been the challenges CHS has faced over the past 61 years. The face of Catholic High School has changed in many ways since first opening its doors on Garden Street in September of 1941 but the spirit and community which have always characterized CHS remain the same. With the continued support of its alumni, parents, and alumni parents, the support of the Diocese, and of a caring, dedicated faculty, Catholic High looks forward confidently to a future of hope and promise. Its commitment to the Pensacola community--to provide quality value-based education infused with the teachings of the Gospel--began with 180 students and has grown to touch the lives of over 7,300 men and women who currently reside in all fifty states and 18 foreign countries. The face of our community has changed much in the past 61 years but our Mission and our commitment remain the same--to develop responsible Christian individuals by providing the finest in Catholic education.