IAGenWeb Project

Johnson County Schools

Iowa City’s Early Private & Parochial Schools


st marys

The 1872 St. Joseph’s building (right) joined by a 1912 “auditorium” addition form St. Mary’s School 
on the Jefferson and Clinton streets site downtown now serving the Newman Catholic Student Center. 
This 1912 image from a 1923 high school annual has been digitally enhanced by the author.
(Post card #236)

By Bob Hibbs


Private schools were initially the sole provider of education in pioneer Iowa City, supplemented later by parochial offerings, but eventually succeeded by today’s public school system, which arguably is among the world’s best.

Jesse Berry is credited with teaching the first local pupils in 1840 in a log cabin located along College Street just west of Clinton, but several others followed during succeeding months, and the private Mechanics Academy soon came on the scene in 1842, just three years after Iowa City was located in the Iowa wilderness.

Berry, William Reynolds, Henry Lathrop and others charged fees approximating 50 cents a month, but rarely received actual money, since there was almost none in circulation. Rather, they were paid with a chicken, a stack of firewood, a laundered shirt, or any item of value to the teacher. A dozen pupils constituted a large class.

Reynolds taught at first in the Methodist Episcopal basement located along Iowa Avenue just west of Linn Street, but soon moved into the newly-erected Mechanics Academy less than a block away on Linn Street just north of Iowa Avenue. He later became Iowa’s first superintendent of public instruction.

With formation of local city government in 1853, the new council immediately formed a school committee through which it launched a public school system, built three first-generation facilities as “ward schools” during 1857-58 and then relinquished the embryonic system to an independently-elected school board in 1858.

In just four years, that board will mark its sesquicentennial of providing local public education.

Meanwhile, the large local Roman Catholic community was founding schools of its own. St. Mary’s Church had a school in its basement as early as 1846. St. Patrick’s Church was established in 1873 and soon opened its own school across the street.

Subsequent Catholic churches in 1893 St. Wenceslaus and 1962 St. Thomas Moore arranged to send interested pupils to existing parochial schools, rather than opening their own.

In 1904 St. Mary’s paid $4,000 for the venerable old Iowa City Academy property in the northeast corner of the Clinton-Jefferson intersection and replaced the structure with an auditorium in 1912. Among noted Academy alumni were local historian and UI Prof. Ben Shambaugh, and Irish Business College owner Elizabeth Irish.

St. Mary’s first experimented with high school classes through its St. Joseph’s Institute (later School), organized in 1865, located at first along Iowa Avenue. It was moved in 1872 to the north side of Jefferson east of Clinton as what became the eastern half to which was added the corner-located Iowa City Academy site in 1904.

The church also operated St. Agatha’s Seminary for women in what now is a privately-owned apartment building called Park House across Dubuque Street west of the Methodist Church and just down the same Jefferson Street block from the St. Mary’s School site. Early pupils from St. Patrick’s Church were taught next door.

From these earlier parochial efforts, the current Regina Catholic Education Center has grown, now offering kindergarten through senior high school grades.

P.S. A Fargo, N.D., reader raised in Iowa City asks by email if an 1855 school bond election noted last week in this column was open only to white males, since the column reported that it was open only to men since women weren’t enfranchised until the 19th amendment to the U.S. constitution was ratified in 1920.

The reader is correct in the suspicion that blacks couldn’t have voted in 1855.

The Iowa constitution of 1846, which was succeeded in 1857 by what is still “the supreme law of the commonwealth,” provided suffrage to “every white male citizen . . .”

That language also appears in the successor document, but was stricken from it in 1868 by the first of what now total 46 amendments to Iowa’s constitution.

Bob Hibbs collects local postcards and researches history related to them. 

Copyright 2003 By Bob Hibbs

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