The first St. Joseph School was established in 1879 near the corner of what is now Deer and Locust Streets. It’s said that the building was a former guest house belonging to Asa Robinson. In May of that year, three months after the first St. Joseph Church was dedicated, Father Strub wrote a letter to Sister Marie of Jesus Bajard, the Reverend Mother of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Cluny in Paris, France. “We have dedicated our colony to St. Joseph,” Father Strub said. “It is for that reason that to the Sisters of Saint Joseph we naturally give preference to help us in our beautiful mission that we have undertaken under his protection.”
Their order was founded in France during the early 1800s. These women devoted their lives to the service of God through education in colleges, elementary and secondary schools, and to the care of the sick and the poor in orphanages, hospitals, and dispensaries.
Six Sister of St. Joseph left by boat from Paris on October 18, 1879. After docking in New York, they traveled to Arkansas by train. They arrived here on November 8, 1879. Among them were Sisters St. Emilien Kearney, Adeltrude Brophy, and Mary Edbruge Brady. The other three nuns stayed through April and then went to Morrilton to establish that religious community. Sister St. Emilien served as Mother Superior for both the Conway and Morrilton sisters.
St. Joseph had a new priest in the early 1880s. His name was Father Charles Steurer. Despite early optimism that everyone had for the church and school, the priest, the nuns and the parishioners weren’t prepared for the difficulties they’d soon face.
The people had to cope with a series of fires, floods, droughts, and typhoid epidemics. Many people died. People were losing hope and moving away because of all the calamities that had come. Financial support for St. Joseph School was dwindling. The crops were failing. The number of Catholic families who remained had dropped considerably. It had taken nearly seven years just to raise the money to build a new church to replace the one that had blown away. In 1896 school had to be closed. More than a dozen nuns had served it since its beginning.
It had remained closed for two years. It was reopened in 1898 by Father Laengst, who had been pastor of St. Joseph for a brief time in 1894. He recruited a small number of students and one lay teacher named Catherine Herbert since there were no nuns left. With lumber from the old school at Deer and Locust he erected St. Joseph’s Hall on the church grounds. Here a school was reopened with about 20 students. Father Laengst also had a convent built and then applied to the Motherhouse of the School Sisters of Notre Dame for some nuns to come here to teach. His request was granted.
The School Sisters of Notre Dame originated in Germany in the 1830s. Their mission was similar to that of the St. Joseph Sisters; to establish schools and orphanages and to minister to hospitals, retreat centers, and shelters addressing the urgent needs of women, youth, and those who were poor.
Sisters M. Gangalfa Lintgen, M. Hermanilda Scheer, and M. Edleburgis were the first nuns to arrive. More than 100 of them followed over the next 82 years. A few names that still resonate which our parishes oldest parishioners include Sister Hermina Runde, Sister Elwyn Brink, and Sister Rosita Lusch.
The arrival of Father Peter Zell in 1908 signaled a lot of changes and improvements. He was a very educated man who could sermonize in two or three different languages. He cleared off the parish debt, had the school enlarged, and had electricity installed in the rectory, the church, and the convent. He also put in running water. A large parish hall was built under his direction, but it was destroyed by fire in 1924. Father Zell was pastor when the St. Joseph School Bazaar began in 1912.
One of the School Sisters of Notre Dame’s lasting contributions was the impetus they gave to starting the bazaar. It’s said they went to Father Zell and asked him about creating fancy needlework that could be sold off their convent porch to raise money for school supplies. The effort was so successful, it was expanded the following year to include the crafting of dolls and wooden objects.
When Father Zell left St. Joseph in 1924, he was replaced by Father Joseph Pobleschek. At this time, the parish consisted of about 130 families and 200 school children. It was under Father Pobleschek’s direction that the third church was built. The construction began in November of 1924. It was dedicated by Bishop John Morris in December of 1925. It was built right next to the second church, which originally faced west, and the new one faced north. It cost somewhere between $50,000 and $100,000 to build.
To match the third church, Father Pobleschek had the old school torn down. A new two-story brick building took its place. That was done in 1926. You now know it as Spiritan Hall. St. Joseph School only went to the 8th grade back then but the 9th grade was added in 1926. There were 207 students at that time. Another grade was added each year, and by 1930 St. Joseph went to the 12th grade.That same year a new nun’s house was built. When they left around 1980, it became a business office for the church.
There were so many nuns who dedicated years of their lives to teaching at St. Joseph’s; Sister Gonfalfa Lintgen, Sister Benoit Felix, Sister Caroline Stutzer, and Sister Georgine Bellman were here the longest. They arrived around 1900 and stayed until 1925. Sister De Deo was here from 1927 until 1948.
Father Lachowsky began his duties here in 1934. During his tenure, he had the grade school enlarged, the church painted and decorated, and he laid the groundwork for a new St. Joseph High School building to be constructed. Father Anthony Lechner was pastor when the high school opened on September 30, 1951. Bishop Albert Fletcher dedicated it.
Father Sylvester Dellert took over for Father Lechner. He was instrumental in the building of the first St. Joseph School gymnasium. The first St. Joseph gym was ready for basketball in 1958. Prior to that, games had been played in a gym in the Liberty community and in Conway’s National Guard Armory at Caldwell and Locust Streets. Practices were often conducted in the lower level of Spiritan Hall. On occasion, some games were played at the old gym on the UCA campus.
In 1970 the parish was informed that because of the shortage of nuns the School Sisters of Notre Dame would not be able to staff the entire school anymore. They would remain in the in the Elementary School for another decade. Because it was felt there wasn’t the money to hire a lay staff for the high school it might be in danger of closing. After contacting many different orders of nuns, the parish council and school board enticed the Sisters of St. Joseph from Fall River, Massachusetts to take over the junior high and high school. This was not the same order of St. Joseph sisters that had first started the school. Those were the Sisters of St. Joseph de Cluny. These new St. Joseph sisters were known as the Sisters of St. Joseph du Puy.
Sister Jeanne Lavimoniere and three other nuns came to St. Joseph High School in 1971. Her staff included Sisters Irene Comeau, Andrea Levesque, and Dorothy Santarpia. Other replacements were phased in over time. Because the School Sisters of St. Joseph were still using the convent on school grounds, the new Sisters of St. Joseph occupied the old quarters the Benedictine nuns used at Good Shepherd School.
The Sisters of St. Joseph du Puy left around 1980. The Elementary grades retained the School Sisters of Notre Dame through the end of the 1980-81 academic year. Sisters Brendan Adams and Noel Mauberret were the last to leave.
The St. Joseph Endowment and Charitable Trust was formed in 1976. The seeds for its development had been planted a year earlier by the school board. It recognized the need for a non-secular, non-profit organization to provide financial aid and support to the school.
The school was bursting at the seams. A proposed expansion plan of the high school had stalled. The neighboring Ellen Smith Elementary School on Harkrider Street closed. Many prayers were answered when the Friends of St. Joseph purchased that property for our school. A fund-raising campaign called “Building Bridges” was begun to pay off that debt. The Primary School was dedicated by Bishop J. Peter Sartain at the start of the 2000-2001 school year. It housed Kindergarten and 1st grade students in its two years of operation and then expanded up to 3rd grade.
The parish and school were administered by the Congregation of the Holy Spirit (Holy Ghost Fathers) until 2010. In June 2010 the parish and school came under the administration of the Diocese of Little Rock.