DeSales Heights Academy opened in 1867 and was one of the first schools in Parkersburg, West Virginia. The school closed in 1992, but was able to survive for almost 130 years thanks to the strong Roman Catholic population that existed in Parkersburg from its early years. DeSales Heights Academy boarded and educated many young women throughout West Virginia and the United States, and accepted international students as well. DeSales Heights is an important academy in the history of Catholic education in West Virginia.
DeSales Heights Academy was founded by a group of eight
Catholic nuns from Washington, D.C., and Frederick, Maryland. They set out for
Parkersburg on July 25, 1864, but did not reach their destination until August
6th after being delayed by the turbulent Civil War. Led by Mother
Superior Mary Appolonia Diggs, the Sisters of the Visitation of Holy Mary
established a school for the poor children of Parkersburg in 1867. This school
was first called the Catholic Academy and was originally located on the corner
of Fifth and Avery Street. In 1900 the school moved to a larger building and
was renamed DeSales Heights in honor of Saint Francis DeSales. Saint Francis
DeSales founded the order of the Sisters of Visitation in France in 1610. The
Sisters established their first Catholic school in the United States in 1816.
The new monastery and
school on Murdoch Avenue was much larger and included interior gardens and a
chapel. DeSales Heights offered young women a basic core curriculum while also
teaching the girls skills that would aid them in finding employment after
graduation. The sisters ran the boarding
school for young women at DeSales Heights until 1977. They then opened the
state’s first Montessori school, an educational style based off of Italian physician
and educator Maria Montessori.
The Sisters of Visitation were semi-cloistered nuns in that
they worked in the secular world during the day through teaching, but lived in
cloistered quarters as per Catholic tradition. Talk of the school’s closure began
in the early 1990s as the enrollment rate dropped and the Academy became too
large and expensive for the elderly nuns to maintain. In 1992, the remaining sisters
voted to close the monastery and school. The sisters then dispersed to other monasteries
in the United States and Europe. When the building closed the coffins of 19
nuns were moved from the chapel crypt to a nearby Catholic cemetery. The furnishings
of DeSales Heights were sold at auction and the current St. Joseph’s Hospital
of Parkersburg bought the building in 1997.
In its final years standing as an empty monastery, DeSales Heights
was rumored to be haunted and would draw in many trespassers looking for supernatural
experiences. After many years of vandalism and a fire that ruined part of the
building, DeSales Heights Academy was torn down in 2002. The DeSales Heights
Academy Alumnae Association puts on an annual banquet each year for graduates and
their families to remember the school and to honor the nuns who ran it.