In the mid-1830s, the Sisters of St. Joseph in Lyons, France, led by Mother St. John Fontbonne, responded to a request for teachers from Joseph Rosati, bishop of St. Louis, that appeared in the Annales of the Society of the Propagation of the Faith.
In 1836, six sisters made the arduous journey to the villages of Carondelet and Cahokia outside the fledgling city of St. Louis, half of whom established their little congregation on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River at what is still the motherhouse of the order today at 6400 Minnesota. Two more sisters, specially trained to teach deaf children, many of whom had lost their hearing to diphtheria and scarlet fever, arrived a year later While eventually leaving Cahokia, within a few years at Carondelet, the sisters had established a co-ed school for young children; the St. Joseph Institute for the Deaf; and in 1840, St. Joseph’s Academy, an elementary and secondary school for girls, all on a shoestring budget that called for great sacrifice and with the aid of generous benefactors.
For the first few years, a log cabin, eventually expanded, served as both schoolroom and residence for the sisters and students, some of whom were boarders. Soon, several buildings were constructed, including the three-story brick edifice, completed in the spring of 1841, that housed the Academy. Only the Academy of those early buildings survives today, the cabin and other structures destroyed in a series of fires in the mid-1800s. Because the Academy offered a “French” education, for its first few years it was often referred to by the name of its founder as Mother Celestine’s school. Within twenty years, by the time of the Civil War, it was attracting students from thirteen states. While the Academy eventually discontinued its elementary program, it continued to board students until 1933.
The Academy was chartered as an approved educational institution by the state of Missouri in 1843 and in 1913 was affiliated with both the University of Missouri and Catholic University. In 1922, it was fully accredited with the North Central Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools.
By the early twentieth century, it was clear that the Minnesota property could no longer accommodate the needs of both the motherhouse and its growing schools. In addition, the order had decided to establish a college for women and in 1908 purchased sixteen-plus acres in Clayton, Missouri, that is still home to Fontbonne University. In 1925, the Academy, with an enrollment of more than 100, and the young College, established in 1923, moved to the newly constructed Fontbonne campus located at Wydown and Big Bend boulevards. For the next thirty years, both the College and Academy enjoyed success and growth. Many Academy traditions established at Carondelet were continued, while others were established at Fontbonne. The price of success, though, was that within twenty years, it was clear that the Wydown campus was not large enough to serve both the high school and college, and in 1946, thirty-seven acres were purchased in the quasi-rural location of Frontenac on Lindbergh Boulevard.
In 1955, the new St. Joseph’s Academy opened with 400 students, and for the first time in its history, had a campus and an identity all to itself. At the time of its opening, it boasted the latest in modern technology and design, housed in four buildings built for 500 students on a spacious campus. To accommodate increased enrollment and expanded academic and co- curricular programs, these facilities were enlarged in 1985 with the addition of the three-story Carondelet Hall.
In 1993, St. Joseph’s Academy was recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as a Blue Ribbon School of Excellence. The award was granted based on measurements of effective schooling that included leadership, teaching environment, curriculum and instruction, student government, parent and community support, and organizational vitality. In 2003, the Academy became one of the first schools in the St. Louis area to integrate a one-to-one laptop program. In 2005, it was named by Sports Illustrated magazine as having the Best High School Athletic Program in the State of Missouri.
At the turn of the new century, the Academy again expanded its facilities with the construction in 2004 of the Student Life Center, which boasts a state-of-the-art gym and physical training center, 700-seat performing arts theater, a multi-use commons, four classrooms, choral room, and music practice rooms. Renovations in the existing main building also created a new guidance department suite as well as other improvements. Outdoor athletic facilities have also been expanded in recent years, including a new eight-court tennis complex, enhanced softball facilities, and a lacrosse field. Most recently, in 2013, the Sisters of St. Joseph transferred the convent to the school for its use.