Filed Under Education

St. Benedict the Moor School

Lasting legacy of Catholic education in the Hill

The history of Catholic education in the Hill begins on July 28, 1889, when Fr. Patrick McDermott rented a house on Fulton Street in the Hill District and converted it into a church and school.  

That same year the Sisters of Mercy, an international order of nuns, started a day program for education and learning at the school. The Sisters of Mercy was founded in 1831 by Catherine McAuley, and vowed to serve those who suffer from poverty, sickness and lack of education. In 1941, they began offering social services and catechetical instruction in Pittsburgh’s Hill District.

In the 1950s, the St. Richard’s School was predominantly African American. August Wilson, the Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright who grew up in the Hill, attended St. Richard’s School from third to seventh grade.  Visiting the school years later to speak with students, he recalled that his sixth grade teacher, Sister Christopher, was the first teacher who encouraged him to pursue writing.  He would later sponsor poetry and play writing contests for the students.

Era of Change

The movement of much of the white Catholic population out of the Hill in the decades after World War II had a major impact on the Catholic presence in the neighborhood. Hill Catholic parishes underwent several consolidations. St. Brigid and Holy Trinity parish were merged in 1958 after the demolition of the Holy Trinity church as part of the Lower Hill Redevelopment project. The new St. Brigid parish was itself merged with St. Benedict the Moor a decade later, to form St. Brigid-St. Benedict the Moor.

Catholic schools in the neighborhood also merged during the period, eventually consolidating as the Hill District Catholic School in 1973 at 2900 Bedford Ave. The school was not large, comprising fewer than 200 students. A Pittsburgh Post-Gazette profile in 1973 noted that Hill District Catholic’s students “are black; only one-third are Catholic, and most come from homes that statisticians would consider economically and socially disadvantaged.”  The feature noted that many parents of limited means sacrificed to send their children to the school, believing the education to be of superior quality to the public school options available.  Despite this, the school struggled financially; in 1975, a $20,000 budget shortage nearly resulted in its closing.

In 1977, the parishes of St. Richard’s and St. Brigid-St. Benedict the Moor eventually consolidated into one entity, establishing St. Benedict the Moor as the parish of the Hill. Hill District Catholic was rededicated as St. Benedict the Moor School in 1978.

Financial Stability and Continued Success

While St. Benedict school gained some financial stability in the 1980s, it still struggled to pay the bills, especially as the subsidy provided by the diocese steadily declined.  In 1990, Pittsburgh-area corporate leaders formed the Extra Mile Foundation to raise funds for urban Catholic education, and meet the needs of poor families who depend on the Catholic schools in their neighborhoods.  Support from the foundation has provided essential financial stability since its creation.

A 2005 independent study of the school’s graduates over the previous 10 years found a strong record of academic success at St. Benedict’s. Two-thirds of its students went on to public high school and one-third to Catholic high schools. The study found no graduate from St. Benedict the Moor School ever had to repeat ninth grade, and that 92 percent graduated from high school. More than half pursued higher education.

In the summer of 2011, the Extra Mile Foundation purchased the vacant Robert Lee Vann Public School building at 631 Watt Street for $350,000 as a new home for St. Benedict The Moor School. The Vann building provided greater space to enable St. Benedict Catholic School to again expand its outreach and to start a pre-kindergarten program.

Conclusion

Like the Hill District itself, the story of St. Benedict the Moor Catholic School is one of resilience and perseverance. From its humble beginnings in 1889 to its transformation over the course of the 20th century, through several different names and locations, the school has served as a community beacon, providing quality education to generations of students.

Images

St. Benedict the Moor building The structure located at 2900 Bedford Avenue was built in 1907 and originally housed St. Richard's Catholic Church. In 1973, following a series of parish and school mergers, this building housed the Hill District Catholic School (later St. Benedict the Moor School) until 2010 Creator: J. Roger Davis Date: 2023
Catholic school kindergarten graduates Group portrait of St. Brigid kindergarten graduates with Monsignor Paul Bassompierre and Sister Rose Elizabeth in background, posed on steps in front of St. Brigid Rectory. Source: Charles "Teenie" Harris Collection, Carnegie Museum of Art Creator: Charles "Teenie" Harris Date: June 9, 1957
Kindergarten graduates Kindergarten graduates wearing caps and gowns posed on steps of St. Benedict Church, with Monsignor Paul Bassompierre and Sister Rosa Elizabeth Source: Charles "Teenie" Harris Collection, Carnegie Museum of Art Creator: Charles "Teenie" Harris Date: 1954

Location

631 Watt St, Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Metadata

https://www.sbtmschool.org/
J. Roger Davis, “St. Benedict the Moor School,” Hill District Digital History, accessed July 20, 2024, https://hillhistory.org/items/show/66.