St. Mary’s College
St. Mary’s, Kentucky
Alfred Fayette Lewis’ History of Higher Education in Kentucky (1899) has a history of St. Mary’s College to that date. John Helm’s YouTube video entitled St. Mary’s College Kentucky Memories contains photos of the early college and its sports teams. Central Kentucky has photos of the campus.
St. Mary’s College was founded by Reverend William Byrne in 1821 at Hardin’s Creek, six miles west of Lebanon, KY. Byrne operated the school for twelve years, serving as “president, chief disciplinarian, principal professor, procurator, missionary, everything all at once.” During his tenure, the school educated 1200 boys. All boys were required to work on the school’s farm one day each week.
In 1833 St. Mary’s was turned over to the Jesuit fathers, who operated it until 1846. During this time the school was chartered by the state of Kentucky to award academic degrees. Commencement exercises were held in the forest, with a stage erected and temporary seating provided for the occasion. These exercises were major celebrations with original dramas written by faculty and performed by students. By the time the Jesuits had pulled out of Kentucky, the campus had two main buildings, a library of 5,000 volumes, 125 students and a teaching faculty of eight.
St. Mary’s was operated by secular clergy until 1869 when it closed because of financial embarrassment. In 1871 the Resurrection Fathers reopened the school, developing a three-tiered curriculum by 1879. The commercial course was of three years. The scientific course was for four years, leading to a Bachelor of Science degree. The classical course was for 5-6 years, leading to a Bachelor of Arts degree. Later additions included a military department (1882) and a music department (1883). The college maintained a preparatory division and added a Master of Arts degree.
In 1929 the liberal arts college was closed, and St. Mary’s continued as a seminary until 1976.
Bricks and Mortar
St. Mary’s College began in a stone distillery building furnished with crude furniture of Father Byrne’s own making. (One source says the wood used was old whiskey casks). Bad luck stalked his efforts to build a permanent home. A fire in 1825 burned his new building; another fire burned a wing of that building’s replacement.
Ultimately two buildings—the Refectory and Columbia Hall—became permanent campus structures. Byrne Hall was added in 1884 to replace the earlier main building. A gymnasium was added in 1901. When the college closed as a liberal arts college, the campus contained these four main buildings. In 1973 Byrne Hall burned.
In 1980, St. Mary’s College was placed on the register of historical places.
The Refectory in 1979. Image by Jayne C. Henderson for the Kentucky Heritage Commission as part of the National Register application.
School Colors: Green and White
As a school for boys and young men, St. Mary’s emphasized sports. Central Kentucky notes that in 1915 the grounds contained four handball alleys, three baseball diamonds, a gridiron, a croquet lawn, a tennis court, and a swimming pool.
St. Mary’s played football from 1906 through 1927. The undefeated 1908 team laid claim to being champions of Kentucky—having defeated Centre, Transylvania, Central, Kentucky Military Institute, Lexington Athletic Club, Louisville University School and Hanover College of Indiana. The University of Kentucky also claimed the title and pointed out that St. Mary’s had played its coach and one of the professors all season.
The 1912 St. Mary's basketball team. (National Collegiate Athletic Association Basketball Guide https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=osu.32435054269469;view=2up;seq=334) accessed 1-27-2017
Like most colleges with small numbers, St. Mary’s played both high school and college teams, their schedule often including Louisville Male High School.
St. Mary’s also challenged the University of Kentucky for the state championship of baseball in 1920. One of the players Marty Baylin later pitched in Triple-A with Louisville. Central Kentucky reported that St. Mary’s had the best basketball team in the state in 1915 and 1920.