St. Vincent's Academy's 'fair graduates' of 1904 and 1925: A study in contrast

Originally Appeared in : 9822-10/25/18

Savannah’s St. Vincent’s Academy, founded in 1845 by the Sisters of Mercy, has a long and impressive history. Possibly no part of that history could ever again be as colorfully recorded as the Academy’s valedictory ceremony described by an imaginative Savannah Morning News reporter in a 1904 edition of the paper. 


To say the graduation ceremony that took place in those early days of the 20th century was elaborate -- as noted by that reporter -- is to understate. Clare Oppenheimer, salutatorian of the class of 1904, regretfully referred to the absence of Bishop Benjamin J. Keiley who was at a conference in Rome and couldn’t perform his customary duty of awarding diplomas to members of the graduating class. Nevertheless, the graduation ceremony reflected the careful planning that usually made it one of the finest in the city.


Music, always part of the occasion, was elaborate, classical and well performed with Misses Sallie Black, Eulalia Feuger, Lonnie Miller and several other pianists, along with other graduates, rendering similarly classical pieces. Although all of these were inspiring and well done, the outstanding number -- in the opinion of the Savannah Morning News writer -- was a more spirited one, “The Homespun Dress”. Composed by Carrie Belle Sinclair, this song evidently pleased those present who, 39 years after the close of the Civil War, still remembered that deadly and divisive conflict.


“Oh, yes, I am a southern girl and glory in the name,” this work began. Noting that, “We envy not the northern girl her robes of beauty rare,” its chorus proudly proclaimed: “Hurrah, Hurrah for the Sunny South so dear. Three cheers for the homespun dress the Southern ladies wear!” 


But that St. Vincent’s Academy graduation that took place close to 40 years after the country-rending Civil War ended. Inevitably, the high feelings of those 19th century days would undergo some changes by the time the 1920s decade was concluding. A 1925 item in the Bulletin of the Catholic Laymen’s Association of Georgia reflected this as another, more “modern” description of the St. Vincent’s graduation of that year confirmed.


In those early days of what was to become the Great Depression that cost many people their jobs, this St. Vincent’s graduation ceremony inevitably was much more sedate and less elaborate. Lawton Memorial, the setting for the ceremony, was not as colorfully decorated as the setting of the commencement of 1904. With Savannah Diocese’s Bishop Michael J. Keyes presiding in 1925, 10 girls received their diplomas from St. Vincent’s. Honors and awards earned by members of that graduating class were duly listed as were names of the graduates: “the Misses Marie Bernadette Crovatt, Clara Elizabeth Doyle, Lottie Marian Elwell, Mary Cecilia Harris, Catherine Cecilia Leech, Dorothy Marie Lytle, Isabel Fermina Elina, Josephine Frances McDonald, Margaret Mary Sheehan and Mary Agnes Moore.”


Miss Lottie Marian Elwell was valedictorian of the 1925 class, and Miss Josephine McDonald was salutatorian. Medals and awards were distributed with the Very Rev. T.A. Foley, V.G., rector of the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist, reading out the academic honors.


For the most part, the 1925 graduation was more sedate and less elaborate than the 1904 ceremony described earlier. By the mid-1930s, St. Vincent’s Academy graduations would take place in the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist. The “fair graduates” of the early 1900s would be supplanted by other young women who would have to face not only the Great Depression of the 1930s, but also another, even more deadly menace, the Second World War. 


Columnist Rita H. Delorme is a volunteer in the Diocesan Archives.

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