Albert Lea’s overlooked junior high school

Published 10:10 am Saturday, May 15, 2010

What’s now called a middle school was for years known as a junior high school. In this particular school, the students were seventh- and eighth-graders and sometimes ninth-graders.

During the years, Albert Lea has had several schools with the junior high designation. One is the present Southwest. Others in the past have included Brookside and Central, and for about a decade and a half a place known as St. Mary’s Junior High School.

As the name implies, St. Mary’s was a Catholic parochial school. It was located near the corner of Garfield Avenue and Hawthorne Street, the present site of Thorne Crest Retirement Community.

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Albert Lea’s Catholic education was once based on St. Theodore’s School. This educational part of city life started in 1911 and was originally located between the church and what’s now the City Center on East Clark Street. During the years from 1923 to 1934 this building was also the location of St. Theodore’s High School.

By 1952, this school building was becoming overcrowded with its eight classrooms and 262 students. Parish leaders decided that a new school, and maybe another church and even a high school, should be created on the city’s northeast side. The second church and revived high school never evolved. However, a fund drive resulted in a second parochial school.

A groundbreaking for this new school was held on Sept. 13, 1953. A year later, the new St. Mary’s Junior High School opened with 150 students in grades six through nine. The large building had eight classrooms, library, offices, a combination of gymnasium-auditorium with small stage, two music rooms and a kitchen.

Within a few years this school also had several lower grades to help relieve overcrowding at St. Theodore’s School.

Among the student activities at this school were basketball, plays, religious programs and a band of more than 30 members directed by Cecil Turner, former member of the famous Viking Accordion Band.

By 1966, St. Theodore’s School on the west side of the church was torn down and replaced with the present attached structure on the east side.

What have been cited as financial problems and a shortage of nuns to serve as teachers resulted in a parish decision to close both schools in 1971. The new building on East Clark Street was used for parish activities and reopened as an elementary school in 1995. The former junior high school at 1201 Garfield Ave. became vacant.

In May 1974, the announcement was made that the St. Mary’s building had been sold to the Northwest Baptist Homes Society. This sale resulted in the former school being converted into what’s now Thorne Crest Retirement Community.

One person who has an interesting perspective with the change of this building from a school to a retirement center for area citizens is Marilyn Claassen. She was a student in this school for three years and has been employed as the activities director at Thorne Crest since 1976.

Claassen said she attended St. Mary’s for the third, fourth and fifth grades, then St. Theodore’s for the sixth grade, and Brookside during the junior high years.

“St. Mary’s was a great school. We had plenty of land all around with green grass for our playground,” she said.

“I remember the May pole and May crowning in what’s now the parking lot,” she added.

Claassen explains that the exterior and interior portions of the former school have been extensively remodeled and many of the classrooms are now apartments for the residents. The gymnasium-auditorium area is now the dining room and the adjoining kitchen is in the same place as the one used by the school.

During the years since 1974, Thorne Crest has added a three-floor apartment section where the school’s main playground was once located. Health care wings have been added to the south to take up the space up to Hawthorne Street. Several garage structures are also now additions to the Thorne Crest facilities.

A sometimes overlooked building to the north of the former school on Garfield Avenue was once a convent for the nuns who served as teachers. It was later used as Crest Home for people with developmental disabilities. Now, Claassen explained, this building is used for storage.