State’s first Catholic high school celebrates century of Knighthood

St. Mary’s High School is celebrating 100 years of Catholic education and tradition as Arizona’s first and oldest Catholic high school.

President William H. Taft had just signed Arizona into statehood five years earlier when the school was founded in 1917 by the Sisters of the Precious Blood in a tiny classroom at the former St. Anthony’s Elementary School.

More St. Mary’s history

Throughout the century there have been many titles of honor and prestige given to the school but perhaps none is more revered than that of “it’s the smallest biggest school.”

St. Mary’s student body poses circa 1918. It opened the prior year with four boys and 10 girls and continues to guide students four generations later. (File photo/Diocese of Phoenix Archives)

Beloved by current and former students, staff and faculty, the Knights have a reputation of cultivating deep-seated traditions and a family atmosphere.

Families send second-, third- and fourth-generations to the school that rooted its history within downtown Phoenix; beginning with its first location on East Monroe Street to its present location at Third Street and Sheridan.

“The brotherhood within the community that developed is something fairly rare,” said alumnus and former head football coach Pat Farrell.

“It’s a small-town high school atmosphere in the middle of a big city,” he said. “We were known for having the best pep assemblies in town — they were a ruckus — and it was a great way to leave the campus, the guys (on the team) appreciated it. We really had the best student body.”

Farrell played for the 1967 undefeated St. Mary’s football team and later became the winningest coach in the school’s history, coaching the Knights to state titles in ’84, ’85, ’91 and ’95.

Shawn Murphy, whose father Ed Murphy graduated from St. Mary’s in 1955, played for Farrell during his four years, graduating in 1986. Murphy’s family opened Whitney and Murphy Funeral Home when Arizona was still a territory, and has grown up with the St. Mary’s community.

For decades Shawn carried a silver dollar in his wallet that he received his senior year of high school by a St. Mary’s alumnus because “he enjoyed watching us play.”

“And when he died I was able to share that story with his wife,” he said. “We have been blessed to help a lot of St. Mary’s families,” Shawn said. “It’s just families serving families and it’s an honor to do what we do here.”

In a real sense, St. Mary’s has grown up with Arizona.

Thousands of students have been nurtured in this multi-cultural and centrally located school whose focus has been dedicated to the spiritual, academic, social and personal growth of each individual, based on the Gospel.

Students, the faithful and other church leaders participate in a Cornerstone Ceremony for St. Mary’s High School March 3, 1938. The “smallest biggest school” continues to focus on each student’s spiritual, academic and social growth. (File photo/Diocese of Phoenix Archives)

“Historically, if you were to ask anyone in the St. Mary’s community what makes us stand out among other schools, they would answer you with two words: family and tradition,” said Fr. Robert Bolding, president-rector of the school. “I think this answer holds true, but I would add that, in recent years, the school’s commitment to rediscovering and embracing the Catholic liberal arts educational tradition has led to an amazing transformation in the school.”

Fr. Bolding said St. Mary’s stands out because the school’s mission to “… education that forms virtuous young men and women who know the Truth and love the Good” is embraced by everyone — from the janitors to the principal — and they work toward accomplishing it.

“They learn to understand the importance and necessity of the sacraments and we provide opportunities to receive them, with confession and two Masses available daily,” he said.

They also have the witness of priests in their clerics and sisters in their religious habits; four graduates are currently in the seminary.

“Ten years from now, I want to see St. Mary’s continuing to renew its strength by faithfully living out its mission and the mission of the Church,” Fr. Bolding said, adding, “I want us to be helping other schools rediscover their Catholic liberal arts patrimony and continuing to revolutionize Catholic education in the United States.”

And the future has never looked so bright.

Helping to move St. Mary’s High School into the next century is Beth (Wischer) Wand, an Arizona native and ‘00 alumna.

Wand, who met her husband Peter at St. Mary’s, said the school “instilled a need for service and both myself and Peter find it valuable and important to give back to the place we met and love.”

Wand is co-chairing the Centennial Gala with Barbara Bandura. Both women are actively involved in the community, both professionally and through philanthropic endeavors.

“We are fundraising for the next century. The school has big and small dreams and the beauty is they have the talent to do it, we just need the money for it,” Wand said.

From the early days — the love and commitment of the sisters and the Franciscan Friars who succeeded them to the countless teachers, coaches, parents and alumni — by the grace of God, not much has changed in 100 years.

St. Mary’s High School Centennial Gala

Fundraising event to benefit the students and work of St. Mary’s Catholic High School. The evening features a ­cocktail hour, live auction, silent auction and entertainment by Lucky Devils Band.

When: 5:30 p.m. Oct. 21

Where: Sheraton Grand Phoenix,
340 N. Third St.

Cost: $250 per ticket and
$2,500 per table.

smknights.org/100 or contact Lynn Donahue at
LDonahue@smknights.org or call (602) 251-2506