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History and Loretto Heritage

St. Mary's Academy was founded by the Sisters of Loretto in 1864 in what is now Downtown Denver.

Original building from 1986

When the Colorado Territory was formed in 1861, a key necessity was missing in Denver: a stable educational experience for the children of families new to the frontier. In 1864, three Sisters of Loretto, traveled by mail coach to Denver from their home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, to open St. Mary’s Academy. Like their predecessors who started the Sisters of Loretto, a Catholic religious community founded in 1812, their commitment to this new endeavor was marked by courage and selflessness. In the introduction to St. Mary's Academy - 150 Years, former Colorado State Historian William J. Convery described the founders as transplanting knowledge from the East, and “tolerance and respect for diversity, and a commitment to justice”.

St. Mary’s Academy conferred the first diploma in the Colorado Territory to Jessie Forshee in 1875, a year before statehood. Since those early days, the founding values and ethos of spirituality and mission continue in our Loretto School Values where faith, justice, community, and respect serve as touchstones for all aspects of school life.

St. Mary’s Academy is one of four schools continuing Loretto’s long and vital tradition of education begun by the first sisters in Kentucky in 1812, joining Havern School in Denver, Loretto Academy in El Paso, and Nerinx Hall in St. Louis. They honor their historic roots while addressing the needs of 21st century learners. Every year St. Mary’s Academy provides experiences for students, teachers, and administrators to deepen the bond with Loretto and with these other schools. Since 1988 teachers have traveled each spring to the Motherhouse in Kentucky for an intensive weekend immersion in the community’s rich history and vibrant mission of today. Likewise, high school students from the Loretto schools spend a week of service at the Motherhouse, learning advocacy skills in El Paso, and participating in a leadership conference in Denver that culminates in a Loretto Leadership Statement to guide their year’s work.

As a school dedicated to educating young people to be powerful agents of change, we embrace this commitment of the Sisters of Loretto that encourages us to “educate others as well as ourselves to truth, beauty and the ways of peace, in the spirit of Jesus".


St. Mary's Academy fosters excellence in each child through academic achievement, spiritual development, and service. The Loretto School Values of faith, community, justice, and respect provide the foundation for students to be powerful agents of change.


Inspiring leaders to act with integrity, seek justice, build community, and change the world.

St. Mary's Academy: A Legacy of Colorado Firsts

A Short History Documentary

SMA Historical Timeline


March 1864 – Father (later Bishop) Joseph P. Machebeuf purchased the George W. Clayton residence at the corner of 14th & California for $4,000. The house was considered quite large for a residence and was reputed to be the first two-story frame house in the area. Locals referred to the residence as “The White House.” Today the location is the site of the Hyatt Regency Denver at Colorado Convention Center with a plaque that commemorates SMA as the site’s first resident.

June 27, 1864 – Sisters Johanna Walsh, Ignatia Mora and Beatriz Maes-Torres departed Santa Fe with all their possessions in one trunk. After an arduous five-day journey, they arrived in Denver and prepared to open the first “select school for girls.”

August 1, 1864 – Twelve years to the day before Colorado became the 38th state, St. Mary’s Academy for girls opened with 20 boarders and a handful of day students. In the spirit of the first Loretto School Rule in 1812, St. Mary’s Academy welcomed students of all faith traditions. Today SMA continues that commitment to inclusion.  Currently 28% of the students are families of color; the school enrolls Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, and B’hai students, as well as those from Christian denominations.


St. Mary’s Academy issued the first high school diploma granted in the Colorado Territory to Jessie Forshee. She became a Sister of Loretto and her religious name was Sister Mary Vitalis. She went on to earn a masters of arts at the Catholic University of Washington, D.C. and a music degree from the Chicago Conservatory. She served as dean of Webster College in St. Louis.


St. Mary’s Academy moved to Pennsylvania Avenue and 14th Street, a location more conducive to learning than bustling downtown. Margaret “Molly” Brown was a neighbor and benefactor of the school.  Among the many anecdotes of that era are tales of children running into Molly’s backyard to retrieve balls accidentally kicked over the fence at recess. 


St. Mary’s Academy moved to the stately Georgian home in Englewood, converting the Hickerson family home  into their convent and school until a new school building was constructed the following year.


St. Mary’s Academy celebrated 100 years of educating Denver. The cornerstone for the high school building, Bonfils Hall, was laid. A generous $500,000 gift from Helen Bonfils, secretary-treasurer of The Denver Post, funded half the cost of the new high school building.


While still maintaining its Loretto heritage, the school’s governance moved to an independent, self-perpetuating Board of Trustees.


St. Mary’s Academy celebrated the centennial of the Sisters of Loretto with events that honored Loretto’s history, mission and the vibrant community today.


St. Mary’s Academy marked its sesquicentennial with a year of events for students, families and graduates including Mass, celebration at the  Hyatt Regency Denver at Colorado Convention Center, a commemorative book St. Mary’s Academy — 150 Years. collaboration with History Colorado of former SMA campuses, visits with Loretto members, all-Academy picnic.