By Katherine Hon
The Academy of Our Lady of Peace (OLP), now situated in University Heights, began in Alonzo Horton’s New Town in a rented house located at Second and G Streets. The school opened on May 10, 1882. OLP beat San Diego High School — which opened as the Russ School on August 15, 1882 — for the honor of being San Diego’s oldest high school by three months.
An early San Diego pioneer, Father Antonio Dominic Ubach had been petitioning the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet since 1870 to establish a local school. This congregation was founded in Le Puy, France in 1650 and re-founded as a U.S. congregation in Carondelet, Missouri in 1836. The arrival of four Sisters of St. Joseph in San Diego on the steamship Ancon on April 18, 1882 marked the success of his appeals.
The school, which began with 28 female and two male students, was named the Academy of Our Lady of Peace by Reverend Mother Agatha Guthrie of the Carondelet, Missouri Congregation.
Dr. Melinda Blade, OLP Director of Mission Integration and Historian, discusses the spiritual and philosophical foundation of OLP being the Constitution of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet.
On the school’s website, she writes that the congregation is dedicated to “the practice of all the spiritual and corporal works of mercy of which a woman is capable and which will benefit the … dear neighbor.”
The school moved to a new building at the southwest corner of Third and A Streets in 1887 and continued to prosper. San Diego Union’s Sept. 1, 1890 issue hailed the beginning of a new school year at the Academy “with a number of new students, including … three of ex-Governor Ryerson’s nieces from Lower California.”
“This is the ninth year of this institution, which the Sisters of St. Joseph have made one of the most valuable educational centers of the city and county … the commencement exercises in June are always accompanied with a display of art, music, needlework and examination papers that have never been excelled by any similar exhibition given in San Diego,” according to the article.
In 1890, the boarding and day school was still co-ed; there was a separate school inside the grounds for boys. Later in the 1890s, however, it became a women-only school.
As the “Roaring ’20s” dawned, San Diego — and the school — experienced a growth spurt. Under the leadership of Sister St. Catherine Beavers, who had returned in 1923 as the Superior, the Sisters began searching for an appropriate property to be their new location.
On Jan. 25, 1924, they acquired an estate in University Heights overlooking Mission Valley at Copley Avenue and Oregon Street.
The estate, known as “Villa Montemar” contained two large houses, an observatory, a pool and gardens built in 1917 for the Van Druff family.
Winfield Scott Van Druff and his elder son Ross Ellio were originally from Pennsylvania and worked as geologists. They also were interested in astronomy and intended to conduct research in the observatory outfitted with a powerful telescope ordered from the East Coast.
The Italian Renaissance buildings on the estate were designed by Frank Phillips Allen, Jr. He had served as Director of Works for the 1915–1916 Panama-California Exposition, as well as the engineer on construction of the Cabrillo Bridge and Botanical Gardens Building in Balboa Park.
Although the structures that now constitute OLP’s Carondelet, St. Catherine’s and St. Cecelia’s buildings were completed in August 1917, it is not clear if the Van Druffs lived at the estate for any length of time.
City directories list Ross with his wife Mayme at 4775 Hamilton Street in University Heights from 1916 until 1924, when they moved to Mission Hills. Winfield and his wife Matilda are listed at 2625 Adams Ave. in 1916, then at 4931 Uvada Place, just east of the estate site, from 1918 until 1921. Winfield died in Pennsylvania in 1922.
After purchasing the property, the Sisters spent three years having new buildings designed and constructed in an Italian Renaissance style to stay consistent with the architecture of the existing buildings. San Diego Union’s May 22, 1927 issue featured seven photographs of the new facilities and lauded the site as “perhaps the most beautiful girls academy in the United States.”
Vince Heald with PR company Beck Ellman Heald, a contributor to the article, noted that OLP “continues to shape the most confident, intellectual, well-rounded leaders in our region.
“As a woman of faith, woman of heart, woman of courage and woman of excellence, an OLP student is provided opportunities to put her faith into action and become a transformative agent of change in our world,” he said.
—Katherine Hon is the secretary of the North Park Historical Society. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619-294-8990.