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Nuestra Historia - West system rooted in early Catholic schools

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For more than 30 years after Las Vegas was founded in 1835, there was no organized educational instruction available in the fledgling settlement. As was customary in New Mexico at the time, local clergy, if any, provided the little formal education available, though wealthy families often retained live-in tutors.

This changed in 1869, when the Sisters of Loretto arrived in Las Vegas and opened their school across from present-day Our Lady of Sorrows church, in a four-room adobe house made available by Rumaldo Baca. Five years later, in 1874, an order of Italian Jesuits established their school on South Pacific Street, in homes provided by Manuel Romero and Francisco Lopez.

Townspeople quickly raised money to build permanent facilities for each school, and before the railroad arrived on the east side, both the Sisters academy and the Jesuit college were located on South Gonzales Street, in what became El Distrito de las Escuelas. Together with the Christian Brothers school which soon followed, these early parochial schools would become the foundation of the public school system which flourishes today as the West Las Vegas School district.

The history of both the Sisters academy and the Jesuit college, with accompanying photographs, appeared in Nuestra Historia in June 2011. In this series recounting the tale of two cities, we will review that history only as it relates to the evolution of the public school system in Old Town — as the early Catholic schools were an integral part of that development.

When the Jesuits left Las Vegas and moved to Denver in 1888 (where they established Regis College), they were followed here by the Christian Brothers of La Salle, another Catholic teaching order.

The Brothers arrived in Las Vegas in 1888, and set up their first school at St. Joseph’s Hall (Sala de San Jose) on Hot Springs Boulevard, which still stands today, diagonally across from the Old Town post office. (Built in 1886 as an auxiliary building for OLOS parish, for many years St. Joseph’s Hall was a meeting place for many eventful political, civic and cultural gatherings.)

In 1889, having raised $12,000 in just a year, the Brothers began construction of a school for boys at the northeast corner of New Mexico Avenue and Valencia Street. Known as De La Salle Institute, the school consisted of two buildings, and soon after it opened had an enrollment of 130 boys, from the primary grades through high school. (The larger building was made entirely of stone, and the smaller structure had an adobe first-level, with a frame second story, and served as the Brothers’ living quarters.)

The Christian Brothers continued their school at this site for more than a half century, until about the mid-1940s, when they moved to the former Jesuit college on South Gonzales Street. The De La Salle Institute buildings were then occupied by the missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Victory (Catechists), who were also a mainstay in Las Vegas. (In 1955, with the encouragement of Monsignor Hubert Lomme of OLOS Parish, local contractor Ignacio Lucero purchased the De la Salle property from the Archdiocese of Santa Fe and demolished both buildings, and by 1960, Lucero had built a dozen homes on the property.)

After moving to the former Jesuit college in El Distrito de las Escuelas (built in 1878), the Christian Brothers continued their school there, just a short distance from the academy built for the Sisters of Loretto in 1876. As will be related later, both locations would become the foundation of the sprawling compound which is today the nucleus of the West Las Vegas schools. (The Sisters’ school continued on South Gonzales until 1963, when the dilapidated condition of the buildings caused the Sisters to move to makeshift quarters until 1967, when they moved into the newly completed Hilton-Our Lady of Sorrows school, now Tony Serna elementary, on New Mexico Avenue.)

While the Sisters of Loretto, the Jesuits and the Christian Brothers provided the core of early education in Old Town, a public school system had existed on the west side since 1884. In fact, by 1886, some 43 separate schools (districts) existed throughout San Miguel County, most providing instruction in Spanish alone, others in English, and some in both languages. (In 1884, the territorial legislature established a public education system in New Mexico, begun in part to encourage the Hispanic population to learn English and foster Americanization, in hopes of overcoming objections to statehood in Washington.)

Under the new public education system, two school buildings were erected on the west side in the 1890s, and by 1900, North Public school had 350 pupils and South Public had 200. The North and South schools (districts) were merged in 1903 as the Town schools, which would evolve into the West Las Vegas School district — in a gradual melding with the old parochial schools and the county school system.

Jesus L. Lopez is a native of Las Vegas and a local historian. He may be reached at 425-3730.