Roaming The Grounds Of Villa Maria In Frontenac

In the late-1880s, a benefactor in St Louis offered to purchase land in Lake City for the Ursuline Sisters of the Roman Union, Central Province, to build a school. Once Israel Garrard — founder of Frontenac — got wind of the plan, he called on the Ursuline Academy’s sisters in Lake City. He asked them to visit Frontenac before settling on a property in Lake City. 

Together, they toured the town, and Garrard offered to give them any site they liked in town. They chose 124-acres on a tall hill above the Mississippi River. The land was transferred in 1890, and construction of the school began the same year. The Villa Maria Academy for Girls opened in 1891. The school catered to both day students and boarders.

By the mid-1940s, the number of girls boarding at the school had increased to the point of needing more room to house them. Marian Hall, a 39,500 square-foot French Chateau-style residence hall, was completed in 1946. 

On March 20, 1969, the school building was destroyed by fire after being struck by lightning around 4:00 a.m. It was all hands on deck to evacuate the convent on the western end of the building and rescue as many items as possible from the burning building. 

Fire quickly consumed the top two floors, so the sisters pulled books and furniture from the second-floor library and museum. They removed what they could through an underground tunnel connecting the school building and Marian Hall. Two local fire departments used water from the swimming pool to try and put out the blaze, but the building was a total loss. 

The sisters worked day and night to convert part of Marian Hall into classroom space to finish the school year. Villa Maria Academy for Girls closed its doors that summer. Thankfully, that wasn’t the final chapter for the beautiful Marian Hall. The building transitioned to being the center of activity at Villa Maria Retreat and Conference Center. 

The Ursuline sisters decided to close the conference center in 2016 and sell the building with the surrounding 70 acres of land. Commonwealth Properties purchased the property and converted the building into an event center. In 2021, studio apartments and guest suites converted from the original dorm rooms will be available for short- or long-term stays. 

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