Loretto Academy: Once-Thriving Catholic School in the Heart of Las Cruces

The Archives and Special Collections (ASC) has many interesting historical collections, but the Loretto Academy holding is a gem that catches people’s attention whenever we have a public display of our archival holdings. A woman attending the 2019 Border Regional Archives Group (BRAG) Border Archives Bazaar, held at the New Mexico Farm & Ranch Heritage Museum, was in awe that we had the Loretto Academy collection. She had a family member who had attended the once-thriving Catholic school located in downtown Las Cruces. Seeing people connect to an archival collection is gratifying and is one of many aspects I enjoy about being an archivist. I could ramble on and on about reasons why I enjoy being in the archival profession, but I can save that for another post. The Loretto Academy collection consists of brochures, pamphlets, a graduation program, and issues of The Loretto Crescent and The Loretto Chimes, dating from 1905-1940s.

Black and white image of Loretto Academy

Image depicting Loretto academy with the Nestor Armijo residence in background. (A74-061-0206)

While drafting this blog post, I imagine how different the Las Cruces downtown landscape area was during the Loretto Academy-era. Browsing through photos and glancing at the Loretto Academy plat map it is evident that the convent covered a good portion of the downtown area. Today the area where the academy once stood is much different – now transformed to commercial and office spaces.

Hand-drawn map

Hand-drawn map of the property owned by the Sisters of Loretto in Las Cruces, New Mexico. (Ms0368)

The Loretto Academy was operated from 1870-1943, serving the Las Cruces community and surrounding areas. In 1852, Jean-Baptiste Lamy, the first Archbishop of Santa Fe, made a trip to Baltimore to find an order of religious women that would be willing to take on the task of establishing a school in the New Mexico area. The Sisters of Loretto, a teaching order that originated in Kentucky, took it upon themselves to volunteer for the task. The Catholic school came to fruition in 1870. The Sisters of Loretto arrived in Las Cruces with a vision to educate New Mexicans by introducing “American” language, culture, and values. The vision to build such an educational institution of its kind did not come easy.

Upon arriving in the City of Crosses, the Sisters quickly realized that there was not a place dedicated to teaching students. To overcome the obstacle of not having a place to teach, Bishop Jean-Baptiste Salpointe, of Arizona, assisted and purchased some acreage in the center of the town to build the academy. Mother Praxedes (born Susan Carty in Cavan, Ireland) was an important figure within the Loretto Academy; she served as the Mother Superior and quickly began to improve the grounds along with the curriculum to reflect the religious aspect of the school. Her influence within the academy and in the community is evident when browsing through the Amador and Armijo family papers at ASC. Correspondence exchanged between these important families and Mother Praxedes clearly demonstrates her ties to the academy and her passion for the school to thrive.

Image of pamphlet

Loretto Academy brochure. (Ms0042)

The year 1890 proved a turning point for the academy. Due to increased enrollment, the need to expand was necessary and a large Spanish style structure was erected to accommodate students. As more students enrolled, additional space was needed, so eventually, a third floor was added to meet the needs of the growing academy. In the Loretto Academy brochure, the advertisement describes Las Cruces as being noted for its “climatic attractions, healthful location, free from the distraction of city life and an ideal spot for an Academy.” Perhaps the location and the quality of education was an enticing factor. Many Las Cruces pioneer families sent their children to obtain an education at the academy, including the Amador, Armijo, and Daguerre families to name a few.

Black and white image of aerial view of Loretto Academy

Aerial that includes the Loretto Academy, upper left, and some recognizable downtown buildings still standing. (02590420)

After decades of serving the Mesilla Valley and the surrounding area, the Loretto Academy had its last graduating class in 1943. The decision to close the doors to the once-prosperous institution was due to several factors. Declining enrollment was caused in part by a new Loretto Academy being established in El Paso in 1937, as well as by financial challenges of the Great Depression of the 1930s. Although the academy is no longer standing, a statue (La Pieta) located on the corner of Lohman and Water streets serves as a physical reminder of the institution. The academy was sold in the 1940s to a group of Franciscan Fathers whose intentions were to utilize the property to train for the priesthood. In the late 1950’s the academy was abandoned and a truck crashed into the property which caused extensive damage. The property was later purchased by a developer, then the academy was demolished to pave the way for Main Street.

Black and white image of La Pieta

La Pieta replica, located downtown Las Cruces, (Ms0480)

Those interested in reading more about the Loretto Academy, please see the finding aid via the Rocky Mountain Online Archive.


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