The Academy of the Holy Cross has a history that dates back to the days just after the Civil War. The Sisters of the Holy Cross originally came to the Washington area to serve as nurses, however their service as educators is no less auspicious. The Academy of the Holy Cross is among the first of the schools founded by the Sisters.

The Academy draws its heritage from the tree of Blessed Basile Anthoine Marie Moreau, CSC, founder of the Congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Cross. As part of the Holy Cross family that stretches around the world, the Academy participates in many activities that unite all branches on the Holy Cross tree.

The Early Years


The Academy of the Holy Cross traces its founding to the parish of Saint Matthew the Apostle in Washington, DC, where the pastor, Rev. Charles Ignatius White invited the Sisters of the Holy Cross to open a school for the girls of the parish. Mother Angela (Gillespie) sent Sister M. Sebastian (Gregory) and Sister M. Nativity (Moss). After one year, the immediate need for a private school was apparent. In 1869, three additional sisters were sent from the Mother House in South Bend, Indiana to organize the program. Established to promote the education of young women in the ideals expressed by Blessed Basil Moreau, the Sisters of the Holy Cross taught children and young women at facilities shared with St. Matthew’s parish school. Despite the rapid growth of the Academy, lack of funds kept the sisters from opening their own facility. A residence at 1440 M Street, N.W., was rented in 1876 for the faculty and to house the Academy, where they remained for three years.

Massachusetts Avenue Campus


 In 1877 Sister M. LaSalette (Smith) became the school’s superior and began a search to find a more suitable location for the Academy. With the help of Father White, the sisters purchased a lot adjacent to Thomas Circle at 1312 Massachusetts Avenue, N.W. for $11,000. Father White died before the foundation of the new institution was laid, but his words, “Put up a building worthy of the Church and your community,” were literally fulfilled. The institution cost $40,000 and was described as a “pretentious red brick building with handsome stone trimmings.” The building was completed, and The Academy of the Holy Cross was formally chartered in 1879.

By the time Sister M. Angelica (Holton) became superior in 1884, Holy Cross was known as a preeminent school for young women in Washington. The school hosted presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Howard Taft, and Sister Angelica, graduating seniors and teachers were guests at the White House. Additionally the Academy welcomed many of the most distinguished scholars of the nation. As head of the Academy for 29 years, Sister Angelica made monumental changes to improve Holy Cross. At the close of the nineteenth century, the building was renovated to allow for resident students. As the number of graduates from the Academy began to grow, the Alumnae Association was established in 1899. In 1906 new electric lighting was installed and, for the first time, hot and cold water were run up to the third floor of the Academy for the boarders. As the number of young women who boarded at the Academy grew, the sisters were forced to use folding cots in classrooms to accommodate the residents. This led to the leasing of a nearby property as an annex in 1907.

Despite this addition, Sister Angelica realized that the Academy was rapidly outgrowing its present location. Noticing a large unused estate west of Rock Creek Park on Dunbarton Heights, Sister Angelica purchased the 22 acres of land in 1904 with the support of Washington’s Bishop Thomas J. Shahan. The remote pastoral location in upper Northwest DC had no water, sewage service, gas, or electricity and was used as a summer retreat for the boarders and sisters.

Upton Street Campus



Sister Angelica received approval to build the new campus from the Mother House just before Christmas in 1908 with the proviso that she could expect no financial assistance. Plans were drawn and in May 1909, ground was broken for the new institution.

The Academy’s new Tudor Gothic brick structure was finished a year later and, in 1910, the students and sisters eagerly moved to what came to be called the Upton Street campus. After nearly three decades of service to the Academy, Sister Angelica retired in 1912, leaving the Academy with a bright vision for the future and a profound debt.

The 1920s brought about exciting events for the Ladies of the Academy. Enrollment was at a record high. The Academy operated its own farm. The graduating classes of 1921 and 1926 were both received by the First Ladies at the White House. The Alumnae Association established a scholarship fund through the generous support by the growing number of graduates of the Academy. Following the death of the beloved Sister M. Angelica, the Alumnae Association inaugurated “Rose Day” in her memory with the completion of the “Our Lady of the Roses” shrine of the Blessed Mother.

Although the Academy felt the effects of the Great Depression with a reduction in enrollment, the school continued to flourish throughout the 1930s. As the Academy and other schools operated by the sisters continued to thrive, the need for higher education of the sisters and the graduates of their schools became evident. In 1935 Dunbarton College of the Holy Cross began operation in the Academy’s building and moved into their own new building on the campus three years later.

As the United States entered World War II, the Academy continued to provide an exemplary education for young women. As many families came to Washington to work in the expanding departments of government, the number of students at the Academy once again increased. Space at Upton Street was also made available to young women who came to Washington as war workers.  While students at the Academy continued their studies, they also assisted with the war effort. Students purchased war bonds and raised funds to purchase three Jeeps and five ambulances. They joined the Red Cross, volunteered at many hospitals in the area, and compiled hand-made and collected supplies for kits that were mailed to soldiers, displaced Europeans, and orphaned refugee children, all despite their own rationing.

Kensington Campus


Despite the uncertainty of war, the sisters had a vision for their beloved school. In 1943 they purchased nearly 150 acres of land in Kensington known as the Corby Estate. The property included the mansion, which initially served as the sisters’ residence and later was developed into the Strathmore Hall Center for Arts. In 1956 the Academy moved to its present 28-acre home. Grades were added one year at a time while the students at Upton Street graduated. The school flourished in its new location. Under the leadership of Sister M. Thomas Aquinas (O’Connor) a $200,000 “East Wing” addition was completed in 1966, adding art and music rooms and a gymnasium. The new gym was put to good use, including a 115-game basketball winning streak from 1976 to 1982.

Through the 1970s the Academy’s academic program continued to stay ahead of educational trends with opportunities such as the Senior Project internship. The 1980s became a disconcerting time for area Catholic schools and the Academy’s future became uncertain. The administration continued on a solid path, however, with new initiatives continuing to be introduced. In 1985 the Alumnae Association transferred the Our Lady of the Roses statue to the Kensington campus circle.

In 1998 the Academy received the U.S. Department of Education Blue Ribbon of Excellence, proving that the decision not to close was a wise one. A year later, the Academy’s governance transferred responsibility for operation to a Board of Trustees, while the sisters retained certain powers. With a new financial stability established, the Arts & Sciences wing and Theatre was opened in 2003, nearly doubling the school’s learning space.

Recognizing the need for a Catholic high school inclusion program for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities, the Academy introduced a modified program in 2000. After the program was later suspended for evaluation and restructuring, the Moreau Options Program for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities was reintroduced in 2014 with great success.

In 2010 the Academy became an International Baccalaureate World School (suspended with the class of 2020). International recruitment efforts expanded in 2014, to include students from China. In 2015 the Center for Technology and Creativity opened to support the growing technology curriculum. Ridgway Field, an all-weather, synthetic-turf field was added, better preparing athletes for faster play at the college level with fewer injuries. New initiatives in 2017, such as Project Lead the Way and dual credit/dual enrollment with Marymount University, continue to demonstrate the Academy’s progressive mindset. 

The Academy of the Holy Cross carries a deep legacy of commitment to women’s education, nurtured by the dedication of hundreds of Sisters of the Holy Cross and countless other educators. All whose lives have been touched by this great institution owe them a debt of gratitude.