north carolina highway historical marker program
North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program



Marker Text:

     To many young women arriving in Raleigh during 1850, the rural backdrop of an underdeveloped capital city, complete with ramshackle houses and unpaved roadways, must have served as a foreboding sign of the quality of education they were to receive at the burgeoning women’s seminary, or “cemetery” as local coach drivers sometimes mispronounced it, at St. Mary’s. Established in 1842 through the vision and fundraising efforts of Episcopalian minister Aldert Smedes and his wife, the school for women was converted from a similar institution for young men, which opened in 1834. According to school tradition, the first class at St. Mary’s, arriving in 1842, was comprised of thirteen women. The Reverend Smedes and his wife, Sarah, greeted the new students at the door, and from then on the couple acted more like family than faculty to the students. The rise of colleges and universities around the state eventually drew candidates away from St. Mary’s, and in 1897, the Carolina Diocese appointed a board of trustees and relinquished control of day-to-day operations.

     By the early twentieth century, prominent families in both North and South Carolina sent their daughters to attend. Wealth was not always a prerequisite for attendance, however, as the later rectors followed Smedes’s example. The Reverend personally interviewed each student for acceptance, and often would grant scholarships to girls whose families were unable to provide tuition. Smedes understood the education of young women, as well as the confidence and skills it confers, was essential for coming generations. In what he deemed the “true mission of women,” Smedes said: If she will do what she can . . . , she can do almost what she will for the moral and spiritual welfare of the world. But to accomplish this, she must understand her high and heavenly mission.” That mission, as interpreted by others since Smedes’s death in 1877, led to changes at St. Mary’s throughout the years. In 1997, the board of trustees decided to terminate the junior college program in order to focus on high school and college preparatory classes beginning in the fall of 1998.

     While the entire twenty-three acre campus is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, of special interest is the campus chapel, designed in Gothic Revival style by architect Richard Upjohn in 1857. While St. Mary’s School remains dedicated to the changing landscape of women’s education in the twenty-first century, the goal of St. Mary’s—the same as in 1842—is the education of young women today to empower the generations of tomorrow.

Martha Stoops, The Heritage: The Education of Women at St. Mary’s College, Raleigh, North Carolina, 1842-1982 (1984)
William S. Powell, ed., Encyclopedia of North Carolina, 997—sketch by Martha Stoops
Elizabeth Reid Murray, Wake: Capital County of North Carolina, Volume 1: Prehistory Through Centennial (1983)
Lawrence F. London and Sarah M. Lemmon, eds., The Episcopal Church in North Carolina, 1883-1900 (1987)
St. Mary’s School website:
Katherine Batts Salley, ed., Life at Saint Mary’s (1942)
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north carolina highway historical marker program

© 2008 North Carolina Office of Archives & History — Department of Cultural Resources