The Catholic Church enjoyed spectacular growth during the Nineteenth Century. The Catholic population grew from around 500,000 to nearly 9,000,000 between 1830 and 1890. John Lancaster Spalding envisioned a fuller role for Catholics in American life and he promoted a philosophy of education which would meet that goal.
John Lancaster Spalding was born in Lebanon, Kentucky on June 2, 1840. Spalding was a brilliant student, excelling in debate and public speaking. He graduated from Mount St. Mary’s of the West as class valedictorian in 1859. He went to the newly opened Catholic University of Louvain to study for the priesthood and he was ordained on December 19, 1863 for the Diocese of Louisville, Kentucky. After only fourteen years as a priest, Bishop Thomas Foley of Chicago presided at Spalding’s consecration as the first bishop of Peoria on May 1, 1877.
Bishop Spalding wanted to build a Catholic high school for young men. In 1882 Bishop Spalding went to Rome to obtain Pope Leo XIII’s permission for the new school. Mary Gwendoline Caldwell, a family friend of the Bishop, pledged $300,000 toward the construction of the new campus. The property across from the Academy of Our Lady on Madison Street was available. Originally, the school was to be named St. Mary’s Academy, but the priests of the diocese wanted it named for Bishop Spalding. A compromise was reached and the school was named for Bishop Spalding’s brother, Father Ben Spalding who had died at the age of thirty-seven. The project cost $60,000.00, a sum of money equivalent to 1.5 million dollars today. Bishop Spalding donated the money for the new school from the royalties of his book The Poet’s Praise.
In 1901 the first class graduated from Spalding Institute: John F. Carroll, Nicholas J. Hogan, William G. Irish, William L. O’Rourke, and Fred J. Sloan. John Lancaster Spalding, the man who gave the Catholic Church in America a philosophy of education also gave the young men of Central Illinois an opportunity for a Catholic high school education that continues to this day and beyond.
Bishop Spalding invited the Marist School Brothers to administer and staff the new school. Brother Gerald served as the first Principal of Spalding Institute. In 1933, Benedictines from St. Bede’s Abbey in Peru took charge of the school. In 1950, the Viatorian priests and brothers and Benedictine Sisters began to administer the school.
Spalding Institute marked its fiftieth anniversary in 1948. The enrollment had quadrupled going from 60 to 262 students. New construction would be needed. Bishop Joseph Schlarman, third bishop of Peoria, initiated a $500,000 building campaign in June of 1950. The construction of the Schlarman Annex added twelve new classrooms. The state-of–the-art gym facility featured 1600 permanent theatre seats. A basement dining facility and a new home for the student center rounded out the new building. Bishop William Cousins, the fourth bishop of Peoria presided over the dedication ceremony in February 1953.
In 1973, Spalding and the Academy Consolidated into one school. Academy/Spalding students faced a safety hazard crossing Madison Street at the change of classes. The city closed Madison Street and the diocese built the Spalding Mall. Bishop O’Rourke dedicated it on May 7, 1981. Six years later it was renamed in his honor.
Click here to read more about the consolidation of the schools and the creation of Peoria Notre Dame.