In the winter 2019 issue of Alabama Heritage, the article “Mon Louis Island: A French Land Grant, A Creole Village, and a Seafood Community” featured a sidebar about the Mon Louis Island schoolhouse. As the founder and president of the “Mon Luis Schoolhouse Renovation Project,” (our group uses the spelling “Luis”), I realized that I needed to correct some misinformation about the schoolhouse and project that often has been presented in publications over the years. Correcting the record is important so that this structure will be recognized in its full significance.
Many facts about the schoolhouse come from those who experienced its history firsthand, such as Fr. Joseph Couture, an Edmundite priest who was the pastor of St. Rose of Lima church and very much involved in the schoolhouse history when the Edmundite Fathers operated the school from 1942 to 1956. Also interviewed were students who attended the school from 1926 to 1966. I also contributed to the history, because I attended the school from 1956 to 1961.
The schoolhouse was not always a parochial school. In numerous accountings it is referred to as the county school. However, it seems that through the years the majority of the teachers were Catholics, whether they were lay-teachers or nuns. In 1942, when the Edmundite Fathers invited the nuns to come to teach school, the Mon Louis School was operated by the Mobile County Public School System, as it had been since at least 1926. The Mobile Daily Register article from 1891, quoted by the winter 2019 article, describes an end-of-year student performance moderated by the two school trustees with no mention of nuns or priest. From this description it seems that even in 1891 the school was not a parochial school.
Writings from the journals of Edmundite priests such as Father Casey, one of the first pastors at St. Rose of Lima, describe a very amicable relationship between the priests and the county school authorities. Father Casey describes a time when a storm damaged the school building and the county made the repairs. Later, when the school needed painting, the county paid for it. The agreement was that the church would handle the teachers and the operation of the school, and the county would maintain the building and grounds. In his writings Father Casey says, “The county authorities were good and kind to us.”
The 2019 sidebar incorrectly states that Oliver Collins moved the schoolhouse from the church property to behind his house on Shipyard Road in 1969. The schoolhouse was moved to Shipyard Road in 1926, when the Mobile County Public Schools bought an acre of land from William Collins, Oliver’s father. The school system bought the land—not the school building—from William Collins. The county school system relocated the schoolhouse building from property near the church to Shipyard Road, where it served as the facility to educate the children of Mon Louis Island and the immediate surrounding areas from 1926 until 1966, when it was permanently closed. The schoolhouse was the only building on that tract of land until Oliver married his wife, Lois, and built his house next door in 1958 on land given to him by his father.
In 1969, three years after the county closed the school, Oliver Collins bought the land next door with the schoolhouse on it. His oldest daughter, Karen, states that her father had no real desire for the building; he just wanted more land to have a bigger vegetable garden, as he had grown up living off the land by hunting, fishing, raising cows, and growing his own food.
It is incorrect that Collins had a vision to one day relocate the schoolhouse back to the church grounds for some useful purpose. The recent move of the schoolhouse on April 17, 2018, was portrayed as Collins’s vision coming true, but it was actually never his vision.
The Mon Luis Island Schoolhouse Renovation Project was a case of the right people and the right circumstances all coming together to preserve a building that represented an exceptional lifestyle and a unique culture. Elizabeth Collins Duggin, the oldest resident of Mon Louis Island, who was a student, parent, and teacher at the school, donated a parcel of her land in 2017 to serve as the new location for the schoolhouse. Sadly, one year later Mrs. Duggin died at the age of ninety-seven. Generous donations in her memory allowed us to relocate the building.
Key members of the HMPS, such as David Newell and his wife, Simona, often passed by and fell in love with the schoolhouse architecture and its location in the quaint historical Mon Louis Island community. David’s idea was that this schoolhouse and the Mon Louis Island community represented a unique and important aspect of Mobile culture. As preservationists, he and Simona could not imagine letting the building die.
Circumstances were forcing the children of Oliver Collins to make a decision about the fate of the school building. At the same time in 2015, the HMPS had designated the schoolhouse as one of its top ten endangered buildings worthy of being preserved. David Newell had approached Oliver’s children several times about the fate of the old schoolhouse. Therefore, when I inquired about the status of the building, Pamela Collins, the head of the family, communicated their willingness to give me the building and was happy to pass information on to me about Newell and the HMPS. Newell then introduced me to all of the unbelievable free resources of the HMPS: lawyers, accountants, engineers, preservation experts, etc. In our meeting they mapped out a suggested route to a successful restoration project.
Today, the schoolhouse sits on property owned by our 501(c)3 organization, the Mon Luis Island Schoolhouse Renovation Project. We have restored 98 percent of the exterior and hope to restore the interior in the near future. To find out more about the project, visit our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/MonLuisIslandSchoolhouse/.
About the Author
Patricia D. Crawford is the founder and president of the Mon Luis Island Schoolhouse Renovation Project.