During the heat of the Civil War, eight Catholic nuns traveled from Frederick, Maryland and arrived in the new state of West Virginia in 1864, establishing themselves in Parkersburg. Their convent functioned as a boarding school and housed children from many places near and far. During the next 128 years, the Sisters touched the lives of many Catholics and non-Catholics as they taught children and ministered to the community.
The school was originally located on the corner of 5th Street and Avery Street in Parkersburg, but in 1900 the school moved into its newly constructed building on Murdoch Avenue. The new, larger building was designed after the order's original Visitation convent in Annecy, France and was located just north of 13th Street. They called their new home DeSales Heights in honor of St. Francis DeSales.
From 1900 to 1974, the Sisters ran a boarding school for young women at DeSales Heights. The nuns were more than just teachers and instructors for these young women. The Sisters empowered these young women, encouraging them to find their greatest potential and instilled a sense of faith in each of them. In fact, in the later years, many of the Sisters at DeSales Heights Academy were prior students. The Sisters were described as strong women, in both personality and knowledge - a gift to young women. The boarding school was recognized as a prestigious educational institution that provided an opportunity for young women to focus on their studies and grow their faith. But class sizes continued to decrease and in 1974, the boarding school was officially closed, however students from the Parkersburg area continued to attend.
In 1977, eight young women were the last to graduate from DeSales Heights Academy and the high school portion of the school was closed. The Sisters desired to continue providing meaningful education and subsequently opened West Virginia's first Montessori school to serve Kindergarten through 8th grade male and female students.
After more than a hundred years of operation, the Sisters made the hard decision to close DeSales Heights Academy in 1992. The remains of the Sisters that were buried at DeSales Heights were moved to Mt. Carmel Cemetery in Parkersburg and the large crucifix that was donated to the school by the Alumnae Association was moved to the Sister's grave site. After a building fire in 2002, the large DeSales Heights Academy was torn down. A flight of concrete stairs overgrown with vegetation is all that is left of the physical presence of the school on the hill.
But to many, DeSales Heights Academy was not just a building, but what you carry in your heart. The DeSales Heights Alumnae Association, originally formed in 1902, remains active even today. Originally, the Alumnae Association helped with fundraising and community relations for the school as the Sisters were a strict cloistered order. Today, the Alumnae Association continues to foster the connections that many students made to the community, school, fellow classmates, and their faith.
To memorialize DeSales Heights Academy and the work of the Sisters, the Alumnae Association created a scholarship fund with the Parkersburg Area Community Foundation in 2010. The fund is designed to forever provide tuition assistance to a female student attending Parkersburg Catholic High School.