By Jennifer Parris, St. Mary’s Episcopal School

St. Mary’s Episcopal School, the oldest independent school in Tennessee, celebrated its 175th anniversary with a party last spring, the culmination of a yearlong campaign to honor and remember the traditions and legacy of the all-girls college preparatory school in Memphis.

There were two goals for the 175th year celebration: to educate the school community about the history and impact of St. Mary’s and to re-engage the community following the disruptions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Honoring Tradition

While school operations at St. Mary’s continued during the early years of the pandemic, most gatherings came to a halt. Parents no longer joined their daughters for lunch in the dining hall, annual class parties paused, and the entire middle and upper schools could not experience daily Chapel services together. 

The school community was eager to resume the traditions and activities that set St. Mary’s apart. But, two grades of students and parents, along with new faculty and staff members, had not experienced these traditions in their original form.

In August 2021, the school began telling the story of St. Mary’s history and traditions in all communication channels. They retold St. Mary’s favorite stories in ways that made them relevant to today’s students and their families – but also in ways that helped alumnae reconnect with their alma mater. The school was intentional about explaining the history of traditions during in-person events, on social media, and in email communications.

Students learned about Constance and Her Companions, the Episcopal nuns who came to Memphis in 1873 to take the helm of St. Mary’s only to encounter yellow fever. They learned about the rich heritage of the annual Christmas Pageant, the school’s longest standing tradition, and alumnae were asked to help explain traditions like Black Friday, the seniors’ last day on campus as students.

Archived photos reemerged as the school created printed programs for events featuring historical photos from previous years. These visual cues reminded students of their part in the long legacy of strong St. Mary’s women. The students also got involved in the storytelling. A group of 8th-grade students worked all year to create a short film about the school’s history, presenting their final product to the student body this May.

The student council used the 175th year to celebrate the school’s athletics program. They kept track of every team’s win by adding a feather to the St. Mary’s Turkey mascot. The greater Memphis community experienced a St. Mary’s light show as the bridge over the Mississippi River glowed in the school’s blue and white colors in celebration of the 175th birthday.

The school’s magazine, mailed to alumnae, current parents, and donors, included a school timeline, a history of the school, and a series of stories from alumnae.  Alumnae were asked to share stories, and these stories became magazine features and social media posts. 

The school also updated branding for the year with a 175th badge. The art was included on printed materials including signage on campus, stationery, annual fund communication, and promotional items. 

Engaging the Community 

After months of educating the community about the rich traditions and history of the school, two events in late March and early April 2022 celebrated the 175th year. 

The first was a school birthday party for the students, which began in Chapel and continued in the dining halls. A long-standing tradition for the youngest students is receiving St. Mary’s pencils on their birthday during Chapel. This tradition had to be incorporated into our student celebration – so the St. Mary’s Turkey mascot made a special appearance in Chapel to announce that every girl would receive special pencils to celebrate the school’s birthday. The Turkey also gave lower school girls a treasured homework pass, while middle and upper school students enjoyed a game of school trivia with prizes.

Later that week, the school hosted the largest Alumnae Weekend in its history. St. Mary’s women traveled from 27 states in record numbers. A series of events was organized for classes celebrating milestone anniversaries – including those who would have celebrated during the pandemic. The alumnae were so eager to be back on campus. 

The Saturday night of Alumnae Weekend, the school hosted a community-wide event for parents, faculty and staff, and alumnae including a live and silent auction organized by the Parents’ Association. While 400 people were expected to attend, the event sold 800 tickets. Faculty and staff members received complimentary event tickets thanks to the generosity of parent donors. 

Before the live auction and in post-event communication, a video was shared, featuring five seniors explaining what St. Mary’s has meant to them. The event, including the live and silent auction and sponsorship, raised $150,000. The GiveSmart platform made ticket sales easy and hosted the auction. The platform’s event website was easy to set up and convenient for event attendees. Event sponsorships from local businesses and parents were key to fundraising success.

While the school has now moved on to its 176th year, many of the activities and strategies of the 175th celebration year will continue. It is important to keep telling the stories that make the school community unique. The retelling helps new members feel a sense of belonging and reminds others of their part in the bigger story of St. Mary’s.

Jennifer Parris is the director of communication at St. Mary’s Episcopal School. Jennifer joined the school in 2021 at the beginning of the school’s 175th year. She previously worked in healthcare communication at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital. She holds a B.A. in journalism from Elon University and a M.A. in journalism from the University of Memphis. 

St. Mary’s Episcopal School is a college preparatory school in Memphis for girls age 2 years old through 12th grade. For 175 years, St. Mary’s has encouraged and enabled each student to reach her individual potential. St. Mary’s promotes the development of honest, compassionate, and confident girls and young women who excel not only in academics but also in athletics, the arts, community service, and leadership.