In 1850, a group of Ursuline Sisters came to Cleveland from France and quickly became an essential part of Catholic education across Northern Ohio. In 1874, the Ursulines acquired land in Nottingham Village for a new boarding school to be operated by the nuns. Initially housing girls as Saint Mary School, the program grew to include boys as well with the addition of Saint Joseph Seminary. Although both schools have long been shuttered, the educational spirit of the campus lives on at Villa Angela-St. Joseph High School in Cleveland's northeast corner.
In 1850 Bishop Amadeus Rappe traveled to Boulogne-sur-Mer, France, to seek aid from his former colleagues for the Cleveland Diocese. He invited the Ursuline nuns to come to Cleveland to initiate efforts to provide education within the diocese. In August 1850, four sisters traveled to Cleveland and assumed residence in the Samuel Cowles House secured by the Bishop near East Fourth Street and Euclid Avenue. By September, a space was opened to board girls and provide a day school. During the ensuing years, the school expanded in enrollment and the nuns required more space to accommodate growth. The Ursulines began staffing parish day schools by 1853 and also ventured to Youngstown, Toledo, and Tiffin, Ohio, creating the parochial school system as the community grew in size. Commercial Cleveland was growing and surrounding the school.
By 1874, reacting to Mother Mary's observations concerning the shrinking downtown facility, Bishop Gilmour determined the conditions on Euclid and Fourth could no longer adequately serve the students, staff, and program. He urged the Sisters to purchase property on the lakeshore in the village of Nottingham, just east of Collamer Village. Thirty-seven acres of property bounded by Euclid Creek to the east was owned by George Gilbert and was for sale. The Bishop originally sought the land as a site for a diocesan seminary but thought again to urge the nuns to consider the property. They toured the beautiful property, buried religious medals at the site, and prayed for a favorable acquisition of the land. Mr. Gilbert met the offer tendered by the Sisters and completed the sale in June 1874. They named the grounds Villa Angela in honor of their foundress Saint Angela Merici. The Ursulines used the next three years to build a residence and a school for girls called St. Mary School and began classes in September 1878 for boarding and day school enrollees.
At the urging of Cleveland’s bishop, the Ursulines opened a school for boys in 1886 on the grounds at Villa Angela. St. Joseph Seminary grew in service to young boys in grades one to eight. In 1892 a new larger building was built to accommodate the boys at St. Joseph; it remained in service until 1946 when a fire destroyed the facility. Interestingly, within five years, the Marionists, a Catholic order of priests and brothers, would open Saint Joseph High School about a mile east of the Villa Angela property on the Lake Erie shore.
Meanwhile, St. Mary remained a popular residence and day school for girls staffed and managed by the Ursulines. The property housed the schools, a convent for the nuns and open orchard property. In 1906 the Humphrey Company (owners of next door neighbor Euclid Beach) bought 11 acres of Villa Angela property. The real estate proved most profitable and provided ongoing financial support for the Ursuline educational efforts in the community. The historical records show St Mary School was renamed Villa Angela Academy in August, 1941 as it transitioned to a four year high school which served girls until its merger in 1990 with St. Joseph High School. Villa Angela - St. Joseph High School serves coeducational classes on the lake shore at East 185th Street.
The original Villa Angela property is currently owned by the City of Cleveland and is the home of the Memorial-Nottingham Branch of the Cleveland Public Library. The surrounding grounds make up part of the system of lakeshore parks on Cleveland’s east and west sides. Villa Angela Beach adjoins Euclid Beach Park and Wildwood Park to provide scenic overlooks, a fishing pier, a sandy beach and boat launch access to Lake Erie.