The Healy-Murphy Center, at the corner of Live Oak and Nolan Streets in San Antonio, originated as St. Peter Claver School in 1888. It was built by Margaret Mary Healy-Murphy, widow of John Bernard Murphy, former mayor of Corpus Christi, in response to the urgent need for education for African Americans. Years had elapsed since the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment (1883), and yet Black children were still excluded from schools. Illiteracy among Blacks was estimated at more than 80 percent. Bigotry and Ku Klux Klan violence were rampant, and most Catholics were reluctant to do battle with them. Mrs. Healy-Murphy willingly took on the task of convincing both the hierarchy of the church and City Hall that a school must be built. Once Bishop John C. Neraz agreed that the project was urgent, she purchased land for $2800 in October 1887 and began construction of a church, school, and convent. When the townspeople became aware of the beginnings of a "colored school and Church," they began to show disapproval. At the time, city ordinances prohibited brick buildings in the area. Mrs. Healy-Murphy had to go before the city commissioners to get special permission. The project, completed on September 16, 1888, was the first Catholic school and church for Black people in Texas. It was named for St. Peter Claver, a Jesuit saint recently canonized because of a life spent working to alleviate the suffering of African slaves aboard Spanish slave ships.
Though daily battles with prejudice strengthened Margaret's faith in God, teachers unable to cope with disharmony and tension left, and staffing the school became increasingly difficult. Mrs. Healy-Murphy asked some of her teachers to join with her in forming a religious community to assure the continuance of the school. Three agreed and together with Margaret Mary began to prepare for their dedication. In 1892 the four women were received by Bishop Neraz and consecrated as the first Sisters of the Holy Ghost (later Sisters of the Holy Spirit and Mary Immaculate) in the little convent chapel known as Our Lady of Light. Henceforth this congregation guided and staffed St. Peter Claver School. Mother Margaret's adopted niece, who belonged to the Sisters of Saint Mary of Namur, sent some girls from Mexico, where she was working, to join the new community. Mother Margaret made a trip to Ireland and brought back nine volunteers interested in continuing the work with Black people. Thus the congregation began to grow.
Richard John Maloney, of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, pastor of St. Mary's Church and later of St. Peter Claver's Church, was very helpful to Mother Margaret. His fund-raising efforts "brought encouraging responses which helped to lighten the burden" of clothing and feeding boarders, as well as staffing the school. After he died in 1893, J. F. Emory, another Oblate, became pastor of St. Peter Claver Church. Father Emory suggested to Mother Margaret Mary that the sisters transfer control of the school and the convent to his order. Emory wanted the Oblate Fathers to manage all of the Black missions of the diocese. But Bishop Neraz, in rejecting Emory's suggestion and supporting the Sisters of the Holy Ghost, declared the congregation "an Independent Association, subservient to no other authority but the authority of the Bishop of the Diocese."
On August 25, 1907, Mother Margaret Mary died. Throughout the following years, the sisters carried her ideals forward with zeal. St. Peter Claver became known for its academic excellence, personal and individualized attention to students, and development of the talents and abilities of underprivileged Black children. In 1970 the Sisters of the Holy Ghost, still determined to serve "the oppressed, poor and marginated of society," reorganized the school. Color, no longer the common denominator for the needy, had been replaced by social crisis. The sisters saw the need to serve "pregnant teenagers, dropouts and others unable to function in traditional school settings." Today the Healy-Murphy Center operates as a nonprofit corporation chartered by the state of Texas and guided by a board of directors. It provides an individualized high school program for students at risk from chronic academic failure, mental-health problems, attempted suicide, teen pregnancy, substance abuse, and juvenile probation. The school belongs to the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools. It operates a complete child care center for children six weeks old to pre-school, and also a health clinic that provides child-development classes, prenatal and postnatal care, parenting and Lamaze classes, and a well-baby clinic. Students of any race or creed are served by the school's multifaceted program, which includes all of the basics as well as art, auto mechanics, homemaking, sewing, tailoring, cooking, GED programs, and college-preparatory work.
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Carlos E. Castañeda, Our Catholic Heritage in Texas (7 vols., Austin: Von Boeckmann-Jones, 1936–1958; rpt., New York: Arno, 1976). Sister M. Immaculata Turley, S.H.G, Mother Margaret Mary Healy-Murphy (San Antonio: Naylor, 1969).
State Schools and Orphanages
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
Sister Bernice Mallory, S.H.Sp.,
Handbook of Texas Online,
accessed August 15, 2022,
Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
Original Publication Date:
February 1, 1995
Most Recent Revision Date:
September 16, 2020
This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: