Seven Ursuline Sisters from New Orleans and Galveston, headed by Sister St. Marie Trouard, arrived in San Antonio on September 14, 1851, to start a girls' school at Bishop Jean M. Odin's request. On November 3 Ursuline Academy opened classes. It was then the second oldest school in Texas. The original convent, built in 1851 on the San Antonio River at Augusta Street, is believed to be the oldest surviving example of pisé de terre work in Texas and is attributed to architect Jules Poinsard. The first native of San Antonio to become a professed member of the Ursuline community was Sister Magdalen de la Garza, descendant of original Canary Islanders who settled in San Antonio and daughter of José Antonio de la Garza. Sister Magdalen became an early director of the school. According to a nineteenth-century history, by 1887 Ursuline Academy drew students "from all parts of western Texas and Mexico" to its "accommodations for seventy to eighty boarders . . . with the unqualified endorsement of the parents and guardians," who found "the facilities, equipment, site, buildings and instruction first class."
During the second half of the nineteenth century, a large complex of buildings designed by François P. Giraud was added to the original two-story convent and its three outbuildings. In 1910 a large new academy building, very different in appearance from the original grey stone buildings, was constructed. The growth of downtown San Antonio finally necessitated a change of location for the school, and in 1961 the first of the new buildings for Ursuline Academy rose on Vance Jackson Road. The present Ursuline Academy complex at that location was completed in 1979. The old Ursuline buildings on Augusta, with the exception of the 1910 academy building, which was destroyed by fire in 1967, were purchased by the Southwest Craft Center and have been carefully preserved. In 1969 they were placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Visitors today can admire the old pisé-work buildings and the later additions of native hand-chiseled stone, a fine example of the mid-nineteenth-century Gothic Revival style. A second boarding and day school in the Prospect Hill area at Commerce and Houston was operated by the Ursulines from 1898 until about 1919. Until 1946 the sisters also staffed Sacred Heart Parish School on immediately adjacent grounds. In 1906–07 the Prospect Hill buildings also housed the administrative staff and the novices for the Ursuline houses of the Midwest Province. The infirmary for these houses occupied a part of the Vance Jackson complex from 1972 until 1984. On Augusta Street the Ursulines offered hospitality to various religious congregations of women as they established their own institutions: the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word in 1869, the Carmelites in 1914, the Presentation Sisters in 1952. During the Mexican Revolution the convent was a refuge for bishops, priests, and nuns fleeing persecution. The community fed dozens of men daily during the Great Depression of the 1930s; during World War II it provided day care for preschool age children whose mothers were obliged to work.
Ursuline Academy, which funded its operating budget principally through tuition income, was fully accredited by the Texas Education Agency and the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools. The San Antonio River flood of 1921 swept away many community records, but the Ursuline archives include much material relative to the school: a large collection of photographs; the community annals and school records; and a collection of books, brochures, pamphlets, and newspaper clippings dealing with the history of the San Antonio Ursuline Academy. In the early 1990s, reduced enrollment caused severe budget strains and the academy held the final classes in May of 1992.