Former St. Catherine Parish School a Unique Part of Laguna History

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Laguna Beach recently bought the former St. Catherine of Siena Parish School for $23 million. Many thought it seemed a reasonable price for 6.5 acres of coastal land with 39,500 square feet of school buildings. But that’s the money part. Laguna Beach Indy columnist Skip Hellewell wondered about the human side of the story, did a little digging, and found not one but two parochial schools in Laguna, each with a lost story.

St. Catherine of Siena Parish School in Laguna Beach. Photo by Steven Georges/RCBO

 Checking with Nelda Stone at Laguna Library, I learned of Sacred Heart Convent School, built in 1927, the year Laguna Beach incorporated. Located at 450 Glenneyre, the site of today’s Alice Court affordable housing, it was staffed by the Sisters of St. Dominis, based in Havana, Cuba. Besides schooling, the convent offered boarding for children and daycare for working moms. Dominican nuns from Cuba teaching and boarding kids in early Laguna? It cries for a back story. Unfortunately, I found only this 1946 article in South Coast News, “Convent Closed After Twelve Years Service.” The report offered little detail, only that the nuns were grateful for Laguna’s support and were returning to Havana, Cuba.

Eleven years later, Laguna got its second Catholic school. The stimulus for St. Catherine’s School was the post-World War II “baby boom,” which in the 50s drove a wave of building under Cardinal McIntyre with twelve parish schools opening in Orange County, including St. Catherine’s. The 6.5-acre site above Coast Highway has a story. Part of the original 1883 Franklin Goff homestead, the 136-acre farm went through various hands until heiress Florence Dolph bought it in 1905, later transferring it to her sister Blanche Dolph’s cleverly named Dolphin Company. In 1943, Laguna doctor Paul Esslinger and his wife Marie bought the Dolphin Company, about 300 Laguna acres, for $17,010, and ten years later transferred 6.5 acres to the Catholic Church for a school.

St. Catherine’s opening was announced in a 1957 South Coast News headline: “New Catholic School Opens for 200 Students in Laguna Beach.” A brick school building with five classrooms and an auditorium that could later be divided into three more classrooms, was built for $175,000. The student body would include fifty or so Laguna kids previously bused to Mission Basilica School in Capistrano. Four teachers, nuns from the St. Joseph of Carondelet order in Los Angeles, would teach grades one to eight (apparently grouping two grades together until enrollment grew).

A convent was later built to house the sisters, but times changed. A 1971 South Coast News headline warned: “Departure of Nuns May Close School.” The school survived the shortage, attracting nuns from St. Martin’s Priory in Rapid City, South Dakota, who must have loved Laguna’s weather. The convent finally closed in 1992 when the school, by necessity, converted to lay teachers, which raised costs. The convent house was used for retreats until it was lost in the 2008 reconstruction of the school at the cost of $18 million. The handwriting was on the wall: Costs were rising just as the birthrate was falling. A perfect storm of Covid-related problems and declining enrollment, complicated in the view of some by “a lack of leadership,” forced the closing of St. Catherine’s School in 2020 after 63 years.

Over the years, a multi-generation family had grown around “this small Catholic school with a vision as big as the sea.” In talking to parents and former teachers, the most common response to the closure was, “we are heartbroken.” Three years on, those who were part of St. Catherine’s still aren’t over the closing. A long-time teacher recalls, “so many triumphs, so many joys, so many funny stories.” One parent remembers St. Catherine’s as “the happiest place” and another as “the hidden jewel by the sea.” Students remembered building playhouses on the hill above the school, forming a children’s community. One recalled the joys of PE classes. Students would run to the top of the hill, down to the beach, and into the ocean.

School traditions included their version of the Pageant of the Masters, renamed “The Master’s Pageant,” where students performed kid-sized versions of paintings, including “The Last Supper” by Leonardo da Vinci. Seagulls were part of student life, always a threat to unattended lunches. You could collect a reward at the office, a quarter or some candy, if a passing gull pooped on your hair.

After the 2008 rebuilding of the school, a time capsule was buried for retrieval at the seventy-fifth anniversary in 2032.

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1 COMMENT

  1. Saint Catherine’s was a treasure to my family, our 3 kids attended and thrilled in so many activities. We volunteered a lot because we loved the school and families so very special and the memories priceless

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