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St. Bernard College (Alabama)

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  • Private (1919 - 1943)

Located in Cullman, Alabama.

The Benedictine monks came to north Alabama in 1891 to minister to German Catholics. They immediately built an abbey and started a school. St. Bernard College opened in 1892 for 59 boys in grades 6-12 and was chartered by the state a year later. As the 1902 ad (above) shows, St. Bernard College offered three programs—elementary, commercial and classical. Graduates from the commercial (high school-level) program received a Master of Accounts degree. According to a 1916 article in the Age-Herald, the school offered a Bachelor of Arts degree. St. Bernard also operated a seminary program for training priests.

By 1911 St. Bernard expected 175 matriculates. After the four-year program was approved in 1956, total enrollment reached 610—406 in the collegiate program. In 1962, the preparatory program was dropped.

At the third commencement of 1895, students performed an original drama; this became a part of the closing programs for a number of years. St. Bernard was strong in music with a college orchestra, a glee club, and a student choir along with a mandolin orchestra. A news item in 1911 shows that students performed monthly concerts.

In 1929 St. Bernard began a junior college program, accredited in 1932. The four year program had its first graduates in 1955 and was accredited a year later.

In 1969 St. Bernard became fully co-educational. In 1976 it merged with Cullman College, forming Southern Benedictine College. But in 1979 due to financial problems and dropping enrollment, that school was closed.

The campus was located a mile and a half east of Cullman, on eighty acres of virgin forest land. Ads stated, the “altitude renders it free from fevers and malaria.” The Age Herald noted that the because of the isolated campus, “there is nothing to distract the minds of the students from the objects that took them there.

The main building—three stories over a basement-- was of white sandstone It contained a theatre and an art studio. Two other buildings were the Faculty Building and the Electric Power Plant. This had administrative offices on the second floor.

Another feature of the campus was the farm, which specialized in Gurnsey dairy cattle and by 1955 had “one of the outstanding herds in the state.”

The main tourist attraction at St. Bernard College is the Ave Maria Grotto. The work of a German monk Joseph Zoettl, the grotto contains 125 miniature buildings representing the history of Christendom. Built between 1929 and 1932, it was placed on the National Register in 1984.

St. Bernard Preparatory School was reestablished in 1984 and occupies the former college campus.

The June 20, 1895 edition of the Age-Herald reported that baseball teams from St. Bernard College and Decatur had “crossed bats for a prize of $150,” the Saints winning 15-5. In 1901 the Age-Herald reported on an “annual field day” event. By 1904 St. Bernard College “boasts a football and a baseball team.”

College Football Data Warehouse shows football games sporadically between 1906 and 1950. Early games were with independent and high school teams such as the Cullman Giants and the Athens Agricultural School. After St. Bernard became a junior college, Marion Military Institute became an annual opponent. The two-year normal schools at Jacksonville, Troy, Livingston, and Carrollton, Georgia were also frequently opponents.

Basketball would become the school’s signature sport under coach Charles W. Richard. “Charley’s Boys” enjoyed 32 winning seasons, participating in the NAIA tournament in Kansas City in 1961. In 1960-69 St. Bernard was a member of the Alabama Collegiate Conference with championship teams in basketball and baseball.

In its final decade St. Bernard College fielded nationally ranked teams in golf, soccer, and judo.

This photo shows that St. Bernard College played basketball at least at intramural level as early as 1906. The "Lincoln" team played four other school teams. Image from the National Collegiate Athletic Association Basketball Guide.