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New plans for an old, crumbling St. Augustine schoolhouse

EXCLUSIVE: Nuns with the Sisters of St. Joseph plan to restore a 125-year-old school building, turning it into a place to help single mothers

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Breathing new life into Ancient City history. 

That’s what some nuns in St. Augustine want to do with a historic – but crumbling -- schoolhouse.

"Oh my," Sister Kathleen Carr said as she walked around the exterior walls of the old St. Benedict the Moor school. The walls are kept standing by large metal braces, placed at an angle in the ground. 

She and Sister Stephanie Flynn had only seen the outside of the building they plan to restore, until Monday when they stood at the school's open door, peeking in.

"Dear Lord, help us," Flynn said under her breath. 

Credit: Jessica Clark
Sister Kathleen Carr and Sister Stephanie Flynn look inside the schoolhouse for the first time Monday.

Carr added, as she looked inside and saw more ground than floorboards, "What have we taken on?"

The two laughed and looked at each other.

Flynn said, "Are we nuts?"

Nuts… to plan to restore a building that has been abandoned for decades, long enough for trees to grow inside of it and past what would be the roof top.  There hasn't been a roof on the building for years.

Credit: Sisters of St. Joseph
St. Benedict the Moor School with teachers and students

This was the St. Benedict the Moor schoolhouse for Black children in the Lincolnville neighborhood of St. Augustine. It was established in 1898.

Sister Kathleen Carr and Sister Stephanie Flynn are with the Sisters of St. Joseph in St. Augustine. Carr is the Gerneral Superior. 

She said, "Our sisters ran this school, so we have big history here. Long history."

Inside these walls and on these floors, students spent more than six decades, learning from the Sisters of St. Joseph.  Then in 1964, public schools were desegregated and students from St. Benedict the Moor attended public schools in the area. 

That’s when the school closed.

Now, the Sisters of St. Joseph are teaming up with the Cathedral in St. Augustine to turn this shell of a school into a neighborhood center. The goal is to work with single mothers and their children.

Flynn said, "The women we want to work with earn just above what they need to get government assistance and still can’t make that jump. So we want to give them the education and skills they need to better their situation."

Credit: Jessica Clark

The inside of the building will be demolished, not that there’s a lot left.  From above, you can see through the second floor to the first floor, and to the ground.

That interior demolition is expected to happen in February.

The walls on the outside are staying intact.

The Sisters see more than a building that’s connected to their history in St. Augustine. They want it to be a place that helps the future here.

"It’s sort of a metaphor," Flynn said, looking up at the building. 

"It’s really not about renovating an old building," Carr added. "It’s about renovating the lives of these women."

And so, these sisters stand at the threshold of raising more money to restore hope and this old school.

They continue to fundraise, seeking both private and corporate donations as well as grants.