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Saving St. Francis boarding school for African American and indigenous girls

Former students, historian join forces to save crumbling Virginia boarding school
Posted at 12:48 PM, Jun 05, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-07 09:05:29-04

POWHATAN COUNTY, Va. -- Like an ancient castle perched high above Powhatan, abandoned and alone, but certainly not forgotten, photographer John Plashal notices charm in neglect.

“This is an incredibly historic place that is otherwise dead," Plashal said. “I’m not the only one who this building speaks to.”

The photographer and historian is documenting decay at St. Francis de Sales -- a crumbling landmark unlike any other in Virginia.

“This place is dying as quickly as the people who once walked its hallways," he said.

St. Francis opened as a boarding school for African and Native American girls.

“The irony of it all is the fact that this was accomplished on a plantation where there were slaves and now it turns into this unbelievable place of empowerment," he said.

Faye Coleman graduated from St. Francis in 1967.

“I was like a poor little rich girl. I was so blessed. You know that," Coleman said. "The best days of my life were spent here.”

The grateful Richmonder was one of 5,000 students who enrolled over the course of 70 years.

“Yes. It was strict. Those nuns didn’t play," she recalled. "There was nothing like it. I really learned how to be a lady here.”

Peggy Thurston graduated from St. Francis in 1964.

“Oh, my goodness. This building stood majestic and tall," Thurston said. “We had a wonderful life here. To me, this place became my second home. The students became my family.”

Thurston said the nuns and education helped shape the woman she is today.

But both Thurston and Coleman lament the current state of their alma mater, which closed in 1970.

“It was shameful that this property was allowed to get to this point," Thurston said.

So, the graduates and Plashal are banding as one to preserve the legacy of St. Francis.

“It’s the perfect confluence of events that come together," Plashal said. "There is no more unique of an opportunity. There is not!”

Their goal is to raise money for a historic marker or possibly a museum.

“Why not save it. You’re not going to find another place like this place. You know," Coleman said.

Plashal will lead scheduled tours of the private property while former students like Coleman and Thurston share tales of school days gone by.

“When you bring back the alumni to share stories with the public, it temporarily brings everything back to life," Plashal said.

Jeff Oakley who purchased the condemned building and surrounding farmland last year fully supports the effort.

"I grew up 50 miles from here and never heard of the place," Oakley said. "So this is amazing that this was a complete community. I’m very motivated to preserve it.”

“Something needs to be done because this place matters to a lot of people," Plashal said.

Fifty years after the last student walked out of St. Francis de Sales with a diploma in hand, graduates are returning as teachers of a lesson plan they know best. Their own.

“I was just blessed to be here. Truly," Thurston said. “It is a history that needs to be saved.”

St. Francis de Sales was added to Preservation Virginia’s list of 10 Most Endangered Historic Sites in 2007.

If you would like to learn more about the tours and help with a memorial the group, click here.

If you are interested in learning more about scheduled tours, please contact John Plashal:

john@johnplashalphoto.com

If you would like to donate, click here.

Drone Footage Courtesy of John Hancock Productions.

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