In 1842 Father Edward Soren of the Congregation of Holy Cross travelled to a frozen patch of land at the northern tip of Indiana with the intent to establish a school after years of scratching together a small student body from the brutal winter landscape. Soren then watched helplessly as a fire burned his fledgling creation to the ground. Undeterred, he declared that the fire was simply a sign that he had not dreamed big enough and immediately commenced to a much grander rebuilding effort.
St. Joseph Catholic school is formally recognized as having been established in 1870. But its roots can be traced back 17 years prior, making it one of the oldest high schools in the entire state of Mississippi. And the oldest continuously operating High School in the greater Jackson metro area.
St. Joseph’s original campus being located in downtown Jackson places the school in a very unique category that was shared only by the much larger Central High School as the state’s largest city and the state capitol. Jackson bustled with the activity of state government, and a vibrant retail and commercial sector, which surrounded the small school with big energy.
The involvement of the Catholic Church in St. Joe created unique dynamics not present in other schools. Immediately noticeable was the high expectation of discipline and excellence demanded by the priests and nuns.
In the state of Mississippi, no school is truly recognized as part of the social landscape until it produces a football team. For St. Joe, this watershed moment came in 1948. Though facilities were lacking, the physical nature of the sport was a perfect complement to the hard-nosed families that made up the student body.
In 1950, St. Joe hired a Lebanese math teacher who would also take the reigns as the coach of the football team. It is unlikely that anyone at the time realized the monumental impact this individual would have on the school. But when Bill Rayfield retired from St. Joe, four decades later, the reputation of the Bruin football team would be acknowledged in every corner of the state.
During the 1950s, as Raphael was building the St. Joe football program, the conference structure was prevalent throughout the state. Teams belong to conferences such as the little Dixie and the Cherokee. While the biggest schools were members of the all-mighty big eight conference, but just as St. Joe was not constrained by the lines of a school district, it also chose independence over conference membership. And Raphael used this to his advantage.
In 1972, Raphael had assembled possibly his most talented team at St. Joe, and open the season with a surprise win over traditional power Clinton High School. Nine weeks later, Raphael had produced his first undefeated team and was positioned for an invitation to one of Mississippi’s postseason bowl games. As bowl season approached, rumors began to circulate about the possibility of an unthinkable opponent, the Mustangs of Mora high school.
Like any good football program, St. Joe had suffered through a period of less than memorable seasons towards the end of the 20th century. However, possessing a beautiful new campus and vibrant Madison, as well as its always present academic excellence, the school was poised to renovate and restore its proud football tradition. This reclamation project was appropriately kicked off by none other than coach Bill Raphael, at a local barbecue restaurant, fittingly, named the pigskin.
173 years after it was founded by Father Edward Soren, the University of Notre Dame has firmly established itself as one of the premier centers for higher education in the world today. Such a mantle is not achieved simply through the bold vision of one man, but rather through generations of bold leadership. 145 years after being established by the Sisters of Mercy, St. Joseph’s Catholic school claims a similar position of excellence among Mississippi high schools.