Ask McGehee: What is the history of the building housing the St. Francis Place Condos in downtown Mobile?

Postcard of the old Covent of Mercy building in Mobile, AL
Above: This postcard from around 1910, published by S.H. Kress Company in Nanticoke, Pennsylvania, shows what today is St. Francis Place, a luxurious condominium development in downtown Mobile. The rooftop cupola was probably lost in the 1926 hurricane. Courtesy San Diego College for Women Postcard Collection

The historic building, which has housed luxurious condominiums for well over 20 years, got its start in 1908 as the Convent of Mercy.

The Sisters of Mercy arrived in Mobile in 1884 to teach students at what was called St. Joseph’s Institute. St. Joseph’s parish was founded by the Jesuit priests from Spring Hill College in 1857 in a rapidly growing section of Mobile that stretched as far west as Ann Street. A brick church was constructed in 1858.

The nuns were originally housed in five frame structures on property bordered by St. Francis and Bayou Streets, which included a chapel.

In 1888, the Mobile city directory said, “St. Joseph’s Convent of Mercy” was located at the “SE corner Bayou and St. Francis” while St. Joseph’s Academy could be found at the “NW corner Bayou and St. Louis.”

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Within 20 years, the parish had grown substantially with residential construction, and on June 11, 1908, the new Convent of Mercy was dedicated. It cost $40,000 to build – the equivalent of $1.3 million today.

Architect Confusion

The architectural style of the structure was termed “Baroque Revival.” Author Elizabeth Gould credits “architect Andrew Downey of New Orleans” for the design of it as well as St. Joseph’s Chapel on the campus of Spring Hill College, which was completed two years later. 

It is unclear where the confusion came from, but the architect was actually Aloysius Downey, who had no known connection with New Orleans. He had been born in Rochester, New York, and his 1942 obituary stated that he had practiced in Mobile for 30 years before moving to Hattiesburg in 1937. 

The new school was coeducational for the lower grades, while the upper grades were restricted to female students. In 1911, the first graduation was held in the building’s chapel, with 10 seniors receiving their diplomas. 

The Sisters of Mercy continued to have charge of St. Joseph’s School at 101 North Bayou Street, which provided a high school education for male students – and eventually for all grades. 

Success Leads to an Addition

In 1927, an enrollment of 250 students quickly outgrew the convent. A modern school building and cafeteria were completed a year later directly behind the 1908 convent, which continued to house office space and the nuns.

Following World War II, the neighborhood saw commercial intrusion as Mobilians moved ever westward. In 1968, with an estimated 1,300 alumni, the school closed its doors and merged with Bishop Toolen High School in Midtown.

The nuns remained here another year before moving to a new facility on Wimbledon Drive in Spring Hill. The furnishings of the 1908 chapel, as well as its stained-glass windows, were incorporated into that building.

From Students to Chandeliers

The former convent sat empty until it was purchased by Empress Chandeliers in 1973 and converted into showroom space. In the mid-1980s, it was sold once again, and sat vacant until 1994, when it was purchased by a local developer.

St. Francis Place Condominiums was completed by 2002. Inside, many of the original architectural details remain from the convent, such as the grand staircase reaching up to the penthouse level. 

With a gated parking area, a swimming pool, a meeting space and a workout room, the project has been an undisputed, tremendous success. When I last checked, there were no units available.

The success of this ambitious redevelopment has surely inspired many other residential projects Downtown in the years since it was completed.

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