MILFORD – It has been 110 years since the Sisters of Mercy purchased the Lauralton Hall mansion and its 40 acres in 1905 to open the Academy of Our Lady of Mercy.
Its status as the oldest Catholic college prep school for girls in Connecticut gained further recognition in 2011 when it was added to the Register of Historic Places by the Connecticut Historic Preservation Council, as well as to the Federal Register of Historic Places.
Now, under the guidance of school president Antoinette (Toni) Iadarola and her board of trustees, the academy is set on a plan to preserve its historical character and heritage while incorporating modern technology and infrastructure for the future.
“This is a transformational time for Lauralton as we work to provide our students with a revived learning environment for the 21st century,” said Dr. Iadarola.
On May 9, the academy kicked off a capital campaign, Because We Believe…The Campaign for Lauralton Hall, to complete the last leg of a $6 million, four-phase plan that will result in renovated classrooms and labs and a new arts center, athletic field and track. The school also plans to build an endowment to offer financial aid for students, professional development for faculty and capital improvements.
Already, Lauralton has raised $4.5 million, with the remaining $1.5 million campaign expected to wrap up at the end of 2016.
“I’m proud of the fact that we’ve raised the largest amount in cash and pledges in the shortest amount of time in the history of Lauralton Hall,” said Dr. Iadarola. “I’m proud of those who have come on board to bring Lauralton Hall to new levels of institutional excellence.
“The support from alumni, parents and friends has been absolutely incredible.”
Already nearing completion is a $2 million conversion of a historic 1864 carriage barn into a 5,000-square-foot multi-purpose space for the performing arts. With the help of donations and a grant from the Connecticut Trust for Historical Preservation, the 100-seat space will include a theater, music room, dance studio and instrument room.
A nearby historic water tower – the only one of its kind in North America – is also being renovated to eventually irrigate the area around the mansion and carriage barn.
Earlier this year, construction began on a $1.7-million artificial turf field and a three-lane track to accommodate the school’s competitive track, soccer, field hockey and lacrosse teams. The school boasts All-State athletes, top-ranked teams and scholar-athletes who have been recruited by top colleges.
The school began with 25 students and a graduating class of four girls in 1906. Lauralton today has an enrollment of 475 young women in grades nine through12 who come from 35 towns in New Haven and Fairfield counties.
Moving with the times, its academic strength has broadened from the required liberal arts core curriculum, which includes religious studies, to include the recent emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education, as well as world languages (including four levels of Chinese), business, forensics, coding, women’s studies, art, music and physics.
A focus on global studies includes an annual international service trip to Guatemala and a student trip to central Europe. Three years ago, students helped to build a school in Guatemala; and this year they returned there to build a playground. And, after an alumna founded a school in Gambia, students now participate in an exchange in that nation.
Lauralton also offers advanced placement classes, and has a partnership with the University of Connecticut for students to obtain transferrable college credits.
“We’re bursting at the seams,” said Dr. Iadarola. She noted that students today have an array of learning experiences at their fingertips. “The straight lecture is gone or on the way out, unless it’s reinforced by visuals or a lot of other interaction,” she said.
“They come to us because they want to get into college,” said Dr. Iadarola, life-long academician and former Fulbright Scholar herself, who has served as president of Cabrini College in Pennsylvania, taught at St. Joseph College in Hartford, was dean of faculty at the College of Mount St. Joseph in Ohio and held the post of provost at Colby-Sawyer College in New Hampshire before being tapped to head Lauralton in 2009.
“We feel strongly that science and technology is absolutely critical for a well-rounded individual,” she noted. “We have an unusually high number of students who go on in medicine and engineering.”
Its graduating class of 2014 alone earned more than $18 million in merit scholarships, included 58 members of the National Honor Society, and went on to attend 180 colleges and universities.
“One thing we’re proud of is our retention rate,” said Dr. Iadarola. “Our retention is extraordinary. Ninety-nine percent of our students finish in four years” and the majority go on to college.
Although the Sisters of Mercy no longer teach at the academy, they continue to serve on its board. The academy also adheres to core values tied to Catholic social teaching, a commitment to excellence and a sense of community.
“We’re clear about our Catholicity in a contemporary sense,” said Dr. Iadarola, “and we do a good job of attracting students who will contribute to and benefit from our environment that emphasizes commitment to character development rooted in the liberal arts and Mercy core values tradition.
The architectural centerpiece of the school continues to be the original, iconic Victorian-Gothic mansion that dates back to the Civil War. Located at the end of a long, winding drive, the mansion features a richly carved mahogany staircase and marble fireplace. A chapel is located on the second floor of Mercy Hall, the original convent and dormitory.
A year after it was purchased, the Sisters built the St. Joseph Building that today houses the library, labs, classrooms and art rooms. A gym was added in 1930; and in 2001, a 30,000-square-foot student athletic center was completed. The school held an open house for visitorson June 13.
The name Lauralton Hall – given in 1889 in honor of the deceased mother and daughter of the property’s second owner, Henry Augustus Taylor, a New York financier – is retained by the academy at the request of the Taylor family.