When walking down Society Street, pause, and give your attention to the building marked 51. While 51 Society Street may blend in with the street's surrounding buildings, it was at one time the residence for some of Charleston's most educated and pious social workers and teachers, the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy and the Oblate Sisters of Providence. Today 51 Society Street is a private residence, but for nearly 66 years it was the site of St. Katherine Convent.
In 1882, 51 Society Street was purchased by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charleston for $4,025. Initially, the building was the new location for St. Peter's School, a school for young African Americans. In 1882, four teachers taught 75 enrolled students at St. Peter's School. By 1902, the student population had increased to 127 pupils. With growth came the demand for more space. In 1902 St. Peter's School was moved to the former St. Paul's Church on 65 Society Street. In the place of the old St. Peter's School, a new convent was formed by Father McElroy and was filled with members of the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy.
The Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy (hereafter referred to as O.L.M) were already veterans in social work and education. Throughout their time in Charleston, the O.L.M managed an orphanage, a school for middle-class white children, and an institution for free Blacks. Founded in 1841, the school for free Blacks was staffed by three Sisters and instructed seventy students in writing, reading, and arithmetic. Started by the Diocese of Charleston's first Bishop, John England, the O.L.M were the staff for the bishop's second and only successful attempt to educate African Americans. The sisters continued their work into the Civil War as nurses for both the Union and Confederate armies. After the war, the United States government awarded the order with thousands of dollars for their services—money the order would use to build a hospital and nursing school.
After working in healthcare for forty years, in 1902 the Sisters returned to teaching within the Black community at St. Peter's School. The new St. Peter's School at 65 Society Street started with three nuns from the O.L.M teaching 135 students. Under the leadership of the O.L.M, St. Peter's School staff would rise to six teachers for 154 students in 1916.
In 1904, two O.L.M sisters opened a secondary school for African Americans in Charleston's second African American Catholic Church, Immaculate Conception on Sheppard Street.
The death of Bishop Henry P. Northrop in 1916 brought a significant change at the St. Kathrine's Convent. In 1917, William Thomas Russell was proclaimed Charleston's fifth bishop. Being a Maryland native, Bishop Russell introduced organizations and practices from his home state. One of the most prevalent organizations introduced was the Oblate Sisters of Providence.
An order of nuns founded in 1828, the Oblate Sisters of Providence, was founded for the specific goal of educating America's African American population. Being the United States' first successful all African American order, the Oblate Sisters of Providence under the leadership of Mother General Rev. Mother Frances Fieldien assumed the teaching of Charleston's two schools for African Americans in 1917. Thus, 51 Society Street became the new home of the Oblate Sisters of Providence.
The same year, a temporary wooden structure with four more classrooms was erected on the property of Immaculate Conception Church. By 1930, a total of 14 Oblates would be teaching a combined total of 509 students between the city's two schools. The Oblates’s talent for advanced education was applied to the Immaculate Conception High School. Unlike in the case of St. Peter's and old Immaculate Conception school, Immaculate Conception High School was not a converted structure but rather a new brick building at 200 Coming Street. Under the leadership of the Oblates, Immaculate Conception High School would become one of Charleston's most prestigious centers of African American learning.
Despite its importance to the history of Charleston's African American education, 51 Society Street would close in 1968 due to declining conditions. In 1968 the new Saint Katherine Drexel Convent was built at the former site of St. Peter's Catholic Church at 34 Wentworth Street. The Oblate Sisters would live at the new convent for 31 more years until they departed from South Carolina in 1999.