St. Mary’s Art & Retreat Center: A Historical Gem that Continues to Thrive
An historic paper written by Becca Ewart.
“A once booming mining town, Virginia City is now part of the historic Comstock Era that fills with tourists during the summer months. Between the rows of shops, saloons, and old-time photo studios visitors can see an elegant four-story, red brick building. The structure looks up at the main streets of town with an important and protective air. Known today as St. Mary’s Art & Retreat Center, it has gazed upon the mountain town since 1875 and is a shining gem to the locals, a stunning reminder of Virginia City’s golden past.
Formerly known as the Saint Mary Louise Hospital, it served a community where mining accidents, shootings, and social disorder were commonplace. The hospital was operated by a small group of nuns, the Daughters of Charity.
Saint Vincent de Paul established the Daughters of Charity in 1633 after he became deeply concerned about the level of poverty in France. Their goal is to empower the abandoned and marginalized by providing health care, shelters, and education. The Daughters of Charity continue to bring comfort to people around the world as they have served the poor and ill for over 380 years and today work in 94 countries.
The sisters arrived in the growing town in 1864. They first established a boarding school and orphanage, which was in high demand. Within its first year, the school educated 112 students and housed 25. The sisters hosted fundraisers, raffles, and generated a rapport with the prominent members of the community in order to keep up with the financial demand.
The town continued to prosper and the Daughters of Charity, with the support of Father Patrick Manogue, who opened the Saint Mary Louise Hospital, the area’s first medical center. Mary Louise Bryant Mackay, wife of John Mackay, a well-known miner and one of the four “Bonanza Kings” donated the land the hospital continues to stand on today. The state-of-the-art hospital could accommodate up to seventy patients at a time and offered medical help as well as spiritual comfort to the people of Virginia City and Storey County. The sisters were known for leaving the hospital to care for people in their homes and even those in jail while abandoning judgment of character, religion, and culture.
With the downturn of the mining industry in the 1890’s the Daughters of Charity left the Comstock in 1897, as the community could no longer support them and they received new missions. Even though they left with heavy hearts, their legacy and history remains. Subsequently, Storey County operated the hospital, but as the population continued to dwindle it became increasingly difficult to provide services and the hospital ultimately closed in the 1940’s.
The building sat empty until 1964 when a group of local artists and Father Paul Meinecke saved the facility and dedicated it to the arts. It was renamed St. Mary’s Arts Center and was the site of hundreds of art classes and artist workshops that continued for three decades. Ron James, a local Comstock historian and author said the Center became very important to Northern Nevada in a new way.
“The Center, together with its graduates and the art they produced, emerged as an important factor in the advancement of the modern cultural scene of Northern Nevada… The Comstock had been known from its beginning in the 1860s as a sophisticated community that enjoyed the best in art, theater, and fashion. It is fitting that a century later, Virginia City would establish a place to celebrate the arts. It is equally appropriate that it has thrived and grown with every decade. With the twenty-first century, the St. Mary’s Arts Center continues to thrive as it enriches lives.”
St. Mary’s Arts Center opened their doors to the public in the 1990s, which allowed the space to be open to a variety of uses. The halls and larger rooms have been converted into seven gallery spaces that house continually changing artwork of various mediums. The rest of the building includes fifteen guest rooms and large studio spaces. Its current name, St. Mary’s Art & Retreat Center embraces its multitude of uses and accessibility. Its new public status also brought about new stories and different types of people to the historic site. There is a large culture of supernatural stories surrounding the property and guided ghost tours are available.
Many of the ghostly stories revolve around hospital staff that continues to roam the halls and perform their duties. One such entity has been named The White Nun. Apparently, she can be seen floating through hallways, rooms, and looking out a second floor window. There are also stories that she has been seen standing at the bottom of the main staircase and the spirit of a boy with braces on his legs stands at the top, seemingly afraid of falling down the stairs. The White Nun is believed to be responsible for continually unmaking a bed in one of the rooms.
It seems that it is not just the property managers and staff who have come into contact with strange phenomenon but tourists and guests as well. There have been many reports of strange sounds like heavy boots on the stairs, gurney’s rolling through the halls, and women conversing in hushed tones. Phantom smells of rubbing alcohol, medicines, flowers, and pipe tobacco have also been reported along with sights of shadowy figures.
Whether haunted or not, the St. Mary’s Art & Retreat Center has continued to provide comfort and culture to Northern Nevada. It has adorned the mountainside for nearly 140 years and remains to inspire as a Comstock tradition.”
Thank you to Becca Ewart for researching and writing this document about St Mary’s Art Center in Virginia City and allowing us to publish it!
photo by Nolan Preece