The story of the three schools -- Beaches Episcopal School (BES), St. Mark’s Episcopal Day School (SMEDS), and Episcopal School of Jacksonville (ESJ), are coming together to form ESJ as we know it today -- goes back to many visionaries in the Jacksonville community. The Reverend Dr. Robert Ray Parks and Jacksonville attorney and Episcopalian, Lucius Buck, had long dreamed of creating an Episcopal high school in Jacksonville, a dream that began with 265 students in September, 1967, on the Munnerlyn Campus, as Jacksonville Episcopal High School (JEHS), now ESJ.
But even before JEHS was established, The Rev. Parks had founded St. Paul’s by-the-Sea Episcopal Day School, later called Beaches Episcopal School, while he was Rector of St. Paul’s by-the-Sea Episcopal Church. The parish day school was established in 1957 as a school that would serve pre-kindergarten through sixth grade students, though prekindergarten and kindergarten had been offered since 1952. The new school’s Board of Trustees included Lucius Buck. By 1966-1967 there were six full grades, with Spanish, religion, and physical education offered as enrichment classes.
The Rev. Parks and Lucius Buck had always been interested in establishing an Episcopal high school downtown, but the Vestry of St. John’s Cathedral was uninterested in their proposals. However, in 1959, fate intervened. The Dean of St. John’s Cathedral, The Very Reverend Charles McGavern, died suddenly in a plane crash. With the approval of The Right Reverend Hamilton West, Bishop of the Diocese of Florida, The Rev. Parks was named to succeed Dean McGavern. The Rev. Parks would leave St. Paul’s By-the-Sea for the Cathedral in downtown Jacksonville, helping to pave the way for the establishment of ESJ.
Soon after his installment in the fall of 1960, Dean Parks took to the Cathedral Vestry a question: Should St. John’s Cathedral leave downtown Jacksonville and be moved to a new site on Keystone Bluff (The property on which ESJ now stands was originally donated to the Cathedral by Mary Packer Cummings upon her death to be used as a home for boys, which closed in 1953 for financial reasons), or should the Cathedral remain in the urban core? The Vestry voted to build a high school on the 28 acres of waterfront property, keeping the Cathedral downtown.
The next few years were busy ones. In 1965 a planning committee, called “The Committee of 100” and headed by Lucius Buck, was formed to explore establishment of the high school. In 1966 Horton Reed was installed as the first JEHS headmaster and was charged with hiring faculty, fundraising, marketing the school, and establishing a curriculum, one that would include Latin, Greek, and Russian, as well as physical education, language arts, mathematics, and sciences. The curriculum “should be strictly college-preparatory and designed to develop children for leadership,” the report of the planning ground stated.
Three years after JEHS held its first day of school, St. Mark’s Episcopal Day School was founded on the west side of downtown. The school was originally established in 1970 as a non-profit Christian school, located on the grounds of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church as an outreach mission. It began to serve children on September 8, 1970, with one class per grade, grades one through six, with a total enrollment of 107. The Rev. Robert Clingman was the Rector of St. Mark’s at the time of the school’s founding. The classes were held in rooms within the church facility, and the school soon outgrew them. Adjacent properties were acquired allowing for further expansion, including the addition of a pre-school. A new Rector, Father Barnum McCarty, arrived at St. Mark’s in 1971, and helped to refine the concept of the parish day school.
The original vision for the Episcopal school system in Jacksonville was that of a wheel, with the parish elementary schools serving as spokes that fed into the center -- the high school. The many Founders, faculty, clergy, and volunteers who helped to establish the three schools could not have anticipated the seismic shifts that would take place in our country and our city over the next 70 years.
Lucius Buck, who served as chairman of the Board of Regents for Episcopal Day Schools in the Diocese of Florida, once stated, “We have our Lord’s command – Go Teach”! These Founders did not just want to build independent schools; they dreamed of founding Episcopal church schools like no other.
Today, we continue true to their dream, as one school, Episcopal School of Jacksonville.