Father Ryan’s long and celebrated history of providing quality Catholic education to the Nashville community began more than 80 years ago. As the oldest continuously operating Catholic diocesan school in Nashville, Father Ryan traces its roots to 1925, the founding year of the Nashville Catholic High School for Boys. Founder Bishop Alphonse Smith had recognized the need for a Catholic secondary school in the diocese and opened the school, then located at 2015 West End Avenue next to the Cathedral Church and School.
The class of 1927, totaling 20 seniors, was the first to graduate. That same year, the school then known as Catholic High launched their first yearbook, The Emerald. The title is an early reference to their adopted nickname, “Irish High.” Since Catholic High’s inception, the public had commonly referred to the school as the “Irish” due to its Catholic heritage. The name stuck and has since become part of the school’s identity.
After only three years, the school was outgrowing its West End facility. Bishop Smith launched a building campaign in March 1928 which raised $300,000 in 10 days for a new school at 2300 Elliston Place (pictured left). The property, then owned by the Buford family, was purchased for $185,000. Construction on the school began in April 1928. One of two mansions that occupied the grounds was razed for the new school building and the other was retained as the faculty house. The school was constructed to accommodate over 250 boys and space was provided for classrooms, a study hall, a library, labs, an auditorium, a gymnasium and a chapel. Space was also planned for a football field and tennis courts. The facility, renamed Father Ryan High School, opened to the public on May 31, 1929 and was dedicated on September 8, 1929.
The new school was named for Father Abram J. Ryan, priest and chaplain of the South known for his compassion to the injured and for his literary contribution in poetry. The association of Father Ryan’s name with the school signified a bridge between the southern tradition and the Catholic tradition. The bishop’s intention was to assimilate into a community that, at the time, had little tolerance for the Catholic Church. The name was a source of southern pride that allowed the school to maintain a part of its Catholic identity.
The year 1929 also marked the school’s first as the Panthers as reflected by the first edition of the yearbook entitled The Panther. They would remain the Panthers until the late 1960s when they transitioned to the official Irish name.
During the Great Depression era of the 1930s, Father Ryan was among those affected by the economic downturn; consequently, the school produced no yearbooks between 1930 and 1942. Ryan was also affected by several disasters in Nashville during that decade, including the flood of 1937 and a typhus outbreak in 1939. World War II also affected the school, with a total of two principals, three faculty members and more than 645 alumni serving in the military during that time. In 1944, the school answered the call for equipment needs and raised over $598,000 for the Fourth War Loan Drive. They purchased a B-17 Flying Fortress named "The Spirit of Father Ryan". Despite the hardships within the city and throughout the nation, school operations continued.
A decade later, the high school made headlines again, this time as the first of two schools in Tennessee to integrate. In September 1954, four months after Brown v. Board of Education ended school segregation, a group of black students enrolled at Father Ryan. When asked by the media how many black students had enrolled in the school that year, Father Francis Shea, the principal, responded that the school doesn’t have black and white students, just Father Ryan students.
The 1970s brought about more change for the high school. In 1970, a new chapter for Father Ryan began when the school merged with the all-female Cathedral High School and became co-educational. Father Ryan again outgrew its facilities and during the summer of 1991 relocated to its present home at 700 Norwood Drive in the Oak Hill area of Nashville. The 40-acre site includes an academic building containing computer labs, science labs and many classrooms. There is also an administrative cloister building featuring art rooms, a band room, a dining hall and the St. James Chapel. The Catignani-Drennan Fieldhouse features three full size basketball courts, a wrestling room, workout areas, locker rooms and coaching offices. The spacious site also has softball, baseball, soccer, football fields and a track. In an ode to the former Elliston Place campus, the original front doors to the school can be seen on the Neuhoff Library.
In 2003, the addition of the freestanding Neuhoff Library (pictured top right) and Center for the Arts (pictured bottom right) reflected the school’s commitment to remain on the cutting edge of educational advancement. Tennessean editor emeritus John Seigenthaler, a 1945 alumnus, spoke of the 40-acre campus, “In moving from one part of town to another, in expanding the campus to what looks like a junior college, Father Ryan was ahead of the curve. And now again, with these dramatic changes, Father Ryan is making its students better prepared than ever to live, work and thrive in a changing world.”
External organizations also recognized the quality and proficiency of a Father Ryan education. In 2005, Ryan became the first school in the nation to receive dual accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) and the Southern Association of Independent Schools (SAIS). The school first received SACS accreditation in 1928.
Through three locations and over 80 years, Father Ryan High School has enjoyed a rich heritage of excellence in academics and a long and consistent history of athletic achievement. Most importantly, it has a strong tradition of nurturing and guiding the spiritual growth of its young adults.
History of the Neuhoff Library
History of Father Ryan Athletics