JAMAICA ESTATES — Mary Louis Nelson Oliva was the very first student registered to attend The Mary Louis Academy (TMLA). Though she passed away on Feb. 26 at the age of 84, her legacy and impact on the all-girls Catholic high school lives on.
Mary Louis’ history with TMLA does not just span her years as a student during the early 1950s or as an alumna for the last 60 years. Her connection actually ties back to before she was born.
James W. Nelson, Mary Louis’ father, was the contractor of TMLA’s collegiate Gothic main building and the extensions that were later added onto the then-convent for the Sisters of St. Joseph. During the planning stages of the academy’s opening, James and his wife, Mary, discovered they were expecting a child.
On January 16, 1937 — the same day the cornerstone for the academy’s main building was laid — the Nelsons daughter was born. They named the baby girl after The Mary Louis Academy (TMLA) which was named in memory of Mother Mary Louis Crummey, CSJ.
“They named their daughter Mary Louis, in honor of the school her father was building, which he really viewed as his crowning achievement,” said Sean Belon, director of Academy Advancement and Alumnae Relations at TMLA.
According to the letter written to Sister Francis Geronimo O’Donovan, CSJ, the superior of the convent near the site where the school was built, and the Sisters of St. Joseph in 1937, the couple put down a $200 tuition deposit. They requested that the Sisters reserve a spot for their child in the new school.
Mary Louis was an integral part of the academy’s first years, according to TMLA, as she was often brought to the school to be looked after by the Sisters and the first class of 15 young women. Then, when it came time for the first graduating class’ commencement exercises in 1940, three-year-old Mary acted as the “mistress of ceremonies.” The Sisters sewed a satin blue and gold costume for Mary Louis to wear for the special occasion.
Soon after, Mary Louis enrolled in the Mary Louis Kindergarten, a then co-ed program that ran in a small cottage on campus where the Art Cottage is currently located. Then, after attending Immaculate Conception Elementary School for eight years, she took the seat that her parents had reserved for her at TMLA.
Mary Louis was a member of the orchestra, in the school’s French club (though it was reportedly one of her worst subjects), on the school’s yearbook staff, and was a senior sacristan. She graduated with first honors in 1955, and her senior quote was “I’ll give the best that’s in me.”
Throughout her life, Mary Louis remained a proactive alumna. She attended school-sponsored events and reunions, hosted regional receptions in her New Jersey home the latter half of her life for other alumnae who lived in the area, and was inducted into the academy’s Hall of Fame in 1996. She also helped pay for the education of countless young women over the course of six decades — Mary Louis’s last gift was made anonymously in September 2020, according to TMLA.
“Mary Lou was one of those alums who would say, ‘I’ll write you the check. Tell me how much,’ ” Belon said. “It was very important to her that the school be strong and that girls had opportunities because, when we opened, it was sort of unheard of.”
“It was the middle of the Great Depression — people didn’t have jobs, were on breadlines, and in soup kitchens,” he continued. “It’s like The Mary Louis Academy was revolutionary. Mary Lou was very emphatic on that being available for young girls … and wanting that to be something that goes on.”
Msgr. Harold Cullen, former pastor of St. Catharine-St. Margaret Parish in New Jersey, also remembered how Mary Louis and her Cavalier King Charles Spaniel puppy were a constant presence in the parish and her hometown of Spring Lake.
“She was always generous and supportive of the parish and the diocese and a reliable friend,” Msgr. Cullen said of Mary Louis. “As the archivist of the parish, she brought her personal and professional skills to create a wonderful and superbly organized treasure of the history of the parish that will be a source of great richness in the years ahead.”
TMLA issued a statement following Mary Louis’ passing: “We remain committed to standing for all the values and lessons held so dear by the founders of 1936 and the baby girl who was quite literally born to be a Mary Louis woman.
“You will always be our Mary Lou.”