By Dan Shine
The Oak Hill Ladies Seminary
On April 3, 1843, Reverend Edward Wright became the pastor of First Church. He was newly graduated from the Yale Divinity School at the age of twenty-eight, and had recently married to Miss Susan Ames of Brattleboro, Vermont. His bride was a graduate of Mount Holyoke College and had been a teacher in Ohio.
While he was just a young boy, Rev. Wright’s father had died. He had attended what is now Deerfield Academy and then apprenticed as a blacksmith. By the time he had completed his apprenticeship, a local clergyman had interested young Wright in the ministry. He entered Yale College, graduated, and went on to attend the divinity school, graduating in 1843. Shortly thereafter, Rev. Wright went on to accept a position at First Church as pastor.
Mrs. Wright was a very unique person. Shortly after moving to West Haven she began her initial moves to develop some of her ideas about education for young ladies. In those times it was the exception for a girl to go to college and the norm was fundamentally a grade school education. Her dream was to create a school that would train girls to enter a wider range of activities than what existed for them in that era.
Starting in 1844, Mrs. Wright invited a young female relative to spend her summer with the Wrights, using the vacation period for special tutoring. A West Haven girl of about the same age heard of the plan and asked to be allowed to share in it, and things began to snowball from there. By the end of that summer many applications were received for entrance to the program. In the fall of 1844, regular classes began to be held at the First Church parsonage on Savin Avenue.
According to promotional materials, all students had to be at least twelve years of age; boarding pupils were charged $180 per year. Further, it read, “The order of studies includes Colburn’s Arithmetic, Mitchell’s Geography, History of the United States, English Grammar, Watts ‘On The Mind,’ Adam’s Arithmetic, Instrumental Music, Vocal Music, Pencil Drawing and Pastel Painting.”
As time passed and enrollment grew, the Wrights approached the First Church Ecclesiastical Society and arranged to buy a parcel of land owned by the Society on what is now Church Street Hill. On that tract of land was created a three-story structure which included living quarters for the Wrights and classrooms for the seminary. As far as we know the Oak Hill Seminary was in operation until 1870, offering a four-year course of study, and producing refined young ladies while making every effort to keep them in step with the times. A total of 668 students attended the seminary over the years. Several years after the school ceased its operation, the building caught fire and burned to the ground.
Rev. Wright was the principal of the seminary from 1843-1852 when he succumbed to typhus. It should also be noted that Rev. Wright aided greatly in the financing of the new school structure by selling shares in the school to church members. Every Sunday the students of the seminary would march to church in a body, and attend worship as a group on the church’s balcony.
We wish to acknowledge past West Haven historians Bob Shine and Harriet North, and Sara Pettinger of the West Haven Public Library for helping providing the material for this story.