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Our Founder: Harriet Lane Johnston

By Brice McAdoo Clagett ’50

In March 1881, James Buchanan “Buck” Johnston, a Baltimore boy of 14, died of rheumatic fever, from which he had seemed to be recovering. The sorrow over the death of a child, always especially poignant, was soon doubled in impact. In October 1882, Henry Elliott Johnston Jr., Buck’s 12-year-old brother, died in France, while his family was traveling in Europe. And in 1884, the boys’ father died, leaving his wife, Harriet Lane Johnston, a childless widow. Such losses, almost past the point of human bearing, might have driven another woman to cynicism and despair. But Harriet Lane Johnston was a strong person and a devout member of the Episcopal Church. Out of tragedy came triumph, and St. Albans School stands today as the result.

Born in Mercersburg, Pa., in 1830 and orphaned at the age of eleven, Harriet Lane was raised by her bachelor uncle James Buchanan (she called him “Nunc”). When Buchanan became secretary of state, she attended Georgetown Visitation Convent; when he served as minister to Great Britain, she traveled abroad with him; and when he became the 15th president of the United States in 1857, she became his first lady.
In 1866 Harriet Lane married Henry Elliott Johnston, a Baltimore banker and railroad builder. Harriet resided in Baltimore until her husband died, when she returned to Northwest Washington to spend her remaining years.
In 1883 the Johnstons established in memory of their sons the Harriet Lane Home for Invalid Children in Baltimore (now the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center). [Each year, on Harriet’s birthday, pediatric nurses from the hospital bring flowers to her Baltimore grave.]. As Harriet aged, the idea of a further memorial took shape. Harriet Lane Johnston died on July 6, 1903, at the Cassatt cottage at Narragansett Pier, Rhode Island. Her will of 1895, as modified by two codicils, one of 1899 and the other dated only a few months before her death, left $300,000 to the Protestant Episcopal Cathedral Foundation of the District of Columbia to establish a school for boys—“in loving memory of our sons.” Half the money was to be used for the school building, to be “begun” within six months after the Cathedral Foundation received the bequest and to be known as the Lane-Johnston Building. The other half was to be invested for the maintenance of the school. The will added, “It is my wish that the said school shall be conducted and the said fund applied to provide specially for the free maintenance, education and training of choirboys, primarily for those in the service of the Cathedral.”

From St. Albans School: The First Hundred Years – An Illustrated History (available in the school libraries and bookstore).
Located in Washington D.C.,  St. Albans School is a private, all boys day and boarding school. For more than a century, St. Albans has offered a distinctive educational experience for young men in grades 4 through 12. While our students reach exceptional academic goals and exhibit first-rate athletic and artistic achievements, as an Episcopal school we place equal emphasis upon moral and spiritual education.