A Brief History of Notre Dame de Lourdes Parish
Lowell, Massachusetts (1908-1983)
[Editor’s Note: In 1983 Notre-Dame-de-Lourdes Parish celebrated its 75th anniversary. The information that appears below is taken from the Souvenir Program published for the occasion.]
In order to fill the religious needs of the Franco-American Catholics in the South Common district of Lowell, Massachusetts, Father Joseph Campeau of the Missionary Order of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate of St. John the Baptist parish arranged the purchase of the old Branch Street Baptist Church (sometimes referred to as Tabernacle Baptist) for $26,000.00 in 1908. This was part of Cardinal O’Connell’s drive to create new parishes in the diocese. During the years 1907-1911, thrity two new parishes were created.
Approximately five hundred families were to be served by the Rev. Michel Dubreuil, O.M.I., who was chosen as the first pastor. The building was blessed on August 6, 1908, the thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost. The first wedding performed in the “new” Notre Dame de Lourdes Church was between George Gendreau and Regina Lapanne on October 4, 1908. Father Dubreuil served as pastor until December of 1909 when ill health forced his retirement. His successor, Rev. Leon Lamothe, during his tenure as pastor, saw the founding and subsequent growth of the parish school, which began with approximately 200 students. The school was funded entirely by the generosity of the parishioners since the Archdiocese refused a plea for financial assistance. In June of 1910 (Fete Dieu) there occurred at Notre Dame de Lourdes, the first outside procession in the highlands section of the city with the Blessed Sacrament, a feat which astounded the local Protestants with its magnificence.
By October of 1910, the parish census indicated a population of 698 families (3213 persons). The parish school was growing rapidly with over three hundred students in spite of repeated difficulties in keeping the staff of the Grey Nuns of the Cross of Ottawa in residence. In August of 1911 occurred the formation of the Caisse Populaire (Credit Union) of Notre Dame de Lourdes. Both adult parishioners and school children were encouraged to become members and the Caisse Populaire flourished for some years.
Since the founding of the parish, the priests had been housed in makeshift quarters but in March of 1912, the decision was made and finally approved by Cardinal O’Connell to purchase and unite two small adjoining houses located beside the church in order to provide a suitable home for the priests.
In June of 1913, the school produced its first two graduates, Honore Lemire and Joseph Renaud. By September of 1915, the school population was 340 and a full staff of the Sisters had replaced the few lay teachers previously employed. The parish itself was also growing, numbering 740 families, 3408 parishioners.
Many parish organizations are mentioned in the early annals of the parish. Among the earliest listed were the “Confrerie du Tres Saint Rosaire,” “Ligue du Sacre-Coeur,” “La Congregation de Ste-Anne,” “Enfants de Marie,” “Cadets du Sacre Coeur,” and St-Vincent de Paul. Parish records indicate a great enthusiasm on the part of parishioners which was reflected in their involvement in parish affairs and organizations.
Notre Dame de Lourdes parish, with the rest of the city of Lowell, suffered through the devastating effects of the “Spanish Influenza” of October 1918. The Board of Health forbade Sunday church services for two weeks and funerals were reported as occurring every day.
In May of 1920, the parish purchased the “Dozois Block” on East Pine Street in order to enlarge the convent in the future and to provide a yard for the teaching sisters. This building was renovated and enlarged to include a parish hall. The parish debt for the purchase of the Church in 1908 was paid off to the Old Lowell National Bank on December 2, 1923, and the parish now also owned the Horn property on Smith Street which had been purchased in April for $24,000.00. Shortly thereafter, Father Lamothe, pastor since 1909 was replaced by Father Guillaume Ouellette who was himself soon replaced in January1924 by Father Joseph Denis. Until 1928, Father Denis and Father Lucien Brassard were the only priests serving this growing parish.
In 1930, fundraising began for the building of a new parish school to be erected on the Smith Street property. At this time, Father Adolphe Fortier was appointed pastor. It was during his tenure that the parish school was actually begun. The parishioners enthusiastically undertook the funding of the proposed school with pledges of financial support, but these were the Depression years and Lowell, like all other cities at that time, was wracked with unemployment and all the related disasters that difficult economic times bring on the working person. Though construction started in July of 1930, there were various financial difficulties and many conflicts with the Chancery office of the Archdiocese of Boston on the rising debt of the parish and also on the many large cost overruns on the construction. In August of 1933, Father Fortier, with the parish school still unfinished, was transferred to Egg Harbor, Wisconsin. His replacement, Father Arthur St. Cyr, struggled through these Depression years with the problem of the unfinished school and the burden of the debt coupled with an almost fatal illness.
On April 24, 1936, after much negotiations with the city of Lowell and the approximately $70,000.00 invested to date in the still unfinished school, the parish received a check for $50,000.00 from the city as payment for the school of Smith Street. At least one parish chronicler seemed to feel that the sale of the unfinished school and the permission from the city to use space in the old Franklin school, which the parish later purchased from the city, was, in reality, the only alternative for a parish in desperate financial straits and allowed the parish to clear itself of most financial obligations connected with the building of the school.
During the years 1936 and 1937, a number of renovations were carried out on both the exterior and interior of the Church which had throughout the years since 1908 been reported as being in very poor condition. Again, the great generosity and enthusiasm of the parishioners was responsible for the collection of the necessary funds.
In September of 1940, during the tenure of Father Eugene Labrie, the Lowell School Committee voted to rent the Franklin School on Branch Street to the parish for $5.00 per year. Five years later, the parish bought the building for $1,500.00 and it became the Notre Dame de Lourdes School. The arrival in 1945 of Father Lucien Brassard as pastor coincided with the establishment of the Holy Name Society in the Parish. The years of the mid-forties were years of great activities for the Holy Name Society both on the local and regional level, with large processions and regional gatherings.
In 1951, Father Alphonse Houle was named pastor, to be succeeded in 1954 by the returning Father Lucien Brassard. In 1955, there is mention of a Cana Conference in February which was prepared by the rapidly developing Christian Family Movement (C.F.M.). This group was instrumental in providing many services to the parish and its parishioners during the late fifties and early sixties.
It was during the latter years of Father Brassard’s leadership that the idea was conceived and the early fundraising began for a new church to be located on Smith Street adjacent to the school. On February 2, 1958, there was a dinner meeting for the “chef de rues” (street captains) to organize the campaign for construction funds and to prepare for the pledge campaign. Approximately one year later, on February 9, 1959, Richard Cardinal Cushing officiated at the official start-up of the drive. The entire focus of parish life now centered on fundraising and many dinners, fairs and “vente de bricques” (brick sales) raised thousands for the campaign. Fundraising continued and intensified with the arrival of Father Herve Gagnon as the new Pastor in August of 1960. In the midst of all this financial activity, the other side of parish life was not forgotten. The C.Y.O. was founded in November of 1961, and other parish societies were also thriving as they grouped together in many communal undertakings.
The bids on the new church construction were opened at the Chancery office on November 17, 1961, and the contract was awarded to Louis Pasqualuci and Son of Quincy at $420,000.00. The groundbreaking and blessing took place on November 22, 1961, while excavation began on December 8, 1961, the feast of the Immaculate Conception (a symbol not to be ignored!). Work was delayed somewhat by a stormy December and January but slightly more than one year after the excavation began, on December 16, 1962, the new church of Notre Dame de Lourdes was opened for worship, even though the benches had not yet been installed.
Many of the fundraising activities that originated at the time of the building of the new church are remarkably still part of the parish and functioning well, twenty years later. The Ladies’ Sodality had its first annual Christmas fair in 1957,and while “whist parties” have now become “Blitz”, the level of enthusiasm and the spirit of hard work have not diminished. In September of 1964, the parish census registered 896 families, while in 1965, this had diminished to 810 families, 2610 parishioners, while the school had an enrollment of 359. In June of 1966, 32 students were graduated from Notre Dame de Lourdes School.
The years 1966-77 brought many changes to Notre-Dame de Lourdes. A leadership change with the departure of Fr. Herve Gagnon and the arrival of Father Emile Rossignol as pastor indicated administrative change while there were many liturgical changes coming from the Second Vatican Council in Rome. The introduction of the vernacular mass along with many other liturgical innovations meant that adjustment was necessary. The familiar occurrences, however, continued: Holy Name Communions, P.T.A. Talent Shows and Spaghetti Suppers, Men’s Club Thursday night Blitz, Holy Name Cabaret Dances, and, of course Les Artisans’ French “Spelling Bees” and Sodality May Processions. By the end of 1968, the church construction debt was $121,000.00, the bulletin was bilingual, only one Mass was in French, and Parish Christmas cards (featuring Notre-Dame de Lourdes’ manger scene and pictures of the church were also on sale.
The years 1969-1970 showed enrollment difficulties in the school and rumors of the closing of the school were heard. In November 1970, Richard Cardinal Cushing died, to be succeeded by Humberto Medeiros as Archbishop of Boston. The Notre-Dame de Lourdes C.C.D. program hired its first full-time coordinator in 1971 and increasing problems with the school, which was now only grades 1 through 6, continued. The illness of Father Rossignol in early 1971 eventually led to his resignation in September of 1971. It was during this time that Father Rossignol made the final payment on the construction debt and the burning of the mortgage was scheduled for May 7, 1972, the day of his testimonial dinner.
The Parish Council was formed in 1972 under the leadership of Father Paul Levesque. It was at this time that the issue of the increasing cost of maintaining the parish school became a central issue for the parish. An attempt was made in late 1974 to amalgamate the Notre-Dame de Lourdes School with St-Joseph Elementary School, but this failed to materialize. In February of 1975, during the tenure of Father Paul Levesque as pastor, decreasing enrollment combined with increasing costs finally reached a level where the only alternative was to close the Parish school. The building on Branch Street was then used for C.C.D. programs and as a Parish Center while the old convent on Westford Street, previously occupied by the teaching sisters, was rented.
The Parish Council continued to function through the administration of Father Maurice Laliberte though there were difficulties in determining its function and in setting goals. Under the administration of Father George Capen, the old school was rented and the Westford Street convent was extensively renovated and became the “new” parish and C.C.D. center. In June of 1981, after many difficulties over attendance and procedures, the Parish Council was dissolved by vote of that body.
In 1982, the parish sold the Notre-Dame de Lourdes School, formerly the Franklin School, to the Greater Lowell mental Health Association. The past few years have seen an upsurge in lay involvement in liturgy and planning of parish activities. The scope of the pastoral team was broadened by the addition of a lay youth minister who has assumed many youth-oriented responsibilities and has added a new dimension to the parish staff. The formation of the 75th Anniversary Committee provided an opportunity for parish societies and parishioners in general to work together to plan activities to celebrate the anniversary years. The sense of lay involvement was exemplified in the process that led to the appointment of Father Bernard Belley as pastor. As a result of a request by some parishioners at Notre-Dame who desired involvement in the selection process for a new pastor, Reverend Maurice Laliberte, Provincial, provided a format whereby parishioners could express their feelings and thoughts about the kind of individual they would like to see in a pastoral leadership position in the parish. On March 1, 1983, the Parish Consultation took place in the presence of the Provincial Council. At this time, an updated parish profile was presented along with the Parish Vision Statement, which was prepared by the Religious Education Committee in collaboration with Father Normand Tousignant. The statement best states who we are as a parish and what we wish to become.
“We are a parish of all baptized Catholics in the area. We shall reach out to all and provide all with the occasion to partake in our fellowship, and enjoy the comfort and strength of the Catholic faith and the Christian community.
We intend to make Christ known and provide all, whatever their habits or religious practice or their living conditions, the opportunity to learn about Christ, grow in faith, love and service to one another.
Since we exist to be the Church’s presence among all peoples in this area, we would like to energize all segments of our parish. We are a parish concerned with family life, children, adolescents, young adults, single individuals, young and mature families, and the elderly. As a faith and worship community, we seek to be followers of Christ and to become a community of believers in, and doers of, the Word the Gospel proclaims. As such, we would like to promote and encourage religious, educational, and social activities appropriate to the needs of each group.”
[The foregoing information was obtained from the Souvenir Book commemorating the 75th anniversary of the parish in 1983.]
Church of Notre-Dame-de-Lourdes
Church Street, Lowell, Massachusetts,
As a result of reconfiguration within the Archdiocese of Boston it was announced, in early August 2004, that three parishes, originally French ethnic churches, were to be suppressed: St. Louis-de-France, Ste-Jeanne d’Arc and Notre-Dame-de-Lourdes. Also suppressed was Sacred Heart parish, which was administered by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate.
At Ste-Jeanne d’Arc the final Mass was celebrated on Sunday, August 30, 2004 and its parishioners are encouraged to become part of neighboring St. Rita’s parish. Ste-Jeanne d’Arc school continues to exist.
St-Louis-de-France church celebrated its final Mass as a parish on Wednesday evening, August 25, 2004, the feast day of its patron Saint. Its parishioners were encouraged to become part of the neighboring parish of St-Michael. On the weekend, a Saturday afternoon Mass and one on Sunday mornings will continue to be celebrated in the church under the auspices of Ste-Marguerite D’Youville parish in neighboring Dracut, MA. (Ste-Marguerite D’Youville Parish was founded in September 2001 when the parishes of Ste-Therese and St. Mary of the Assumption were merged.) St. Louis School will continue under the direction of St. Marguerite D’Youville parish.
Parishioners of Notre-Dame-de-Lourdes attended their final Mass on Sunday, September 26, 2004.
In the early 2000s Ste-Marie continued to operate as a parish although there was no priest in residence and administration and pastoral duties were shared with Sacred Heart, also an Oblate parish. In 2004 it came as a surprise to many that Sacred Heart parish was suppressed and its parishioners were encouraged to become members of Ste-Marie’s Parish.