[Editor’s Note: The following information documents the history of the Sisters of the Assumption in Lowell, Massachusetts. It is extracted from the book, On American Soil, written by Lucille Mercier, S.A.S.V. and published by Editions, S.A.S.V., Nicolet 2003. This material is used with permission of the author.]
SAINT LOUIS DE FRANCE SCHOOL
Sensitive to the religious and educational needs of their Canadian compatriots in the United States, the sisters of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin contracted on April 23, 1907, with the Archdiocese of Boston, to staff St. Louis de France School of Lowell for the same salary as in former foundations, $200 per teacher per year payable in September and in February.
An appointment to United States schools meant teaching large classes in an unfamiliar language with a more than favorable clergy and parent support. That is what the ten appointed sisters found as they arrived to teach 460 students at St. Louis School in September of 1907. St. Sainte Gertrude was the founding superior with the help of the following nine staff members: Sr. Sainte Perpetue, Sr. St. Ephraim, Sr. Sainte Jeanne de Valois, Sr. Saint Bernardin, Sr. Saint Arsene, Sr. Marie de Lorette, Sr. Sainte Sophie, Sr. Saint Michel and Sr. Saint Oswald. By October first, Sr. Marie de l’Assomption arrived as the eleventh teacher because the enrollment was higher than expected. 1
Ranging in age from twenty to forty-five, these sisters settled down to the serious business of providing Catholic education to the children of immigrant factory-working parents. They sought spiritual leadership and were very willing to promote social and cultural activities that would integrate them painlessly into the American scene.
As long as the bilingual atmosphere dominated the home, the bilingual approach to curriculum existed in the classroom. What students needed to nourish their spiritual life and to keep alive their Canadian heritage, they learned in French. What prepared them for the work force and assured their growth as Americans, they studied in English.
Sr. Sainte Gertrude, Principal, maintained the tradition of monthly report cards. In October after the school’s opening, it was already time for the pastor to come in contact with each student and evaluate his or her performance in studies as shown on the monthly report card.
By the end of the second school year, the students’ achievements at Saint Louis received public recognition. The Union Saint Jean-Baptiste, at their annual feast day celebration on June 24, 1909, presented special awards to outstanding students. Among them we find Harvey Loiselle receiving the prize of a gold watch for ranking first in the study of both the French and the English languages, Fleur-Ange Brousseau won a gold medal for exceptional achievement in French.
In conforming to current practices in the public school system, Sr. Sainte Gertrude readily communicated with the Lowell Public School Superintendent, Mr. Arthur K. Whitcomb. As special guest at graduation exercises, the third year of the school’s history, Mr. Whitcomb was impressed. His letter of June 23, 1910, affirms that it “was among the very finest graduations that I ever attended. I congratulate you and your pupils very heartily….”
1. Chroniques du couvent Saint Louis de Lowell, p.3.
SAINT LOUIS ACADEMY
An eighth-grade diploma was no qualification for a child to join the labor force. Too many parents chose to end their children’s schooling after grammar school, usually at age 14. A stop had to be made to finding young teens on the job in the Lowell factories. Vocational school attracted the boys to learn a trade. Where could the young girls go?
Convinced that his parish could provide education beyond the elementary level, Father Labossiere requested a secondary-level teacher from the General Administration of the sisters’ community. Mother du Sacre-Coeur and Mother Marie-Eustelle, Supervisor of Education, coming for the annual visitation, were asked to open a high school to be named Saint Louis Academy. Permission was granted in June 1918. This happy news announced from the pulpit marked another big step in the school’s progress.
Father Labossiere’s pet project envisioned lofty goals. Saint Louis Academy was founded:
~ To form a group of elite women capable of preserving and living Christian principles.
~ To train competent businesswomen ready to assume on-the-job responsibilities.
~ To provide refinement and cultural enrichment to these women through the study of literature and the arts.
When the Academy opened in September 1918, such objectives were condensed in a two-year program, taught by a team of two genuinely talented teachers, in a two-room school setting. The first class numbered sixteen students, brave pioneers of a yet to be proven academic program. Under the guidance of Sr. Saint Jean du Cénacle and Sr. Sainte Hombéline, their journey was a fascinating one. 1
Sr. Saint Jean du Cénacle (Dolores Peloquin) was no teenager when she joined the Sisters of the Assumption. Having matured in the world of business and experienced nine years of classroom teaching, she arrived at age 32 to be foundress of St. Louis Academy. Her stenography writing glorified art. In all business courses, she revealed the clearness and understanding of subject matter as well as sensitivity to students’ level of comprehension. To have Sister John, as she was called, was to witness drama, humor, pathos all wrapped up in fast moving class time. During her fourteen years at Saint Louis Academy, she trained the best secretaries local companies could hire at the time.
Sr. John’s teammate, Sr. Sainte Hombéline, imparted to the students, Christian training, good manners and a love for classic literature. At age 38, she brought to the classroom the wisdom and experience of a superior intellect. With her Academy Literary Club, she presented three or four plays a year. Her fluent literary style facilitated the writing of formal speeches. Tutoring their delivery, she enriched students with frequent elocution lessons. Although unlisted in the curriculum, public speaking and choral speaking were part of sister’s teaching. Many of today’s graduate school requirements for a master’s degree in the French classics were course of studies material for her young girls in high school.
It is no wonder that Fr. Labossiere looked with pride on what he termed “his Academy girls.” With a family background in French, students could study the classics in their own language. The Canadian-born Sr. Sainte Hombéline also loved English which she referred to as “the language of Shakespeare.” Audiences applauded Academy programs showing fluency in both languages. Whether on the stage performing a Molière play or at a summer picnic or serving lunch after an evening of entertainment, the Academy girls displayed refinement, social grace and mental swiftness.
Expansion of the Academy in personnel, offerings and space became imperative. In 1932, the school moved to the former rectory on the corner of Boisvert and West Sixth streets. The course of studies was extended to a three-year program. Seven years later, in 1939, the diversity of women’s careers required the addition of more arts and sciences resulting in the operation of a four-year high school favoring especially the college-bound.
For 73 years Saint Louis Academy tried to uphold the goals set at its foundation. In an era of mergers and consolidation, it became in 1991 part of Lowell Catholic High School as requested by the Boston Archdiocesan authorities. Since its foundation in 1918, the Academy graduated 1,568 students several of whom occupy government positions on the federal, state and municipal levels. Others have advanced to higher education to complete degrees in research, law, medicine, various technological and business areas. In addition, at least forty of them have joined religious orders and are presently spreading the Word of God in all parts of the world. The annual St. Louis Academy Alumnae Reunion, held every year in April, attests to the genuine and lasting bonds that the school created and continues to foster among its former students. 2
1. Lucile Mercier, s.a.s.v., A vision of Saint Louis Parish, 1991, pp.16-17.
2. Mercier, op. cit., p.17.
HOUSING THE SISTERS
The first living quarters of the sisters were in the school building. Foreseeing a steady growth in enrollment and school personnel, Fr. Jacques made plans to construct a large convent attached to the school. The work begun on March 19, 1909, was completed in January 17,1910. The timing was perfect.
The increasing enrollment reached 1,289 pupils in 1924. Twenty-three classrooms were being used. It is not surprising to find twenty-five sisters appointed to Saint Louis Convent. Guided by Fr. Labossiere, architects planned an addition to the 1910 building, a project that began in May 1924. The new structure completed in November of the same year, measured 64×46 feet within which were placed eleven bedrooms, two study halls, a large 46×32 feet community room and a dining room of the same size on the first floor.
With the debt incurred by the parish for such a construction, it was obvious to the sisters that the purchase of new convent furniture could be delayed. Quick to find a solution, Sr. Jean du Cenacle suggested that a fund-raising campaign would accelerate the process. A letter, composed by her Academy companion, the literary Sr. Sainte Hombeline, informed parishioners of the sisters’ dilemma. “A charitable gift lives beyond the life of the giver,” said the letter. Donations started pouring in. A $25 gift from Mrs. John H. Beaulieu came first and was followed by donations amounting to $600. In a few months, the living quarters of the sisters were ready for an Open House. There was rejoicing, gratitude and admiration on the part of both the sisters who received and the parishioners who donated.
The Billings School
To deprive children of a Catholic education because of lack of space was totally opposed to Father Labossiere’s pastoral goals. He found solutions to the problem. First he opened the wooden chapel serving a parish hall to accommodate six classes. Then he found that a small public school on Billings Street had been vacant for five years. To negotiate for its use by a Catholic parish was difficult. His persistence won out and on September 8, 1924, the rented school was opened.
Four sisters from Saint Louis convent taught kindergarten and grades one, two and three at the school named Sacred Heart on Billings Street. Every morning the assigned teachers left around seven-thirty for their fifteen-minute walk to Billings Street. Their school bag in hand, they carried class preparations, checked papers and a meager lunch for the day. The mission life at the billings made rigorous demands on the teachers. Yet, they enjoyed its country atmosphere. St Louise du Carmel (Lydia Girard) a member of the original team and a firm disciplinarian enjoyed numerous friendships during the eight years she served at the Billings School. The memory of Sr. Jeanne du Redempteur (Lucienne Lemire) is still alive today. For ten years she initiated kindergarten toddlers to school life. Her characteristic kindness and motherly devotion made them love school.
After seventeen years of existence, the Billings school closed in September 1941. Enrollment at St. Louis School was dropping gradually so all classes were gathered in the Boisvert Street buildings.
Sainte Marie School in South Lowell
The youngsters at Sainte Marie Parish in South Lowell lived too far from parochial schools to receive a Catholic education. The Oblates of Mary Immaculate’s repeated appeal to the sisters of the Assumption led to the opening of a small school in that parish. In September 1930, three sisters were appointed to exercise their missionary zeal at Sainte Marie’s.
An enrollment of one hundred twenty pupils proved worthwhile. They were divided into three classes: Sr. marguerite de Paray (Cecile Hemond) taught kindergarten and grades one and two, Sr. Anne du Saint Esprit had grades three and four while Sr. Sainte Maxime taught grades five, six and seven. There was no eighth grade. Other veteran teachers well remembered for teaching at Sainte Marie were Sr. Sainte Andrea (Therese Bercier), Sr. Sainte Armande (Edith Simoneau), Sr. Therese de Rome (Rose-Alice Hebert) and Sr. Jeanne de Marie (Jeanne Ledoux).
The commute was done in the pastor’s car. Every morning, on his way to Saint Louis, he brought three or four students to attend eighth grade classes at St. Louis School. On his way back, he drove the three sisters to Sainte Marie. In the afternoon, he returned the sisters to the convent. There he met the eighth graders to bring them back home to South Lowell. In 1945, the sisters teaching at Sainte Marie School were furnished their own convent. After fifteen years of commuting from Saint Louis, it was a welcome change.
In 1945, Fr. Lucien Brassard thought seriously of opening a convent. His rectory could be home to the sisters. He would rent “a humble flat” for himself.
Five sisters arrived on Saturday, September 1, 1945: Sr. Véronique de Jésus, Superior, Sr. Thérèse de Rome (Rose-Alice Hébert), Sr. Joseph de la Charité, Sr. Rita de Jésus (Rita Therrien) and Sr. Marie-Françoise.
At Mass the next day, the sisters learned from the pulpit that the parish had a new Pastor, Fr. George H. Lessard, o.m.i. The following day, they learned from the new pastor himself that he would take his meals at the convent.
Before the week ended, the sisters received a mysterious invitation to go to the parish hall. To their great surprise, they were offered gifts, large and small, of household necessities, provisions of food and first aid supplies. The parishioners, right from the start, exercised a characteristic generosity toward the resident religious.
The opening day of school, September 12, appeared as the usual in the eyes of the 87 pupils in attendance. That the sisters came to school from their neighboring home was no different than when they had commuted from St. Louis convent. The former rectory that had housed one occupant now had to accommodate five. Two months after the school opened, a desk for each sister and a sewing machine arrived. Six months later, twelve chairs for the chapel and the parlor were received. Mass was then celebrated in the convent chapel. Slowly, as the parish budget allowed, the convent was being furnished.
The original purpose of establishing a Catholic school in South Lowell was to favor the French-speaking population. This need changed in the 1950’s. Children no longer spoke French. They could easily enroll in larger Catholic schools in the area. So thought the Provincial Superior, Sr. Marie-Eustelle when she wrote to the Pastor, Fr. Alexander in 1953. 1 Her visit to Sainte Marie convent and school proved that parish finances caused severe worries for the Pastor. The deterioration of the school especially obliged city-building inspectors to condemn it as hygienically unfit for habitation. Extensive and expensive repairs were out of the question. Thus, the subject of the sisters’ withdrawal began.
With government subsidies, the city of Lowell had accepted plans to participate in the construction of Interstate Highway 495. Routes traced for the project ran across South Lowell territory. Urban Renewal was in full force.
Parish property acquired at heavy sacrifice was claimed by the government in order to improve travel routes. Attempts to oppose the plan were futile. Radical changes were forced on Sainte Marie Parish by the highway that demolished everything in its paths including the school and divided what remained of the parish buildings.
The parishioners immediately wanted to find new property to house their school especially not to send the sisters away. Negotiations failed. For the past seven years, closing had hovered over their lives. Now the reality had to be faced. No longer could they enjoy their small, friendly school.
On June 30, 1961, the residence of the Sisters of the Assumption ended at St. Marie Convent, Grafton Street, South Lowell. 2
Sainte Therese School In Dracut
The Parish of Sainte Thérèse was the daughter church of Saint Louis de France in Lowell. In 1936, the Sainte Thérèse was vacant. The pastor at St. Louis attended to his mission church. In 1937, Cardinal O’Connell heard the parishioners’ appeal for a resident pastor and sent Fr. Arthur O. Mercier to Dracut. During his administration, the novenas to Ste Thérèse were revived every Tuesday. More solemnity was given to the nine Tuesdays leading to Thérèse’s feast in October.
Life as usual was interrupted in the fall of 1937. Following the ninth Tuesday novena service, a crippled bone victim named Lorraine Fréchette rose from her wheel chair and walked out of the church. 3 This cure triggered a series of events that led to the opening of a popular pilgrimage center honoring the Little Flower. The small church could never accommodate the 1500 pilgrims attending the Tuesday afternoon and evening novena. So an outdoor sanctuary-grotto was constructed on the church grounds.
From 1928 to 1938, the sisters of the Assumption had been present to the Ste Thérèse Parish youth for weekend catechism classes. In 1942, Fr. Mercier expanded the sisters’ influence on the Dracut children by establishing Sainte Thérèse Catholic School
In 1942, the year after the closing of the Billings school, Sainte Therese School of Dracut opened. Again, the teachers who staffed that mission school resided at St. Louis Convent. The foundresses, Sr. Bernadette du Sacre Coeur (Bernadette Lemoine) and Sr. Ernest de Jesus (Diana Courtois) rode the city bus to commute to school. When a Provincial House at Sancta Maria was established in 1946, the Sainte Therese teachers became part of the provincial community. The parish sexton, George Mason, was responsible for the sisters’ daily commute to school. A new convent built in 1954 became the sisters’ residence. By 1978, the shortage of personnel obliged the sisters to withdraw from Dracut thereby closing Sainte Therese School.
1. Letter from Mother Marie Eustelle to Fr. Victor Alexandre, o.m.i., June 29, 1953.
2. Chroniques du couvent Sainte Marie, South Lowell, MA, June 16, 1961, p.103.
3. L’Etoile, Lowell, MA, November 22, 1946.
SANCTA MARIA, LOWELL — 1945-1973
Two years prior to the creation of provinces, the community had opened the Sancta Maria Convent on Farmland Road in Lowell. The original purpose was to operate a boarding school in the area. The search for a proper building ended with the purchase of the Bellehumeur house described as:
A big house, 13 big rooms, barn and garage, 4 acres or 134,240 sq. ft of good land…. This plot is situated on the corner of Lakeview Ave. & Farmland Road almost to Dalton St. The house is built on a hill so that you have the sun all day long. The view from there covers most of Lowell…. The house is set away from the main thoroughfare. Very Little change needed for a chapel. The price is set for $12,000. It’s the ideal set-up. 1
Negotiations for the community were in the capable hands of Mère Saint Athanase. “The big house” was an imposing stone structure referred to as the Bellehumeur Castle. Prominent residents had claimed ownership of the Bellehumeur House and remain immortalized in the street names of that region. In succession, the house belonged to Fisher A. Hildreth, Florence Hildreth Nesmith, Civil War Captain Rowena Ried (1861), Appoline Picard and Dr. David and Mrs. Adeline Bellehumeur. 2
In November 1944, the amount agreed upon and paid by the community was $12,000 to the Bellehumeur couple in payment of the house and a 4-acre lot. The sum of $2,000 was paid to Miss Appoline Picard for the land completing the property down to Lakeview Avenue.
The teachers of Sainte Marie School; Sr. Thérèse de Rome (Rose Alice Hébert), Sr. Rita de Jésus (Rita Therrien), Sr. Jeanne de l’Eucharistie (Marie Boisclair) and Joseph de la Charité were dividing their time between cleaning the house at Sancta Maria and teaching in South Lowell. Everyday they found a different suitable corner to sleep. At five o’clock in the morning, they were on their way down the street to join the St. Louis community in prayer, Mass and breakfast. Their Pastor, Fr. Brassard, drove them to school after 7:30 AM and brought them back to Sancta Maria.
Open House at Sancta Maria, early in February 1945, brought neighbors and friends in large number. Donations were not mentioned yet visitors left free-will offerings amounting to $300.
The Pastor at St. Louis Rectory, Fr. Charles Cordier, was named chaplain at Sancta Maria by Archbishop Cushing. He sang the first Mass on Our Lady’s feast of the Purification on February 2, 1945.
On weekdays, the sisters were blessed to have Mass at their house by a priest from St. Louis Parish. On Sundays, the entire personnel of thirteen walked down Lakeview Avenue and West Sixth Street to attend High Mass at St. Louis Church.
New orientations were taking place rapidly at Sancta Maria. No more postulants lived there. The South Lowell sisters were gone to their own convent. To replace them came the teachers of Sainte Thérèse in Dracut: Sr. Bernadette du Sacré-Coeur (Bernadette Lemoine), Sr. Claire de Marie (Marie-Claire Desrosiers) and Sr. Jeanne de L’Eucharistie (Marie Boisclair).
With Mother St. Athanase still directing operations, the Bellehumeur residence was being transformed into an imposing Provincial House. The large breezy porch, the curved asphalt walkway, the attractive landscaping, the majestic line-up of evergreen trees, much was accomplished during the second year. By the summer of 1946, the Provincial House for the American Province was in readiness.
Changes, however, were happening rapidly at Sainte Thérèse. The Pastor, Father Paul Martin gave up his rectory to establish a convent for the six sisters teaching at Sainte Thérèse Parochial School. On December 6, 1954, Mother Marie Eustelle’s “Dracut girls” left the Provincial House for their new residence. After eight years of companionship, their departure left an emptiness in her heart.
Life was too quiet. It was but the prelude, however, of more changes that were eminent.
The personnel remaining on Farmland Road continued the educational mission of tutoring children of special needs and giving music lessons. These were the most progressive years of special education at Sancta Maria. Between 115 and 120 pupils enrolled. During the summer months, classes continued drawing about 60 pupils for special courses.
After serving twenty years as the sisters’ residence, Sancta Maria, the Bellehumeur Castle on the hill, showed physical deterioration. Ceilings needed repairing, carpets were worn, fresh paint would preserve the walls, a general overhaul of the building became urgent.
The mothers of the school children ran a cake sale and raised $314 to pay for the chapel repairs. The Cercle Jeanne-Mance held a Bridge Card Party to contribute to general Sancta Maria repairs. The sum raised, $700, proved very useful. Mr. Marchand painted six rooms and the corridors. All sorts of services and donations given by numerous friends kept the place intact and restored it to its original majestic splendor.
In June 1969, a section of land belonging to the house Sancta Maria, Land situated on Farmland Road, Fred Street and Lakeview Avenue, Was sold after consultation with the Provincial Council and the Provincial Treasurer to Messrs Gladstone of Billerica. They intend To construct apartment buildings. 3
1. Letter from Saint Louis Rectory, Lowell, MA to Mother St. Jean l’Evangeliste, n.d.
2. Chroniques du couvent Sancta Maria de Lowell, MA, le 29 novembre, 1944, p.2.
3. Chroniques, op. cit., June 1969.
THE CURTAIN FALLS
A personnel of eight sisters at Sancta Maria in the 1960s made possible special classes to satisfy the educational needs of 122 pupils enrolled in grades K through 7. The jovial, systematic, energetic Sr. Jeanne Ledoux served as Superior. Since she assumed the leadership in 1964, the mission fulfilled was truly in the Assumption tradition. Sickness, however, forced Sr. Jeanne to leave Sancta Maria for St. Joseph’s Hospital early in December 1969. After heart surgery and several months of intensive and intermediate care an unsuccessful recovery damaged her weakened body. On March 23, 1970, Sr. Jeanne Ledoux passed away in the company of Sr. Jacqueline Pelletier, RN at our Infirmary in Petersham. She was 62 years old.
The 1970 school year opened with major changes in school. Pupils of grades one through eight were advised to enroll in others schools in Lowell or Dracut. At Sancta Maria, the only teaching offered was the Kindergarten. Classes of an average of 80 to 85 tots aged 5 enrolled during the three years that followed.
Beginning in January 1971, the retired Father Sylvio Barrette came to say daily Mass at five o’clock on week-day afternoons. After twenty-five years of service to Sancta Maria, St. Louis Rectory had fewer priests with more responsibilities in their own parish. So, the arrival of Fr. Barrette was a welcomed adjustment to the priest shortage and gave the venerable Pastor an agreeable ministry with the good sisters in his native city.
Echoes of the Sancta Maria closing became louder in January 1973. At that time, Mr. M. Achin paid a visit to evaluate the entire property. In an official statement, Sr. Marie Fournier, Provincial Superior, notified the sisters that no pupil need register for the coming school year.
The large stone Bellehumeur Castle, known for 28 years as Sancta Maria, was demolished during the 1980s. Bulldozers leveled the ground. Then, twenty-three condominia were constructed to alleviate the housing shortage in the Centralville section of Lowell.