In 2008 Lowell’s Franco-American School, formerly known as The Orphanage, celebrated its 100th anniversary. The following text is taken from the souvenir booklet prepared for the occasion:
In commemoration of the one hundredth anniversary of its foundation, the Franco-American School dedicates this historical overview to its countless benefactors, alumni and friends.
The original home was built in the late 1870’s for Frederick Ayer, a prominent Lowell industrialist. This richly decorated Second Empire style residence was designed by Boston architect S.S. Woodcock. Frederick Ayer’s mansion reflected his power and wealth as well as the significance of the Ayer family in Lowell. Ayer came to Lowell in 1855 and joined his brother in his downtown patent medicine firm. Throughout his life, he added to his financial power by making a series of successful investments. Frederick Ayer moved to Boston in 1890. Today, the former Ayer estate stands as a lasting monument to Lowell’s rich industrial past and to the predominantly Victorian architecture of the late 19th century.
In June 1908, the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate purchased the estate with the intention of providing a home for orphaned children of Franco-Americans and to ensure the continuity of the French Canadian heritage. Hence, His Eminence William Cardinal O’Connell granted Father Joseph Campeau, O.M.I., then pastor of St. Joseph’s (St. Jean-Baptiste) parish, authority to proceed with the foundation of the Franco-American Orphanage.
The assistance of a French Canadian women’s religious order was deemed essential to the fulfillment of such a project. Father Campeau then traveled to Québec to solicit the collaboration of the Sisters of Charity. After accepting the challenge, four Sisters arrived in Lowell on September 1, 1908 to begin the new foundation. Transforming the “Château” into an orphanage required unceasing work since the mansion had remained vacant for eighteen yeas. On October 7, four Sisters were added to the Orphanage staff. On October 15, 1908 the eight foundresses welcomed the first sixteen orphans entrusted to their care.
In April 1909, the building became the property of a non-profit corporation with administrative responsibilities delegated to the Sisters of Charity of Québec. The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate remained committed to provide spiritual support and the orphanage continued its contribution to the life of the Parish.
In addition to the demanding task of nurturing and educating the orphans, the Sisters visited the sick and organized “L’Oeuvre du Pain” (Bread Fund), a charitable association to benefit the orphans. The dedication of the eight pioneer Sisters won the support of parishioners, benefactors and friends from the very beginning. With the collaboration and the widespread sympathy of the city’s population, the Orphanage grew rapidly and the need for expansion soon became evident.
In 1912, during the administration of Fr. Henri Watelle, O.M.I., and under the direction of Jean-Baptiste Morin, a contractor, the four-story rear brick building was added to the original Ayer Mansion. The children moved into the spacious area on February 19, 1913 and the very next day, Mass was celebrated in the new chapel dedicated to the Sacred Heart. The solemn benediction of the new Orphanage took place on June 21, 1913.
Since its inception in 1908, the growth of the institution was prodigious. In addition to a nurturing and safe environment, the Orphanage offered its young residents a solid spiritual and academic foundation as well as cultural and social advantages. Its personnel, ever sensitive to the needs of the time, soon extended its services to children of neighboring parishes and cities. In the late 1950’s, day students were admitted among the residents and received educational training as well as extended care options for both before and after school hours.
The years continued to bring about new community needs, and social changes necessitated a change of orientation. Thus, in 1963, the Franco-American Orphanage officially became the Franco-American School with an enrollment of both residents and day students from Kindergarten through eighth grade.
In 1978, the boarding school facilities were discontinued in favor of a totally day-student enrollment with the same quality education and extended day care option.
In the 1980 and 1990’s the enrollment continued to increase; new programs and extra-curricular and athletic activities were added to the curriculum. In September 2004, Franco-American School added a Pre-Kindergarten to its educational program. Also in 2004, on recommendation from the Commission of Independent Schools, Franco-American School received membership and was granted accreditation by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges.
Today, the Sisters of Charity of Quebec, with the help of dedicated lay faculty and staff, continue to pursue their mission of educating and instructing the young. Franco-American School, a private institution under the jurisdiction of the Catholic School Office of the Boston Archdiocese, serves a diverse multi-ethnic population. As societal needs continue to change, one thing remains constant, and that is the ever attentive response and commitment of the administration to remain faithful to its original mission: to provide an education that promotes spiritual growth, academic excellence, social and personal development, and prepare its students to become authentic and responsible citizens in a world in constant evolution.
Alas, the optimism displayed in 2008 was undermined by the realities of 2016. In February of that year the Principal, Sr. Lorraine Richard, S.C.Q. and the Board of Directors of Franco-American School regretfully announced that the 2015-2016 school year would be the last after which it would close its doors. A decline in enrollments (the student/teacher ratio according to its website is 17/1) and rising costs were two major factors that led to this heart-breaking decision.
On Wednesday June 8, 2016 the whole student body, faculty and staff assembled for a “Farewell to Franco” ceremony that included burial of a time capsule. The final graduation was held on Friday, 10 June 2016.