Thursday, September 13, 2012

The "New" School - 1958

Cardinal Cushing on Rectory Steps, 1956
The congregation couldn’t believe what they just heard. 
The year was 1956.  Thousands had gathered at St Patrick Church for the 125th anniversary of its founding.  The highlight of the event was the Pontifical Mass.  Dozens of clergy were invited to partake in the celebration of the Mother Church of Lowell.  The celebrant was Richard Cardinal Cushing.  He ascended the steps of the pulpit and began his sermon.  He spoke of faith and loyalty.  He commended the various organizations that supported the Irish through the decades.  He spoke of the dedication of the Sisters of Notre Dame who staffed the school since 1852.  He spoke of the aging buildings and the need for repairs.  And that’s when he hit them with the news.  The convent, academy building, chapel and school building were all to be razed.
You can imagine he probably paused dramatically and waited for a reaction.  In his booming Boston accent he continued that a new school was to be raised.  It would meet all the codes and modern conveniences the other buildings lacked.  And then he hit them with the next line.  He, himself, would match dollar for dollar whatever funds were raised.  And to top it off the work would begin immediately.  Though this may have been a surprise to many listening to the Cardinal, it wasn’t to him.  Cushing recognized the role the parochial schools played with catholic identity.  Whatever his biographers say about him, the man had a vision and would do what he had to accomplish it. 
To be honest the need was great.  The number of students had been dwindling.  To think that at the end of the 19th century there were 1005 students enrolled in the schools.  The decline began when the Academy moved to Tyngsboro in the 1920s.  This was followed by a major blow a decade later with the demolition of many of the tenements and houses that surrounded the church to make way for Housing Project.
Cushing, of course, knew what he wanted to say before he got to the pulpit.  Across the Diocese he was tearing down and building up.  The architect and builder were already hired before he announced it in Lowell. To save money he used the same design and builders for many of his building projects.  A quick survey of building of this period shows church after church, school after school all followed a similar design.   The convent and chapel were to be demolished, and the Sisters would live at the Academy in Tyngsboro and commute to Lowell Monday through Friday.  A station wagon would be provided.  All nine nuns would squeeze in.  They would also come to Lowell each Sunday for the 8:30 Mass with the parochial school students and then teach CCD to the public school students.  What was once the convent gardens would be the new school.  Everything in-between would be used for  parking. 
Pledge Card to Finance New School
The last days came quickly.  Neighbors watched as the Sisters packed their bags to move to Tyngsboro.  Construction workers began demolishing the convent wall that had cloistered the Sisters for three-quarters of a century.  They left a small section which closed off the new school from Adams St, and remained standing until the 1980s.  They also left the Grotto in the rear of the new school.  But the day that many had to dread finally did come.  The Lowell Sun was there as the wrecking ball swung into the building that had educated so many. 
Cushing made his arrival in grand style to the dedication wearing all the ecclesiastical finery his office provided.  After prayers in the church, the procession made its way to the new school.  Cushing picked up a trowel and laid the cornerstone.  He spoke briefly and asked the blessing of God upon all those who would work in this place.
It was the last day of school in June at the old St Patrick School.  The Sisters had a tradition of keeping an account of what happened in the school and convent.  The Principal opened the journal to write the last account in her journal.  She wrote that she and another Sister drove to St Patrick Cemetery.  They knelt at the grave of Mother Desiree, the first Superior at St Patrick’s.   They prayed for those who served, and for those who were to come, and for the Acre to rise again.

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