Monthly Archives: March 2016

Irish/Catholic Education in Lowell

I have to start with a disclaimer, some of this information is lent to me by Anne Sheehy from her father’s collection of educational historical materials. I will make a very conscious effort to identify those areas that were Senator Sheehy’s. Many thanks to Anne for her help.

Lowell was not a welcoming town to all of its immigrants. Some of the most difficult times occured between the unrecalcitrant Irish and the overlording Episcopalian mill owners. There was a strong desire, early on, to make the Irish give up their devilish ways and join their Anglican chapels. Lowell had plenty of Protestant churches early-on, some of which are shown here. Some of you have asked for pictures to go with the blog and the writing. So, I tried to fit some in.

The role of the Irish has been written and re-written time after time in Lowell’s books. They were discriminated against, they were forced to work for hours for less money than the others made, they were ineffective at demanding change. They got the worst jobs, without insurance or wages if they could not work. In the School Street Cemetery there is a man who died at a relatively old age by falling off of the dam to the rocks below. He was in his fifties. The average life expectancy of a man at that time was fifty-one years. He is remembered because, on his stone, it says he died from a fall on the Pawtucket Canal dam. I can guarantee that he was not awarded any sum of money by the mill owners. If he fell, it was his fault and he should have been more careful.

I have written of the Irish, and the effort to get their children into Protestant-oriented schools in what was called “District #7.” At one time, according to Paul Sheehy’s information, public schools in Lowell fought to give public education money to the area schools in the Acre, largely. The Irish, fiercely motivated to have their religious beliefs taught in the schools, scorned the offer (Paul Sheehy’s Collection, Anne Sheehy Curator). The battle-lines were drawn by the Irish reaction to what the City Fathers publically stated was a well-intentioned offer of assistance.

The Irish fought hard to control their schools, and the Americans fought back. It was more of an effort to control the minds of the children and teach them Protestant values, in my opinion, than it was an effort to supply much-needed money to the Catholic Schools. When the first Irish arrived, they immediately used the clerics and the nuns to teach the children. Some of the earliest classes were taught under tents. Quickly, the Irish set up schools, which overshadowed the efforts of the Americans to get the children into schools in District 7. In my studying of the early records of the school system, District 7 existed on paper, but it was having real difficulty getting the Irish to send their children there. Eventually, the entire District 7 would be virtually abandoned and the School Committee would praise the standards of the Catholic School system in Lowell.

The Catholic Schools were known for their allegiance to their curriculum, which included Religion, specifically the Catholic religion. In an effort to make the Irish want to send their children to District 7 schools, the Anglicans and others were willing to provide free schooling. That was not enough to get the Catholics to school. For many years, Joseph McAvinnue, the Principal of the Pawtucket Memorial School, brought the entire school population to St. Rita’s Church on Catholic Holy Days. No one complained, despite the fact that many of the children were Protestant. A little exposure to God was considered to be good use of the public school system. (Discussion with Mr. Leonard Flynn, 1992, Principal of the Pawtucketville Memorial School)

Schools are the meeting house of our society. People expect schools to be a safe zone where they can send their children. That is why so many people are so shocked by school violence in Columbine, for example. I believe it was logical for people to conclude that Ireland could be saved in small pieces in Lowell through the use of private education. A smart person named Jason Boffetti “urges us to realize a simple fact: all schools are public schools, because any institution that provides a good educ;ation and necessary social skills…should be supported with public monies.” (Catholic Education Resource Center; Jason Boffeti; 2015)

The reason the Puritans started public schools was to oversee the teaching of the reading of the Bible. That was the reason people started schools to teach reading in the New World. It worked. Children learned not only to read, but to think. Thinking might not have been the oil in the Puritan’s mixture, but it was a side effect. To the Puritans, known for their machines of torture, thinking was not a desired output. It just happened. Those that disagreed were invited to leave. Witness Roger Williams establishing the alternate state of Rhode Island.

Jason Boffetti states that we once funded private schools. He insists that we still should. The reason, he states, is because private schools assume the role of public schools in most areas of learning and teaching. That makes them public in their mission.

Home schooling is also one of his targets. In the year, 2,000 AD, three of the top three finishers in the National Spelling Bee were Home Schooled. It is difficult but it works. The winner of the contest had finished second the week before in the Geography Bee. It seems that if we desire excellence in learning, we need to look towards the home as a major part of the exercise. “Competition among religious, secular, and government-run schools will benefit all students in the long run.” he states.

In the 1890’s, Lowell offered to pay for Catholic School education. The Irish, afraid of an offer that they felt had tentacles attached to it, refused. They continued to offer low-priced education to a large porportion of the population which was basically excellent in its abilities. The teachers, nuns and lay-persons, did rap your hands with a ruler. Spanking was not unheard of, but the Catholic schools quickly saw the benefit in grading that the public schools used and the Catholic Schools used grading too.

Grading was probably the greatest acheivement of the 19th. Century. It allowed the teacher to essentially “wash their hands” of troublesome students by threatening them with bad grades which they would have to explain to their supposedly irate parents. Teachers in Lowell, Massachusetts were asked to determine whether grading was desirable and they found it to be extremely so. Grading was used by 1860 in Lowell and was looked upon as one of the best ideas that education had seen short of corporal punishment. It was a lot more palatable than that type of punishment. Rulers still were used by the nuns, it seems, but grading had a clearer and better effect.

Grading involved charting progress. A poorly behaved student was often not a good student, and it showed in his/her grades. The teacher got to use the new “Report Cards,” to let the parents know of any difficulty and soon, it seems, they used “Comments” sections to write about the difficulty they were having with the individual student. In his first notice to the Lowell School Committee on the new practice of grading, the Superintendent noted that; “This (practice) has already justified itself and proved its own wisdom. The actual advantages gained by thus grading our schools have far outrun all of our theories and exceeded highest anticipations.” (History of Lowell, Massachusetts, 1893).

“Grading performed a valuable function, he wrote. It increased classroom discipline and decreased the need for each school to inflict corporal punishment from an average of ten times to one.” (The New Role of Grading to Increase Discipline and Scholarship; Peters’ Principles; Jim Peters; 2015).

“In the early days of the town’s history the Irish population were congregated on a tract of land known as the Acre.” Illustrated History of Lowell, Mass. 1893) As early as March of 1831, the Lowell School Committee established a committee to oversee the education of the Irish. The members of that committee included the Rev Theodore Edson; Rev. E.W. Freeman; Rev. E Case, Elisha Bartlett; and Josiah Crosby. Obviously, with three Protestant ministers on the Committee the Irish would have little difficulty in entertaining that this new District 7, designed for the Irish children, was the epitome of evil. The Committee voted to assess fifty dollars for the support of the new school. Not very auspicious and not very well-funded. “The average number of children attending the school is about thirty” the Report stated. $50.00 for a school catering to 30 students of a different culture and religion dictated by three members of the Anglican or Episcopalian clergy was probably not a comfort to the Irish, who were being used as menial laborers and lived in the worst part of the town. District 7 was, as described before, unused. The report of the committee concluded, “That the Irish population living on the Acre, so called, be formed into a district, to be called District 7.” (ibid.)

The devising of a district was not successful. “Private schools cropped up here and there, seeming to indicate a want of confidence in the public school.” (ibid.) Not a bad group of men, the Committee itself noted that the lack of children was probably the result of a “natural apprehension on the part of the parents and pastors of placing their children under Protestant teachers,..” (ibid.) Included in this observation was the natural hatred of the schoolchildren for those of an opposing religion. Father Connelly established a system which mitigated part of the apprehensions of the parents of the Irish students by allowing the supervision of the Catholic schools by the School Committee. The mitigating factors included:

* That the instructors must be examined for qualifications by the Lowell School Committee and receive their appointments from them.

* The books used shall be prescribed and regulated by the School Committee, and that no other “whatever should be taught or allowed.”

* That these schools should be taught by the examination, inspection, and general supervision on “precisely the same ground as the other schools of the town.” (Ibid.)

Father Connolly stated that the instructors must be of the Roman Catholic faith, a major point of contention. He was given the samples of the texts to be used and agreed that they were of value. Three schools were soon to be occupied and one grammar and five primary schools were soon being used exclusively by the Irish children. While they marveled at the progress shown years later, it was duly noted that “Today the parochial schools provide for the separate education of Catholic children.” (Ibid.)

At the time of the writing of that book it was noted that “The best of feeling exists” as to the way the Catholics were performing noble work in “striving for the highest educational standards.” Sister Desiree must have been proud. She was the first nun in Lowell to pass the stringent teacher’s examination and teach in a Catholic school. Two of the groups teaching the Catholic students included the Xaverian Brothers, and the Sisters of Notre Dame. Both groups are still at work in the Lowell area. The Sisters of Notre Dame still run the St. Patrick’s School and Notre Dame Academy in Tyngsborough, while the Xaverian Brothers will be assuming the dominant role in Lowell Catholic High School and the former St. Margaret’s School. In the words of our predecessors, “They are men and women of scholarly attainments, of the highest character,” (ibid)

When I first moved here, there were a number of high schools. They included:

Lowell High School
Lowell Trade School
Middlesex Reform School
St. Joseph’s High School
Keith Academy
Keith Hall
Rogers School
Notre Dame Academy

and maybe another. Now there are two, Lowell Catholic High School, Greater Lowell Regional Technical High School, and Lowell High School. Education was a major role for citizens of the city. It still is, but the schools are larger.

The purpose of this article was to delineate between the efforts of the old Lowell School Committee and their jobs, which basically stated that Protestantism was supposed to be taught at the most basic levels, and the rights of the Catholics to have their own school system. I cannot claim the floor for those Catholic students (scholars, as they called them) of the time, and the Protestants. It was clearly a different time. We would not allow the types of divisions now that existed then. The Lowell School Committee of the time deserves some recognition for trying to make every Lowellian equal, but barely hides their desire to do it behind their religion and upbringing. The Irish of the time, and their descendants, were treated badly. I remember Eunice Kennedy Shriver was once told the the cobblestones in a square in Boston looked nice after the rain had soaked them. “Those aren’t cobblestones,” she said bitterly. “They are Irish skulls.”

Every immigrant group has suffered the same way. The Irish Catholics were followed by the Italian, the Polish, and the Lithuanian Catholics. All of those groups suffered. Lowell was defined as an Anglican town early on. The first purchase of canal granite went to buy stones for St. Anne’s Church downtown. Catholics could not afford granite until St. Patrick’s wooden chapel burned to the ground and they rebuilt it out of stone. Both churches are beautiful but have such incredibly different stories. By sharing those stories, maybe the Greek Americans among us, like my wife and my children, can learn to live with the Irish Catholics, like myself and my children. Maybe by learning to live together, we will learn to get along.

(This blog is the by-line of James A. Peters of Lowell, Massachusetts. A copyright is pending.)