While the origins of Catholic faith and sacramental life trace their roots to the first known Mass one day in September of 1840 by Father James Fitton who is popularly referred to as the Apostle to New England for his extensive travels and discovery of Catholic immigrants from Boston to Worcester to Hartford and countless communities in between, the origins of Catholic education begin under the vision and effort of Father Michel LeBreton. Pere LeBreton arrived in Southbridge to celebrate the first Mass specifically for the French-Canadian community on November 29, 1869. Just a year later at Midnight Mass for Christmas of 1870 he had built the first Notre Dame Church on Pine Street to hold 1,200 people at a cost of $17,000.
With the church built, and a steady influx of French-Canadian arrivals to work in local mills, he turned his attention to the need for a parochial school. Most likely he was strongly influenced by the then recent Council of Baltimore and as a man ahead of his time, set about to construct a two story building next to the church on Pine Street to serve as a school. This would be the first French speaking parish in the Diocese of Boston to have a parochial school since the Diocese of Springfield would not be created until the following year.To operate the school, he hired Madame Louis (Elise) Kasky, a former teacher in Canada, to be the headmaster and teacher of the new school. It was called L’Ecole de Memere Kasky. Mme. Kasky had a strong interest in drama and often organized and directed several plays with her students for the inspiration and edification of the parish faithful. Mme. Kasky held this position until 1879 when she and her family moved to Spencer and the school was without a teacher. Mme. Kasky’s legacy lived on not only in the parish but in her family: her grandson, the Very Reverend Wilfred Dufault, AA, served as a Professor, Provincial and Superior General of the Order of the Augustinians of the Assumption who founded Assumption College in Worcester and serve Saint Anne and Saint Patrick Parish, once mission churches of Notre Dame and Saint Mary Parishes of Southbridge respectively; and two of her granddaughters professed as Sisters of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, Sr. Jeanne de Marie, SASV (Jeanne Ledoux) and Sr, Cecile de l’Ange Gardien, SASV (Bernadette Ledoux).
When Pere LeBreton desired to return to France to visit his family, the Bishop of Springfield appointed his curate, The Reverend Georges Elzear Brochu, as pastor in 1873. Supportive of Mme. Kasky and her efforts with the school, her departure left him determined to locate a religious community of sisters who would run the school. To bring them to Southbridge, he would need a residence for the sisters and so a parish-wide meeting was held that turned contentious and even violent. Many were satisfied with the public school system, others who were only seasonal workers intending to return to Canada objected to financing buildings they would not benefit from, still others felt it more important that their children work rather than study. The authoritarian manner of Pere Brochu didn’t sit well with many parishioners; they stoned his house and even petitioned the bishop for his transfer.
But, Pere Brochu was undaunted. He called on the Sisters of the Assumption in Nicolet, Canada to furnish sisters for the school, but they denied him for a lack of personnel. He turned to the Sisters of Sainte Anne who opened two new houses in Massachusetts, one in Worcester, and the other in Southbridge. On August 3, 1881, seven Sisters of Sainte Anne arrived in Southbridge to work with Pere Brochu and direct the new Notre Dame School, a tuition free school for over 600 pupils. However, the firm direction of Pere Brochu who was named a Monsignor in 1887, caused tension and conflicts with the sisters that required the intervention of their Mother General on countless occasions. 1890, when the sisters made their annual retreat in Canada they received permission from the bishops of Springfield and of Montreal and thereby sent Msgr. Brochu a letter that as of June 30 they would no longer staff Notre Dame School.
By the time the notice arrived, it was too late for Pere Brochu to make the necessary changes to staff the school for the opening day of classes that September. At the same time, the hard reality was that the public school system in Southbridge did not have the space to accommodate an influx of new students of this proportion. As a result, Pere Brochu leased the school to the town for the coming school year. While this solved a problem for the town, and brought income rather than expenses to the parish, many parishioners who had chosen the public school over their parish school resented the fact that they had been publicly reprimanded and even denied sacraments, was now patronizing in the local public school system!
Pere Brochu worked tirelessly to bring another community of religious sisters to teach in Southbridge. He was determined to find another group of religious before school would open the following year. His zeal for the welfare of the young souls in his care touched the hearts of the leadership of the Sisters of the Assumption in Nicolet, Canada. Several calls from various cities throughout the United States had been received looking for their teaching sisters, but it was the request of Pere Brochu that received ‘privileged consideration.’ When told that he needed to wait two years, he rushed to Canada to meet with the Mother General and at their General Council on January 25, 1891, it was decided to establish a mission on American soil for the first time, and to do so in Southbridge. When he received the news, Pere Brochu returned in a hurry to Nicolet, in order to sign a contract with the Sisters. On August 22, 1891, (exactly 125 years ago from August 22, 2016!), seven sisters with their Superior, Sr. Ste. Anne, arrived in Southbridge.
Serving the needs of 650 students enrolled in Notre Dame School presented challenges that first year. All of the sisters had come from Canada and spoke French exclusively. The students lived in America, all of them had spent the previous year in a public school which taught in English; and the older students may have missed their beloved Sisters of Sainte-Anne, taking some of their resentment out on the new community of sisters. Nonetheless, school opened on September 8, 1891. Just ten days later, one of the sisters would write the following, hardly what we would expect of a Catholic school 125 years later!, “The little boys have yet to learn how to hold their book, to open them at the right page; while four or five are attentive to the lesson, forty-five play or fight, break inkwells, dirty everything around them. Never in our lives have we ever seen anything like this.”
During this time, Father James Donahoe had been named pastor at Saint Mary Church on Hamilton Street. With the reduction of the parish debt from the building of the new church at the corner of Hamilton and Marcy Streets, he set about to convert the former Saint Peter Church, the original Catholic church in Southbridge into a fitting place for education. With that completed, he contracted with the Sisters of Saint Joseph from Holyoke, MA who arrived in 1889 with seven sisters, Sister Hilary as their superior, to teach one hundred fifty students in the newly opened Saint Mary’s School. He purchased the Bullfinch property on Marcy Street and converted it into a rectory so that the Sisters could live in the former rectory adjacent to the school on Hamilton Street. Between Saint Mary’s School which had been fashioned out of the converted Saint Peter Church and Pine Street, there was a vacant plot of land. For a thousand dollars, Fr. Donahoe purchased it from its owners, the Hamilton Woolen Mills. In time, this would become the site of the future Saint Mary High School, then merged to become Marianhill High School, and currently houses Trinity Catholic Academy.
Catholic education flourished in Southbridge within each of the Catholic parishes. Students were added at Saint Mary’s School, and the growing French-Canadian population was quickly outgrowing its church and its school. Pere Brochu had now been elevated to the rank of Monsignor and recognized the need to build a larger church, one that might be fitting to be a cathedral. His first intent was to build it above the original church at the top of the hill of Pine Street, but then learned that the Marcy estate, situated at the corner of Main and Marcy Streets was available. At the signing of the purchase, a clause escaped his notice that Mr. Marcy could live in the house until his death. He outlived Msgr. Brochu and so the building of the current Notre Dame Church fell to his successor, Msgr. Triganne.
With the new church to be sited on Main Street, Msgr. Brochu turned his attention to building a larger school on the former site of his intended church. In 1899, funded mostly by the personal funds of Msgr. Brochu, L’Academie Brochu, opened its doors to its first students. A three story building built of red brick with terra cotta trimmings, at a cost of $40,000, it was described by the Mother Superior on her visit on January 11, 1900 as ‘magnificent.’ While the third floor was reserved as a chapel for school Mass, and additional Mass for the increasingly inadequate church, twelve new classrooms meant the need for more sisters and more students. In September of 1902, ten years into its existence, Notre Dame School had 15 sisters and 850 students. The former convent-school was repurposed solely as the sisters’ residence. The growing gift of Catholic education also enriched the Sisters of the Assumption as many of the daughters of Notre Dame followed their teachers to profess their lives and service as Sisters, many serving roles of leadership in the community through the years.
The growing French-Canadian community in Southbridge, coupled with the lack of a larger church waiting for the ability to build on the property of the Marcy estate, found a solution when on November 29, 1908, the Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish was formed. The curate of Notre Dame Parish. Father William St. Onge was named the founding pastor. Initially the parish met at the Armory building at the corner of Hook and Central Streets. This was later known as the California Fruit Company and is now an apartment building managed by the Center of Hope (in 2016). In 1910, with its school completed, the crowding at Academie Brochu was alleviated with the opening of the parish school for Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish. On September 6, 1910, L’Ecole Sainte Jeanne-d’Arc opened with 325 registered students in Grades 1-9 and nine Sisters of the Assumption. They had arrived from Nicolet on August 23, 1910 and lived for fifteen months in a house rented from Mr. Pelletier on Mechanic Street. On December 8, 1911, Fr. St. Onge blessed the new convent for the sisters and installed the Blessed Sacrament in their chapel.
In December of 1917, change came to the sisters when electricity was installed in their convent and for Christmas they received an electric iron and an automatic washing machine. The greater change was that with the opening of the new and cathedral sized Notre Dame Church on Main Street, the third floor chapel could be converted to badly needed classroom space for the 720 students at L’Academie Brochu. The enlargement of the school was completed in time for the opening day of school the next year. In 1934, Fr. Desrochers saw the need to expand the curriculum by offering a Commercial Course of the elementary school. Known initially as Notre Dame Academy, it was a one room learning center on the third floor of L’Academie Brochu. The following year, three more classrooms were implemented and a closet was converted to a typing ‘room.’ Over time, even young men would enroll and the curriculum expanded to include Gregg shorthand, bookkeeping and business law. The first graduating class in 1938 had three graduates.
The growing interest in Notre Dame Academy eventually added college preparatory studies and became Notre Dame High School with the construction of an annex to L’Academie Brochu in 1951. Now in the post war era, each class had its own homeroom and each student his or her own desk! This brought about the realization that a new school was needed apart from l’Academie Brochu. In a 1953 sermon, Msgr. Lamothe announced construction would begin on a new high school. The former rectory on Marcy Street was razed and in 1954 the cornerstone was laid for a new brick building. This new Notre Dame High School would be complete with a basement and two upper stories, housing a science lab, a library, six other classrooms, two offices and a cafeteria. It was blessed by Bishop John Wright on May 19, 1955, and opened with an enrollment of almost two hundred students in its four grades.
The 1930s also visited changes to Saint Mary’s School. While the school was unscathed by the unnamed Hurricane of 1938, the church was virtually destroyed that September 21st. Much discussion centered on the demolition of the church and building a new one, until Oswald Laliberte offered his services to repair the church with a series of tie bars between the arches along the ceiling. Fr. William Smith, pastor of Saint Mary Church set about the restore the church for public worship. Once that had been completed, he turned his attention to the school and installed new hardwood floors, electric clocks, and a safety feature of an outside second story steel stairway as a fire exit. The large hall on the second floor was divided into classrooms so that the first floor with four classrooms of double grades now had a high school on the second floor with four additional classrooms. The bell tower over the main entrance was the location of a newly installed chemistry lab.
When Fr. Smith died in 1953, he was succeeded by Fr. James Gilrain as the Pastor of Saint Mary Parish. Fr. Gilrain set about to increase enrollment at the school and improve the convent on Edwards Street to provide for more teaching sisters, but this came with the realization that the building was too small and that a new facility would be needed. This gave birth to the dream of building a high school on the corner plot, purchased by Fr. Donahoe in 1889 and only used as a playground by the school children. Initial bids for the new school were turned down since it was higher than parish resources could afford. A second time the process was done, this time with success. On April 22, 1959, ground was broken and the Madore Construction Company began work on the Saint Mary’s High School with a main entrance on Pine Street, but in line with the grammar school on Hamilton Street. The new building was finished in 1960 and dedicated by Bishop Flanagan that August to open in time for the first day of school in September. It was designed to house 300 students grades 8 through 12 with 9 classrooms, a library, cafeteria, laboratory, administrative offices and a gymnasium/auditorium. Both Notre Dame and Saint Mary schools were experiencing peak enrollments as the 1950s turned into the 1960s, but major changes in society and in the church would bring about radical changes in the next decade and a half.
On March 29, 1965, a letter from Bishop Flanagan was read at all the Masses in town explaining that the former Notre Dame High School and Saint Mary High School would be merged into a new Marianhill High School, a responsibility not of either parish, but the School Department of the Diocese of Worcester. Father Paul Charpentier was named as the founding Headmaster and Mrs. Rita Archambault, the first valedictorian of Notre Dame Academy as the school secretary. Enrollment was 340 students, with eight Sisters of the Assumption on the faculty and several Sisters of Saint Joseph. French classes, the biology lab, social studies and the library were maintained in the Notre Dame building while business, chemistry, mathematics, art and gym were in the Saint Mary building. Athletic programming offered soccer, basketball, baseball, and cheerleading. One of the concerns of the new school was the increase in tuition and the challenge it presented to local families to be affordable. The Class of 1969 would be the first to receive a diploma identified as from Marianhill High School in Southbridge.
Early in 1969, on January 11, Fr. Raymond Page, the Pastor at Notre Dame Church, met with the Sisters of the Assumption to present a novel plan, the first in the diocese. Diminishing enrollment, rising tuition, fewer religious and the increased expense of lay teachers inspired him to consider establishing a parish School of Religion with an all religious staff, from grades one to twelve. He hoped they would be willing to fully staff this initiative. While the sisters were religious, not all had experience or were comfortable teaching religion. A historical writing of the time makes reference to Sr. Helen Champagne who taught physics and calculus at Marianhill being more than a little hesitant and challenged to transform herself into a specialist to teach marriage to high school seniors.
So, other ideas and models prevailed. For September of 1970, the seventh and eighth grade classes for Sacred Heart and Notre Dame schools would combine to eliminate the salary of one teacher on each level. Students would attend the Notre Dame building on Pine Street. The Parish Council at Notre Dame Parish set the expectation that the school faculty would only be comprised of religious sisters. As a result, in May of 1971, no contracts were issued for teachers in grades 5-8 for the following year. For the 1971-72 academic year, there were eight sisters for four grades, but the sisters felt this unjust when nowhere else in their mission were they exclusively teaching without lay involvement. At the same time, discussions at Saint Mary Parish and for L’Ecole Sainte Jeanne-d’Arc focused on the dwindling numbers of teaching sisters, the need of charging tuition, and declining enrollment. During this time, the local papers carried frequent stories on the ups and downs of school budgets and enrollments because of the town wide interest in the issue. While enrollment was dwindling the other side of the issue was that the Town of Southbridge did not have the classroom space or the budget availability to hire teachers and seat students if they were to come into their system by the closing of these Catholic schools. The concerns then were larger than the Catholic of the time and were discussed and felt by everyone in any school system in Southbridge during these days.
Msgr. Gilrain who had modernized the grammar school in the 1950s and shepherded the vision of a large new high school into realty for 1960 had been transferred in 1970, following an unwelcome renovation of Saint Mary Church according to the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. He had been followed by Fr. Andrew Sullivan who announced the closing of Saint Mary’s Grammar School. The Parish Council objected and he was transferred that June. Succeeded first by Father James Clifford he chaired a parish meeting on March 14, 1971 that made the decision to maintain all eight grades at the grammar school, a decision that clearly put the weight of the pastor and finances of the parish behind the fledging school during the turbulent changes of the 1970s. Father James B. Kelly followed Father Clifford as the pastor at Saint Mary’s and inherited these turbulent times in Catholic education. Fr. Kelly’s memory is tinged with the scent of tobacco as the aroma of his ever present pipe would warn students of his impending arrival, allowing them time to straighten their ties and skirts before his telltale knock on the classroom door.
With L’Ecole Sainte Jeanne d’Arc closed, and Saint Mary’s School re-righting itself after almost closing, L’Academie Brochu was down to only four grades of two classes each with the proposal from the Sisters of the Assumption to follow the ratio that they had in all of their schools, two religious sisters for each lay teacher. On March 9, 1972, the Notre Dame Parish Council identified that they would not accept the Sisters’ ratio that it did not promise continuity for their school and they requested a formation of a Religious Education team who would provide catechetical instruction along with other sisters who would visit the sick and elderly and provide secretarial work for the parish. As a result, on March 10, 1972, the Southbridge Evening News announced the closing of Notre Dame School. On June 14, 1972, the students of L’Acadmie Brochu walked out of their classrooms for the last time.
The move of seventh and eighth grade classes to the Notre Dame building also meant a loss of tuition for Sacred Heart’s school. While the faculty boasted four full time religious and three lay teaches, with an enrollment of 224 students in Kindergarten through grade 6, there was much needed to guarantee the school financial viability. The parishioners of Sacred Heart Parish multiplied their fundraising efforts with weekly bingo, the May Fair, the June Bug, Ladies of Sainte Anne card parties and every dollar going to the school account. Even prayer was a constant when the first Sunday of the month would draw sizeable crowds for devotional prayers for the school. In the end, the diminishing enrollment could no longer justify the presence of the Sisters of the Assumption whose numbers were also dwindling and the school closed its doors in June of 1976.
The closing of Notre Dame and Sacred Heart parish schools actually bolstered the enrollment at Saint Mary’s Grammar School which now offered a Catholic education for Kindergraten through Grade 6. Then, tuition was $100 per Saint Mary’s Parish family and $150 for non-parish families. The parents’ association was dedicated and ever-present to support the school and teachers in keeping the doors open. Many of these parents were former alumni of the school and wanted the same quality Catholic education for their children. But, being a sole Catholic grammar school in town seriously impacted the enrollment for students to consider a Catholic high school education at Marianhill. The transfer of Father Charpentier from Headmaster in 1973 continued the decline in spirit with Catholic education through the 1970s. In 1977, most of the remaining Sisters of the Assumption moved elsewhere while Sr. Helen Champagne continued on the faculty as well as several of the Sisters of Saint Joseph for Marianhill. The following years would see various headmasters and principals at Marianhill coming and going, one year it included a public firing, then rehiring of a principal, complete with a reconciliation Mass at Saint Mary Church presided by Bishop Harrington to promote confidence and healing at the local high school.
By the 1980s, Catholic education in Southbridge had become a way of life for the two remaining schools. Enrollment continued to slide and tuition increase at Marianhill High School. In 1986, the decision was announced that because of declining enrollment at Marianhill, grades seven and eight would be discontinued from the high school program. While Saint Mary Parish wanted to keep the grades so that students could enter in Kindergarten and receive a Catholic education until senior year in town, it had to recognize that the grammar school building didn’t have the space to house these classes.
In the mid-1980s, Father Chester Devlin was assigned as chaplain to the school to celebrate school Masses and teach high school religion. He lived at Saint Mary Rectory during his assignment to the school. At Saint Mary Church, the Sisters of Saint Joseph continued a presence with their remaining members: Sister Roberta Salah, SSJ, served as principal with Sr. Linda Fallon, SSJ teaching Kindergarten and Sr. James Bernard Laughnane, SSJ, a native daughter of the parish, serving as school librarian. The convent on Edwards Street had become too large for their needs and too expensive for the parish to maintain as a residence and it was converted into a Religious Education Center where catechism classes were held. It also housed an office for the Spanish Apostolate and a small chapel for their Masses and devotions. The Sisters lived in town in various properties rented by Saint Mary Parish. The arrival of Father Arthur Ouillette in 1982 brought another pastor to Saint Mary Parish who was committed and dedicated to the school, its teaching mission, and the positive difference that it made in many lives.
Fr. Ouillette’s pastorate brought stability and strength to Saint Mary School. Enrollment seemed to hold steady, tuition was a tightrope, to ask enough to meet the budget needs without asking so much that parents would leave because it was beyond their budget. During this time, the popularity of the recently leagalized game of Bingo or Beano was a huge help. Every Wednesday, volunteers and staff transformed the gym and cafeteria into a bingo hall. Huge exhaust fans in the gym windows allowed for smoking there while the numbers and intercom was piped into the cafeteria as a ‘non-smoking’ area. At its height, Saint Mary Grammar School and Marianhill High School split equally an annual profit after prizes and taxes of $300,000, roughly $3,000 a week for each school, the price of several tuitions at either school at the time.
The stability of Marianhill High School was being undermined by the lack of a feeder school. Discussions identified that the lack of junior high grades was contributing to the declining enrollment at Marianhill. Students enrolled in the remaining Catholic school, Saint Mary School, would attend Wells Junior High on Marcy Street for seventh and eighth grade and then continue in the public school system rather than re-enroll in a Catholic school. A local task force began meeting in 1987 to investigate the situation and make recommendations to Bishop Harrington for the future of Catholic education in Southbridge. For the 1987-88 academic year they made the recommendation that the junior high school be re-established. It would be housed in the former Notre Dame High School building on Marcy Street and would be named Saint Mary – Marianhill Junior High School. After heated discussions about taking young children out of the home at an impressionable age, it was also agreed to open a pre-school in one of the classrooms of the Saint Mary School facing Hamilton Street. Ms. Mona Pollone was hired as the first pre-school teacher to organize the program and help promote its viability to feed young students to kindergarten and first grade.
As the task force continued to meet through that 1987-88 year, it was decided to merge the now three existing schools into a single educational institution. Taking Saint Mary Grammar School, Saint Mary-Marinahill Junior High School and Marianhill High School, it would become Trinity Catholic Academy. There would be a principal for each school: Sister Roberta Salah, SSJ, would be retained at Saint Mary School as its principal for the pre-school through kindergarten to grade 4, Mrs. Patricia Marmen would be responsible for the Middle School hosting grades five through at the Notre Dame High School campus, and Ms. Patricia Aubertine would be the principal for the high school division in the former Marianhill building on Pine Street. The Task Force highly recommended to Bishop Harrington that Fr. Chester Devlin be named as the Headmaster of the new entity.
One of the significant changes this task force effected was to transfer the oversight of the new school entity from the central diocesan administration to a local Board of Governors. This new Board would have legal and actual authority over the new school. It would be comprised of the pastors from each of the six parishes in the Tri-community area as well as a delegate named by him. Each person would have equal authority with voice and vote. As a sign of their confidence, a member of the new Governing Board agreed to fund any shortage in the annual budget for the next four years. As a result, when the new school was announced, parents were guaranteed that if they enrolled their children as freshmen they would graduate in 1992 as the first complete senior class of Trinity Catholic Academy. History should note that Father Ouillette made a pitch to wait a year for the merger with the desire to make a large celebration for 1988- 1989 of the hundredth academic class from the original Saint Mary School. However, the Headmaster was unconvinced, the task force backed his decision, and for the good of the school and the future of Catholic education in Southbridge, he acquiesced and sadly there never was a centennial graduation class for Saint Mary School.
It would be three years before eighth graders would again receive a diploma from a Catholic school in Southbridge. To promote the unity of the one school and its desire for students to progress from the lower grades to seniors, graduations would be held for Kindergarten and pre-school, but not for eighth graders. The promise of stability was undermined by the decision of the headmaster that no one could flunk; every student should pass every subject which he enforced with unqualified determination. In short time, students learned that no work made no difference in the grades they received so the quality and standard of Catholic education suffered. Parents doubled their fundraising efforts, but they were hampered by the opening of new legal casinos on Native American tribal land in nearby Connecticut such that weekly bingo receipts were dropping hard and fast at the same time. In October of 1989, the task force was becoming aware of the dwindling confidence in the school’s standards and took a no confidence vote for the headmaster.
This vote had far reaching ramifications. As a result of this decision and the way it was done, the donor pulled his promise to subsidize any shortfall for the first four years. Therefore, with funding pulled and no ability to provide from their own resources, the Diocese of Worcester announced that the high school portion of Trinity Catholic Academy would graduate its last class in June of 1990. Classes that entered that September would be from pre-school to grade eight. Sadly, the Worcester Telegram broke the news on the Friday before the Columbus Day holiday so most students learned of it on their way to school. To add insult to injury, just the previous Monday the juniors had received their class rings for the Class of 1991, for a school from which they would not be able to graduate.
In September of 1990, classrooms shifted for the new, smaller Trinity Catholic Academy. The pre-school and kindergarten classrooms stayed in the original Saint Peter Church that had served for over a century as Saint Mary School while classes for grades one through eight were now housed in the former Marianhill High School building. The principal and school secretary now had an office that they shared in the main brick building. During the day, school doors were unlocked and left so; as a reminder of those times, both the hot lunch count and the absentee lists from the kindergarten classes were hand carried by two students who held hands as they descended the steps of the original church building and then walk across the path to enter the unlocked brick school and walk to the office. Within a decade, changes in our society would change the practice that all doors would be locked and parents would need to stop at the office when arriving at school. Many objected since they had become accustomed to dropping in to the classes during the day with forgotten lunches or homework or last minute touches for projects!
By 1994, changes in the public school system in Southbridge brought an influx of new students, unhappy with delayed construction and paradigm shifts in the town system from neighborhood schools to grade designated ones. While the increased enrollment brought new students, the weekly bingo games were bleeding revenue, and savings were tapped to pay out prizes for several months until there was not enough and it was announced on Monday that bingo would not be held that Wednesday. It never returned. One by one, each game left town as players did for the bigger prizes the casinos offered. The new enrollment brought new ideas, new energy and new expectations. The Pastors on the initial Board of Governors had each been replaced by a new man who did not have the history or the interest in Trinity Catholic Academy. As a result, the parish delegates were parents who wanted the school to succeed, but some of them brought their own issues or interests to the table rather than the overall good of the school, In turn, this caused a series of conflicts between the newest pastor at Saint Mary Parish, Father Peter Joyce, and the remaining religious Sisters of Saint Joseph. The governance of the school and the overall vision for the future now challenged by a significant hike in tuition with the loss of income from bingo created a flash point when the Sisters refused to sign their contracts for the 1994-95 school year. Despite various efforts from the diocesan school department and various concessions by the pastor and parish, the Sisters refused to compromise and sadly they left in June of 1994, ending a ministry that lasted over a century in Southbridge. It was a sad and difficult ending, to a long and proud legacy for both the sisters and the school.
The final vestige of religious teaching in a Catholic school left many wondering how Catholic it would continue to be. Others took sides between divided loyalties of school, parish, and personalities involved. A search for a new principal brought the first lay person to lead a Catholic grammar school, Frank ? who moved to Southbridge from Long Island to take up the reins of the struggling school. The divided loyalties carried over to the Board of Governors and the school foundered for most of the year until in the spring of 1995, it decided not to renew the principal’s contract. Diocesan leadership, concerned that the school would go under, recruited Sister Lucille Cormier, SASV, a member of a community well known and long established in Southbridge to try and right the ship of Trinity Catholic Academy. Sister arrived in September of1995 having managed the difficult merger of three schools into one in the Diocese of Springfield. Sr. Lucille brought a gentle manner and accommodating style as principal. Her tenure would be short and historic, not of her own doing.
One of the first challenges Sister faced was the consolidation of the school into a single facility. Maintaining both the brick school and the original church with utilities, insurance and custodial costs was more than the school could bear, and the space was more than the school actually needed. Beginning in September of 1995, Saint Mary Parish would resume use and the costs of the original church building and the school’s classes and activities would be contained in the brick building. After the initial shock and some resentment, there was a different spirit among the students and the faculty as they were now housed in the same building all day and there was not a division among them as had previously been felt. Another challenge was on the horizon that no one saw or could predict.
Each spring the students would prepare and present a familiar musical on the gym stage as a fundraiser for scholarships. In May of 1996, while performing Beauty and the Beast, a brother of one of the cast members was caught and scolded for being in the basement hallway without authorization. Before leaving the area, he tossed a match onto the pile of costumes on the floor and closed a closet door, and then left for home. In the middle of the second act, the fire alarm sounded. Fr. Peter Joyce tells the story of reaching the basement floor to see thick black smoke curling along the ceiling of the basement and entering the main entrance way. Returning to the gym, he instructed everyone to leave by the sides of the stage, reaching the street as the fire trucks arrived. Once the fire was extinguished, the students completed the play on the school lawn. However, the damage to the first floor meant that no classes could be held there for Kindergarten, First and Second grades. The pastor of Notre Dame Parish allowed the school the use of the former high school building on Marcy Street. During the summer, the insurance money from the fire was used the remove the lockers on the main floor and open up a door and window area. For the first time, the secretary and principal had separate offices. Beginning that September, the doors to the school would be locked with students in the building and all visitors required to visit the office for permission to go to any classroom. The challenge of these renovations following the merger in Pittsfield meant that in February of 1996, Sister Lucille would take a medical leave from her position. Late homework or missing assignments could not be dropped at a locker or with a teacher, all visitors and persons would pass through the main office for the safety of the students and school order. This seemingly small change would have a new appreciation after the Columbine shooting in 1999 and the precautions that other schools would institute had already been established at Trinity.
Now for the fourth time in three years, Trinity Catholic Academy was in search of a new principal. Diocesan leadership entrusted the decision to the school’s host pastor since this was a virtual crisis for the future of the school, overriding the authority of the local Board of Governors. He turned to a former teacher and parishioner, Mrs. Madeleine Brouillard, to be the next principal of Trinity. She missed her first day of school that April 1, 1996 since there was a snowstorm of a foot of snow and school was cancelled! Her first time as a principal, Trinity would be the only school to know and enjoy ‘Mrs. B’s’ gifts as an administrator. She stayed until June of 2014 bringing stability, confidence, and accomplishment to Trinity. Her legacy would rival any of her predecessors all the way back to Mme. Kasky as she would lead Catholic education not only into the 21st century, but to new standards of excellence and quality by her administration.
Mrs. Brouillard’s tenure updated the school building with new doors, windows and a roof that were energy efficient to make the school warmer, more comfortable and more suitable for learning. The rapid pace of technology called for new curriculum, faculty, inservice, hardware and software. In addition there was painting, new flooring, improvement to the administrative offices, and the relocation of the pre-school to the former locker rooms of the high school gym area. There were improvements and upgrades to the kitchen, cafeteria, visitor bathrooms in the main entrance and curtains for the stage and windows in the gym, and security cameras for the entrances. Added to this the school applied for and received accreditation from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) in 2002 and again in 2012. On September 13, 2006, a chapter of the National Junior Honor Society (NJHS) was also established at Trinity. Since its inception at Trinity, close half of all graduates receive this distinction which is a national standard not only of academic excellence but of citizenship and well-being.
And with all of this, the former school and original church was lost to a fire set by a parishioner in December of 1999. The parish having lost its only usable space now moved into the school ‘after hours’ for religious education classes. Sacrament preparation meetings, scout and youth activities, meals and fundraisers, and the list goes on. All of this under her watchful eye, her open and welcoming manner with a determination to build a school with a solid reputation and balanced budget. Perhaps among the most significant accomplishments concerned the school’s governance. With the circumstances of her hiring, it seemed that the then model of governance was ineffective and unsuitable for the school. Fr. Peter Joyce with Mrs. Brouillard organized a task force from the former Board of Governors and members of Saint Mary Parish who had been professional educators. In 1998, they proposed to Bishop Reilly that local governance was the best model for the future viability of the school. He agreed and returned the canonical authority of the school to the pastor of Saint Mary Parish. The sticking point was an $80,000 outstanding debt from bad tuition that originated in 1994 and had grown over the years most particularly when Trinity was managed by the diocesan school department. Fr. Peter refused to assume ownership or responsibility for the debt. Bishop Reilly resolved the issue when he visited for Catholic Schools’ Week in January of 2000 and announced as part of the Jubilee for the Millennial Year that the debt would be absolved and the parish would bear no responsibility.