History: Parochial Education In Jamaica Plain

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The following article was republished with permission from the Jamaica Plain Historical Society.

St. Thomas Aquinas Church. Courtesy Digital Commonwealth.

In 1873, with the Church of St. Thomas Aquinas built, Reverend Thomas Magennis, the pastor, turned his attention to the establishment of a grammar school for boys and girls in the parish. He had been elected to the school board of the Town and he appreciated the value of the public school system, but he wanted that extra something, religious training and liturgical music, taught as well. He made a trip to New York and observed the teaching methods of the Sisters of St. Joseph in Flushing and Brooklyn and reported back favorably to Bishop Williams who invited the nuns to teach in Boston.

The invitation was accepted. Sr. Mary Regis, with ten years experience as a teacher, was appointed superior, and she would be assisted by Sr. Felix and Sr. Clare. Sr. Dolores would be the housekeeper. They boarded the railroad cars in New York on October 4, and arrived at the little house on the church property in Jamaica Plain that would serve as their convent. The house had been bought from Dr. Winkler and moved from Harris Avenue. It must have been primitive indeed compared to the well-established Mother House, academy and schools in Flushing and Brooklyn. However, the nuns were borne into the parish on a tidal wave of love, which would sustain them in their early trying days.

The school opened two days later in the basement of the church with an enrollment of 200 girls. In 1877 accommodations were completed for the teaching of boys. Classes were held in the basement of the church for seventeen years until the new school was completed in 1890. St. Thomas Aquinas School was the first parochial school of its kind in New England.

The parishioners were, for the most part, immigrants from Ireland who worked as civil servants, domestics, gardeners and coachmen in the area and who gave to the church as generously as they could, but money was scarce and the sisters had to work to support themselves. Some of them were skilled with the needle and took in sewing, making dresses, cloaks and altar linens. Some even covered and stitched baseballs with kid for a local factory.

Among the difficulties, which the nuns faced, the first year was "The Flooding." They learned about this one morning when two of them came downstairs to start the fire for breakfast and found the kitchen floor covered with water. They had some success with the breakfast but dinner was impossible to prepare as the water level had risen to three feet by that time. They were to learn that this flooding was no rare occasion in the area, for when Stony Brook rose the houses built near to it on land that had been drained had to take what the banks could not hold back.

This particular flooding was especially bad for the Community for only the day before Sr. Regis had bought a barrel of flour, a barrel of sugar, and one of dried beans. Now the flour was soggy, the sugar vanishing, and the beans were so swollen that they would have filled three barrels. However, the flooding soon ended as citizens' complaints moved the authorities to change the course of the rampaging Stony Brook.

The hard work and privations, which the sisters had to undergo, did not trouble them at all, but the apparent ill will and militant sectarianism of the public schools did. Also, there was a prevailing belief that these teaching nuns could not possibly be competent educators. St. Regis established her goal - the nuns would teach the children so thoroughly in subjects, which both they and the public schools taught that if ever they had to give an accounting the children would speak for themselves.

The system grew in the next few years and a second convent was built which would serve as a school also for the three primary grades. In 1898 the third convent was built which would serve the nuns for the next 75 years.

In 1899 a school for the deaf was opened in the little house, which had been the original convent. The facilities were moved to Randolph in 1905 and one year later the Commonwealth of Massachusetts agreed to pay the tuition of each student referred by them provided the children were admitted regardless of race or creed.

In the development of the Catholic educational system the innovative diocesan exams emerged. They were prepared at the Educational Office in Boston and given in June on each subject taught. Thus the scholastic standing of each student enrolled in the entire school system could be determined at the Diocesan Office at any time.

In the 1920's St. Thomas was a flourishing parish and plans were made for the erection of a high school. It was completed in 1927 and offered an advanced curriculum, a fine sports program with an enviable reputation, and an excellent band. The band competed locally and nationally rising in five years from Class C to Class 1-A Championship. This distinction they topped by marching in the Presidential Inauguration Parade in 1969.

The climate in the Catholic Church began to change in the 1960s and this was reflected by a decline in vocations for the religious life. Jamaica Plain was also passing through a period of urban transition. The "flight to the suburbs" would continue for many years. In 1973, after 100 years of Christian education, St. Thomas Grammar School closed and the High School closed two years later.

Thousands of students graduated during that century, a tremendous saving of tax dollars for the City of Boston. Some moved on to higher education, some to the trades; industry and business. Many would answer the call for military service and would give their lives for their country in the First and Second Would Wars, in Korea and Vietnam.

Monsignor Magennis served for 44 years and died in 1912 at the age of 69. He was 30 years of age when he first initiated Catholic education at St. Thomas Parish. Sr. Mary Regis was 30 years of age when she arrived in Jamaica Plain and she also served for 44 years. When she died at the age of 74 in 1917 at the convent on St. Joseph Street she had the venerable title "Mother" of the entire St. Joseph order in the Archdiocese off Boston. Regis College in Weston is named in her honor.

Sources: Archives of the Congregation of St. Joseph; St. Thomas Aquinas Yesterday, Today, and tomorrow, Boston c. 1970; personal recollections.

Written by Mary Glynn. Reprinted from From the Archives, Fall 1989, a newsletter once published by the Archive Committee of the Jamaica Plain Historical Society. Copyright © 1989 Jamaica Plain Historical Society. This article was published on JamaicaPlainNews.com with permission from the Jamaica Plain Historical Society.