Rule of Life – Community in the School Setting
The Brothers of the Sacred Heart: Responding to need in New England
From the beginnings of the Institute, the Brothers sought to respond through their ministry of education to the needs of the people and especially of the Church around them. Father Coindre, convinced of the need for education in order to truly form the young people of France, actively encouraged the Brothers in their mission as educators. Through Coindre’s own efforts in many towns and villages and by word of mouth regarding the ability and effectiveness of the Brothers, bishops and individual pastors began requesting the services of the Brothers of the Sacred Heart.
Throughout Br. Polycarp’s leadership, this trend continued and extended the range of the Institute throughout France. Seeking an order of Brothers for a new orphanage in Mobile, Alabama, Bishop Poitiers sent his Vicar General to Lyons.1 The Vicar General was impressed with all the favorable comments concerning the Brothers and so requested five Brothers for the work in Mobile. Thus, in 1846, Br. Polycarp answered the request of Bishop Poitiers by sending five Brothers under the leadership of Brother David. The correspondence between Brother Polycarp and Brother David shows the depth of Brother Polycarp’s interest in this new mission and in the response of the Brothers to the needs of the wider church. This openness and responsiveness to the needs of the wider church would be the hallmark of the ministry of the Brothers as the years ahead unfolded.
The growth of the Institute in North America took on the same familiar pattern – the word of mouth among bishops and priests familiar with the outstanding work of the Brothers resulted in numerous requests for their services. By 1871, there were 68 Brothers in North America (half of whom were indigenous) ministering in 14 establishments.2 Once again word of mouth would spread the Institute even further: through the good word of a Trappist monk, the Bishop of Three Rivers in Quebec began negotiations to establish a school under the direction of the Brothers. In 1872, the doors of the school at Arthabaska opened, opening a new chapter in the growth of the Institute.3
Canada would provide ideal conditions for the growth of the Institute: new schools could be founded without cost to the Brothers, the French language made the transition to schools far easier than in the United States, the demand for religious and schools was great and the number of vocations large. By 1900, there were 290 professed Brothers in the Americas: 83 Frenchmen, 54 Americans and 153 Canadians. Given the rate of growth and the number of vocations, the Province of the United States was split in two: the Province of the United States (109 Brothers) and the Province of Canada (181 Brothers).
Yet how did this foundation in New England emerge in this time of great growth in the Institute? It would be a story repeated again, of word of mouth, of the excellent reputation of the Brothers and of a response to the particular needs of the Church in New England.
The importance of context
During the latter part of the 18th century and the early 19th century, the croplands of eastern Canada began to diminish in their fertility and crop production. Conversely, the population of the region had boomed. A crisis loomed which was repeated throughout the world and its consequence was the same, a great migration began.4
At the same time, mechanized industry in the New England region grew rapidly. The first mechanized mill was opened in Pawtucket, RI in 1790. Huge mill complexes would follow in Fall River, MA (1813), Lowell, MA (1822), Chicopee, MA (1822), Manchester, NH (1838) and the Blackstone River district between Worcester, MA and Pawtucket, RI where 94 factories would develop on a fifty-mile stretch of the Blackstone River. These mills would eventually employ thousands of migrant workers, most from Canada, with one of the largest being the Amoskeag Mills of Manchester where 17,000 Franco-Americans would eventually be employed.5
At the beginning of this development, these factories employed Yankees, both men and women. In the 1820s and 30s, young women would spend a few years in the spinning mills before marriage. By the 1840s, they had been replaced by the Irish migrants. The migration of French Canadians began slowly and was then interrupted by the Civil War. By 1863 though, the shortage of workers in New England and the continuing agricultural crisis in Canada resulted in feverish activity, both in the industrial development of New England and in migration from Canada to meet that need. The French Canadians would even come to call it la fièvre des États – Stateside fever.6
While poverty was taking root in eastern Canada, New England was being transformed from an agrarian to an industrial economy. The expansion of the rail network between Canada and New England between 1835 and 1850 also enabled that migration even more. And so the French Canadian population of the New England region grew rapidly. By 1860, it had grown to about 37,000 and by 1870, 103,000 of their number could be found in the New England states. By 1900, there would be 537,000 French Canadians in the New England states.7
A language, a faith
This migration was of a deeply devout and pious people whose home life revolved around the life of their parish. The pastor was the person in the town to whom everyone turned, and now they found themselves in New England with no priests who spoke their language, no parishes to worship in French and no social structures to support them.
In 1869, Bishop de Göesbriand of Burlington, VT, a Breton, made an appeal for French speaking priests:
“We believe that these immigrants are called by God to cooperate in the conversion of America, just as their ancestors were called to implant the faith on the banks of the St. Lawrence. But no matter what providence intends, we must come to the aid of our dear immigrés, a multitude of people who have settled outside their homeland.”8
And so the growth of the Catholic Church in New England began. Priests from Canada made the trek south and established parishes. Those men have become legends for their commitment to the people in their care in the mill towns of New England. This burgeoning community, based in the French language, and built around the life of the parish became and continued to be a mainstay of town life in the mill villages of New England into the 1960s.
The first task in these parishes was to establish a church and the second, close behind, was to build a school. With the development of over 150 “French” parishes in this region alone, the need for priests and teachers was immense. That need for teachers would be answered by French religious orders of sisters and Brothers from Canada and elsewhere.
First foundations in New England 9
And so it was that the first French Canadian pastor in New England, Joseph-Augustin Chevalier of Manchester, NH, would request the services of the Brothers of the Sacred Heart to staff a school for boys in his parish. In 1889, five Brothers left Indianapolis for Manchester, led by Brother Alphonse to found l’Academie Saint-Augustin. In September of that year, the school opened its doors in an old abandoned school near the parish with an enrollment of 214 students. The Brothers would lead this school community for 47 years.
Just as it had been in the times of Father Coindre and Brother Polycarp, it was the reputation of the Brothers that led others in their turn to ask this religious community to open a school in their parish. In 1891, aware of the work of the Brothers in Manchester, Father Jean-Baptiste Milette would ask the Brothers to come to his new parish of Saint-Louis-de-Gonzague in Nashua. Five Brothers under the direction of Brother Louis-Edouard answered this request and on the first day of school, 250 students arrived – a sixth class had to be added. The life of Collège du Sacré Coeur, later Sacred Heart Academy, had begun. The Brothers would remain at the school until its closure in 1963 and the opening of Bishop Guertin High School in the same year elsewhere in the town.
In 1894, the Brothers would take the direction of the school in Haverhill, MA but would only be there for about 8 years. In 1898, Monsignor Charles Dauray of the Parish of Précieux Sang in Woonsocket, RI, petitioned the Brothers of the Sacred Heart to come to Woonsocket to educate the boys of the town. The Collège du Sacré Coeur, nicknamed “le Petit Collège”, would open its doors in 1898 and serve the elementary age boys of Woonsocket for the next 60 years.
This growth in the number of French Canadian parishes and the need for schools would eventually call the Brothers of the Sacred Heart to many of the mill towns of New England.
Soon after, at the division of the provinces in 1900, the establishments of the Brothers of the Sacred Heart in New England would become part of the province of Canada due to their work in the French language, the people they served so diligently in the parish schools, and the relative proximity of the new Province of Canada.
Growth and Consolidation
The Province of Canada, in the ensuing years, underwent massive growth which would result in the further division of Canada into, eventually, seven provinces.10 The growth of the Brothers paralleled the development of schools throughout Quebec and the growth of the Catholic population. With the life of each town centered in its parish, it was not unusual to see these towns as a “greenhouse” of vocations. The growing number of Brothers made it possible to answer the constantly growing need for education in small towns throughout eastern Canada.
In the same way, the Brothers in New England continued to be invited by pastors to meet the needs of the growing Franco-American population. This would have its own political repercussions later with the emergence of more militant French associations like Le Sentinelle which battled with bishops, who were attempting to assimilate the French migrants into the church at large. The numbers of French migrants and thus their dominance of the Catholic Church in the region was of concern to some bishops. Amongst the Canadian immigrants though a saying existed that is even well known today – si on perd sa langue, on perd sa foi (if one loses his language, one loses his faith) – on no account were they going to stand by and make accommodations.
Parishes continued to be established, schools continued to open and the need for educators, particularly male religious to educate the boys, was great. In addition, some pastors had the vision to move from the establishment of elementary schools to the establishment of high schools for boys and girls, enabling the future development of their communities with lawyers, doctors, and other professionals fluent in French. The Brothers of the Sacred Heart would respond to that need as well.
Their foundations of this period are many:11
Sacred Heart Academy, Central Falls (Grades 6-12)
1923 Sacred Heart Academy, Sharon, MA (elementary)
1924 Mount Saint Charles Academy, Woonsocket, RI (Grades 7-12)
1928 St. Peter and Paul, Lewiston, ME (elementary)
1930 St. André, Biddeford, ME (elementary)
1939 St. Mary’s, Lewiston, ME (elementary)
1943 St. Dominic High School, Lewiston, ME
In each case, invited by a local pastor, the Brothers responded to the rapid and continuing growth of the Franco-American population in New England.
Yet this growth was not only focused on the schools and needs of Canada and New England. It is in this period, building on the great numbers of Brothers in the Canadian provinces, that the missionary attitude of the Institute, so clearly found in the intent and work of Brother Polycarp, would once again call the Brothers to foreign lands.
The beginnings were simple but are a legacy that continues to this day.12
1928 Madagascar (Province of Arthabaska)
1929 Sudan (Province of Montreal)
1931 Uganda (Province of the United States)
1937 Basutoland (Province of Montreal) – now known as Lesotho
1953 Cameroon (Province of Arthabaska)
1954 New Caledonia (Province of Rimouski)
1955 England (Province of New England)
1956 Northern Rhodesia (Province of New England) – now known as Zambia
A new province formed
In 1944, the Province of Ste-Hyacinthe consisted of 654 Brothers and 54 schools. In 1945, the Province of New England was formed, split off from the Province of Ste-Hyacinthe.13 It consisted of the schools in the United States, except Maine, and the mission of Basutoland (Lesotho) in southern Africa. All the US states would finally come in to the Province of New England in 1952 when the State of Maine and its establishments were transferred from the Province of Rimouski to New England.
And the process continued, pastors aware of the work of the Brothers and their success continued to ask for the Brothers to come and open schools. Some of those experiences were unique and one in particular bears telling.
The people of Madawaska, ME, had for years suffered with the instability of school staff in their high school – in this isolated farming community, its people sought a stable, faith based education for their young people and sought out the solution. In 1952, the Brothers accepted a new challenge, unheard of before, to take the leadership of a public high school in this town on the northernmost border between Maine and Canada. For the next 24 years, they would lead the Madawaska school community and its people through a period of stable leadership. With changes in law it became impossible to maintain this ministry but its value can never be underestimated in these French hamlets on the northern US border.14
This pattern of opening schools, again at the request of the bishop or a local pastor, would result in new works of the Brothers at Father MacDonald High School (St. Laurent, PQ) in 1957, Bishop Guertin High School in 1963 (continuing the Brothers’ earlier work at St-Louis-de-Gonzague parish), Deep River, CT in 1974, Christ the King, Burlington, VT in 1975, and Rice Memorial High School in Burlington, VT in 1981.
This does not exhaust the list, noted by the foundations in the map opposite, but emphasizes the constant openness of the Brothers to the need of those around them. This would also extend to the far horizons where this missionary openness would enable the growth of the missionary work of the Brothers, especially in Africa.
Called to mission
Although schools continued to be opened in this period in New England, it was also the time of a great missionary emphasis in the Institute and especially in New England.
Lesotho – formerly Basutoland
Zambia – formerly Northern Rhodesia
Zimbabwe – formerly Southern Rhodesia – closed 1975, reopened 1982
In each case, they responded to requests for their presence and their ministry, accepting the challenges inherent in foundations in these new nations of Africa. Early work focused on industrial, trade and agricultural schools but eventually would turn to the development of high schools. This was a specific response to the need of these nations for qualified leaders and professionals. Many of the leaders of these nations both political and professional owe their beginning to schools of the Catholic Church including schools of the Brothers of the Sacred Heart.
Today, almost half of the current Brothers in the New England province have worked in the missions of Africa and continue to work to ensure the viability of those missions today. Today that support is financial but even more importantly, they continue to support the Province of Eastern and Southern Africa in formation, both novitiate and post-novitiate, in school leadership formation and in the twinning of our schools. Many years ago the Brothers of New England broadened their horizons and accepted the challenge of missionary life. Today, that broadening, that solidarity, is something we share with all those who serve in our schools and whom we serve, so that they too might understand this call to mission.
After the mid 1960s, the climate of New England and of the Church changed dramatically. Dramatic social changes and the changes in the Church occurred alongside a diminishment of most religious orders and the Brothers of the Sacred Heart were no exception. Institutions were closed. The costs of education rose rapidly as lay people entered the ministry of Catholic education.
Today, the a new Province in Africa now guides itself into the future and in schools in New Hampshire, Rhode Island and England, the Brothers continue to live out Father Coindre’s mission of education of the young. It is no longer done mostly by Brothers, but then it was always a cooperative effort between families, religious and parish communities to form the young people in their care.
The New England province and its works at home and abroad were and are a constant response to the needs of the local population. Be it an isolated farming community, a migrant community seeking to educate its children, or a foreign mission seeking to make the love of God known through education, the Brothers of the New England Province have answered this call in each time and place, in new ways, in new settings.
The challenge today is for each of those who lead in our schools to understand this broader context for their mission, this history that has brought their institutions to be. It is also important to understand this sense of solidarity with the wider Institute that has been so important in the vision of Father Coindre from the beginning. Even in his development of the Rule, Brother Polycarp emphasized the need to go anywhere there was need ... and hopefully the Brothers and those who minister with them can find ways to make that mission real today.
And yes, there is a challenge for us all to understand the hope to which we are called: that we, in our turn, will take on this wider mission in creative ways, constantly seeking to respond to the needs of our time and place through the ministry of education.
1 Brothers of the Sacred Heart: A history of the Institute (1821 – 1960), p.57-652 ibid, p. 1013 ibid, p. 101-105
2 ibid, p. 101
3 ibid, p. 101-105
4 Brault, The French Canadian Heritage in New England, p. 52-53
5 Chartier, The Franco-Americans of New England: A history, p. 8-10
6 ibid, p. 6
7 Brault, p.193
8 Chartier, p. 16
9 Letourneau, “La contribution des Frères du Sacré Coeur à l’éducation des Franco-Américains” in Quintal, Les Franco-Américains et leurs institutions scolaires., p. 166-176
10 The Brothers of the Sacred Heart, p. 166, 186, 200-203
11 Letourneau, p. 175
12 The Brothers of the Sacred Heart in Africa and Madagascar, p. 29-31
13 The Brothers of the Sacred Heart, p. 202
14 Letourneau, p.173
The Brothers of the Sacred Heart: A History of the Institute 1821-1960, (1956, Rome: General Administration)
The Brothers of the Sacred Heart in North America, (1993, Arthabaska, Canada; Brothers of the Sacred Heart)
The Brothers of the Sacred Heart in Africa and Madagascar, (1994, Rome: Brothers of the Sacred Heart )
Brault, Gerard J., The French-Canadian Heritage in New England, (1986, Hanover, NH; University Press of New England).
Chartier, Armand. The Franco-Americans of New England: A History, (2000, Canada, ACA Assurance).
Quintal, Claire ed. Les Franco-Américains et leurs institutions scolaires, (1990, Worcester, MA; L’Institut français)