St. Louis History

St. Louis High School History -- Journal Tribune May 24, 1990

In the 1860s, the blaze of economic opportunity in New England began attracting

French Canadian inhabitants in the thousands. The burgeoning cotton empires of

Manchester, Lawrence, Lowell, Fall River, and other mill towns needed them for

the second generation of Yankee workers had abandoned the mills and the Irish

immigrants, first on the scene, were then looking elsewhere for vocational endeavor.

The French Canadians were welcome for they are industrious in the extreme, do

not grumble about pay, are docile and have nothing to do with labor agitation.

From 1860, when the United States produced 75% of the worlds cotton, Francos

manned New England mills.

Because they were at the bottom of the labor heap for a long time they were often

scorned. When the chance for economic and social promotion came, they anxiously

seized it and were very grateful for it. This explains, for instance, why a certain

Biddeford school became so popular with Francos, why school spirit was so strong

for so long at St. Louis.

Israel Shevenell, one of the first French Canadians to settle permanently in Biddeford,

(1845), was soon followed by dozens of families from the province of Quebec. In 1870,

the 1,551 Francos in Biddeford, and 257 across the river in Saco, bought a Methodist

temple for $5,000 and obtained from Bishop Bacon of Portland a priest of French

origin to cater to their spiritual needs. This priest, Father Ponsardin, (1870 - 1877),

built St. Joseph church in 1873 at a cost of $125,000.

A holy man, Father Dupont, (1877 - 1915), succeeded the priest-founder. For 38 years,

he labored to maintain and increase the atmosphere of piety for which the parish is

still remarkable. One of his main achievements was the foundation in 1882 of St. Joseph

school after having obtained the assistance of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd.

After a four-year interval, Father J.A. LaFlamme was named fourth parish priest in 1920.

His noble bearing, his courtly manners, his passionate attitude soon made him the moral

force of the whole Biddeford area. In his concern for the future of the boys, he began

to think of organizing a school for them. He applied to La Prairie for religious teachers

and was promised four Brothers for 1928. The Brothers eventually went to Waterville

however, as Biddeford was not yet ready to accommodate them.

It was in August of 1929 that the four Brothers arrived in the typical New England

mill town. Brothers Salvius, David Touchette, Emilian Dauphinais, and Gabriel Sabourin

started the school in temporary quarters three in the Sisters school and one in the

church basement.

The personality of Brother Salvius was strikingly similar to that of the pastor. Both

were remarkably affable, kind and tactful and both evoked enthusiastic responses from

adults and children. They worked beautifully together and remained close friends until

the end. Both left an imperishable imprint on Biddeford.

A modern eight-room school building was completed and blessed by Bishop Murray

on February 3, 1930. It cost $80,000. The Brothers happily exchanged temporary

classrooms for new elegant quarters.

THE EARLY DAYS

The pastor and the director agreed that that a high school should be opened the

following year for the eighth grade graduates of the three Franco-American parishes

in the area. Optimistic and enthusiastic by temperament, Brother Salvius had no

qualms about the decision. It was really a venture on a shoestring; there had been

sketchy planning and only minimal equipment was at hand. Nevertheless, the freshman

class opened in September 1930, and the gamble eventually paid off handsomely.

The next year, Brother Ephemera Morin, an experienced high school teacher and

administrator -- he had been principal at MAI for five years -- arrived at St. Louis

as director (1931 - 1937). He was the ideal man for the situation. An excellent

English teacher himself, he impressed the students with his professional competence

and self-assurance, even if they did not always understand what he said for Brother

Morin often mumbled and seldom repeated.

The new principal immediately set about providing suitable laboratory and

library facilities and guided the young establishment in such a way that in 1932, it

earned state approval, and in 1934, the Maine Education Department gave it an A

rating. In June 1934, nine happy graduates emerged from the portals of St. Louis,

the first of a long line of thirty-seven such groups.

Msgr. LaFlamme was particularly proud on the occasion of the graduation. Turning

to his parishioners, he confided: In 1927, when I started looking for Brothers, I

asked for advice and I was told: Choose the FICs. I did and I have never regretted it.

For the French speaking population, it was a day of triumph. Their sons now had the

chance of their lifetime. St. Louis was a symbol of opportunity, a breakthrough! The

Brothers were a godsend.

THE THIRTIES

The FIC community grew by one Brother each year. As there were nine of them in

1934, the time had come to enlarge the Brothers residence. For this purpose, the

pastor asked his parishioners for a special contribution. One can gauge the esteem

the Brothers were held by the response of the people. Bear in mind that those were

the days of THE DEPRESSION! A heartwarming $13,000 was raised. The gesture

was indeed comforting.

With the solid support of the clergy and parishioners, St. Louis survived the

depression and forged ahead. The number of students increased year by year.

The main cogs on the staff stayed on through most of the thirties: Brother Leopold

Chauvette, five years; Brother Oscar Pelland, six years; Brother Ernest Julien, seven

years; Brother Francis of Assisi, eight years.

Not only was the latter senior class sponsor until 1940, he was also at the origin of

the St. Louis sports program. Under Brother Ephrem's prodding, he started and

coached both the baseball and football teams for four years (1934 -1938).

Baseball performance was excellent from the beginning (11 wins, 3 losses in 1937;

10 wins, and 2 losses in 1938); the football team established its superiority after

three seasons (5 wins, 2 losses in 1937). Sports immediately became a rallying

point for the spirited and loyal Francos of the area.

Work on the rocky ledge behind the school began in 1936. In 1939, thanks to the

cooperation of the WPA, the ledge was gone and the large schoolyard came into

being.

Brother Ephrem was succeeded by Brother Marcel Laroche (1937 - 1939) who had

just launched the Fall River high school. A forceful man and good disciplinarian,

Brother Marcel was first and foremost a schoolman and educator. Frills and fads

were abhorred. An artist and musician, he organized the school orchestra in 1938.

He had no time to see it grow however, as he was recalled to Canada.

Brother Boniface Crepeau (1939 - 1940) came from Alfred for an interim period of

ten months during which he was proud to preside over the organization of the

Alumni Association.

THE GOLDEN ERA

In 1940, Brother Mereal, the provincial, adopted a new policy. He would leave

the Fall River high school in the hands of the Canadian born Brothers and appoint

to St. Louis several young and promising Franco-Americans previously groomed

at other schools. The staff was almost completely renewed: only three

incumbents were retained on the faculty. Brother Alexander Robitaille was

appointed director, and Brother Gabriel Cote, his assistant. It proved to be a

brilliant initiative.

Relatively young, Brother Alexander (1940 - 1946) was then at the height of his

career. Prudent and wise, yet forceful and vigorous, he was also a careful public

relations man. He had total trust in his loyal "Shorty," Brother Gabriel. With a

remarkably talented group of dynamic young teachers such as Brothers Dacian

Barrette, Henry Vanasse, Conrad Dionne, Roland Vigeant, Robert Francoeur,

Oscar Morrisette, Eugene Belisle, and Paul Gaudreau, he instilled in the student

body and the alumni association a spirit which was to last as long as St. Louis itself.

Brother Dacian transformed the school orchestra into a snappy school band, which roused

the spirits of fans at the games. It would also enhance the beauty of every graduation from

the early forties until 1970. In 1945, the band won first prize in the Flag Day Parade and

later won many grade A awards under the baton of its successive directors and with the

expertise of its brilliant master, Mr. Alcide Villandry.

The school football team won the trophy of the Southern Maine Conference in

1944 thanks to the hard work of its coach Willie Wood, and strong financial help

from the St. Louis Alumni.

In 1946, energetic and tenacious Brother Dacian was at the helm (1946 - 1949).

Helped by devoted men such as Brothers Herman Brunet, Damian Antaya, Oscar

Mercier, Ernest Levesque, Benjamin Simoneau and Harvey Lemaire, he added luster

to the reputation of the school in academics and athletics. In 1946, the Alumni

Association acquired an athletic field for the school. They financed the cost of all

sports equipment and band uniforms and contributed a generous subsidy to the

school library.

In 1947, the school had to be expanded; a fund-raising campaign was launched.

The saintly and appreciative St. Andre pastor, Msgr. Decary, contributed the

astonishing amount of $50,000; a tangible sign of esteem in which he held

St. Louis.

Two wings were added to the school. This provided ten more classrooms and

gave the whole structure an impressive appearance. For a working man's

parish, it was an eloquent testimonial to their high regard for their school. In

appreciation for the parishioners generosity, the number of Brothers was

increased from 11 in 1947 to 13 in 1948 and to 15 in 1949, at which point it

was stabilized.

THE FIFTIES

Upon leaving the scene in 1949, Brother Dacian was proud to offer to his

successor, Brother Henri Bernier, (1949 - 1951) the addition which his own

hard work had so greatly helped to build. The new principal developed the

school library and gave time and attention to the school sodality. He also

helped to start a school newspaper, "The Eagle," later called "The Flyer," for

which Brother Herman Brunet was moderator, and Brother Robert Francouer,

the artist. In addition, Brother Bernier sponsored the first school yearbook:

the 45-member class of 1951 was proud of their memory book the first of

twenty volumes published through 1970.

It was a friendly rejoinder to the class of 1950 which had boasted of

the first undefeated football team (9 - 0) with Mr. Parker as head coach.

In quick succession, three men presided over St. Louis: Brother

Henry Vanasse (1951 - 1952), Brother Richard Levesque (1952 - 1953),

and Brother George Caron (1953 - 1954). Each left his unmistakable stamp

on the school in spite of the shortness of his stay.

Brother Henry presided over the first prom of the school in June of 1952;

the year 50 graduates received their diplomas. Brother Richard initiated

the practice of intelligence tests to access the performance of each student

against his ability. Brother George personally interviewed each student when

grade reports were issued. His galvanic energy stimulated students to greater

effort.

In 1954 Brother Conrad Dionne became principal at St. Louis (1954 - 1957).

A promoter of academic achievement, he raised the scholastic standards and

secured affiliation with The Catholic University in 1956. Msgr. Hevey, the pastor

of St. Joseph Church, held his school principal in high esteem. He often

referred to him later as "my idea of a high school principal." What the pastor

appreciated in Brother Conrad was his single-minded pursuit of academic

excellence as well as his courtesy and his constant gentlemanliness.

Bob Cote became head football coach at the start of the 1957 season.

Bob would provide St. Louis fans with many years of genuine pride in their

teams. Brother Conrad who valued interscholastic sports was proud of the

coach and his student athletes.

SCHOOL SPIRIT

An unforgettable man arrived at St. Louis replacing Brother Conrad in

1957. Brother Albert Tetrault, the tireless, exacting and staccato voiced

geometry teacher, and he stayed until 1965, an eight year period when

steady school work, not frills, was the order of the day; when hard sports

practice, not idle prattling, filled after school hours. In everything, he

demanded effort, constant effort. The boys found him demanding and

stern, but they knew he was fair, and treated them all equally. His

insistence on academic work paid dividends: four students scored high

honors in the 1961 National Merit Scholarship Tests.

The school spirit of the boys was proverbial. In southern Maine, St.

Louis stood for dynamism, aggressive spirit and devotion to Alma Mater.

That spirit was certainly manifest in sports activities. In 1958 and again

in 1961 the football team won the class A championship: those occasions

of unmitigated jubilation in the large St. Louis family.

The establishment of a $20,000 scholarship fund by Henri Dupre in

1958 and the appearance of the St. Louis Band at the Washington

Cherry Blossom Festival in April 1962 were two of the highlights of

Brother Albert's administration.

The ardor of the Alumni Association for anything that would boost the

school and its reputation was matchless. It financed the whole athletic

program from buying uniforms for all sports to paying the coaches

salaries. In the mid-sixties, $22,000 had to be raised annually for

operating expenses. This did not include the investment in land and

buildings, which amounted to $100,000 in the twenty-year period

between 1945 and 1965.

In 1947, the Alumni Association bought Alumni Field. In addition it

spent $20,000 readying it for use. In 1956, it paid $16,000 for the

field house. In 1962, it purchased the field next to Alumni Field for

$28,000. In 1964, it built a $20,000 skating lodge. All of this in

addition to the contributions for annual scholarships to St. Louis.

DIFFICULTIES

St. Louis High School had grown steadily over two decades and had

become a modern, many faceted organization, and this, at a time

when many religious men and women were turning away from their

life orientation and Orders had to reduce the number of laborers in

schools and hospitals. By the mid-60s, mounting school costs had

rendered the financial burden unbearably heavy and the worried

pastor then seriously considered surrendering the administration of

St. Louis to the diocese. To show his interest in the Brothers, however,

the pastor renovated their chapel in the fall of 1965. The oak paneling

created a sober, pleasant atmosphere. A community chronicler wrote

at the time that, "in keeping with the spirit of simplicity," the statues

were removed.

That was the year that a new principal was assigned. Brother Richard

Levesque (1965 - 1967) devotedly administered the school and

integrated many of its activities with those of the girls high school

next door. St. Joseph and St. Louis became one in some areas.

During his second year, Brother Richard, in accord with the parish

authorities, completed the merger of the two schools. The small

parochial high school had evolved into a full-grown co-educational

complex.

To meet the needs of a bigger, modern school, Msgr. Hevey felt he

had to ask the diocese to direct it. Accordingly, in 1967, St. Louis

became a diocesan Regional High School of 520 boys and girls.

According to a semi-official chronicle of that period, it was the

biggest and most beautiful co-educational institution in the diocese.

But the end was near. It would only last three more years. Under

the administration of Brother Leo Moses (1967 - 1968), and of

Brother Gilbert LHeureux, (1968 - 1969), academic life continued

on an even keel and the school fielded a powerhouse football team,

and one of the first bands in the state.

In 1969, after many years of devoted service at St. Louis, Brother

Edgar St. Pierre, the experienced English teacher and perennial

yearbook/school paper moderator was named principal. It was to be

the last year of the school. The new principal plunged into his new

duties with gusto and relish, but the storm clouds threatened on the

horizon.

The fate of the Diocesan Regional school was under discussion.

Rumors of closure became genuine fears. In the Spring, it was decided

to close St. Louis for lack of funds. The decision was announced as

unrevocable. No amount of recrimination could change it. The Regional

Catholic Board of Biddeford recommended that the school be closed

due to the unsolvable financial crisis it found itself in. Bishop Peter

Gerety of Portland concurred on March 30 1970 in his letter to Mr.

William Sutton, Board Chairman.

Bishop Gerety wrote: "As the Board Members know, I and my staff

have worked very closely with them during the past three years in an

effort to insure the future of St. Louis Regional High School. We

combined the three Catholic high schools in Biddeford into one school,

putting together their faculties and students in one strong educational

institution. We made of St. Louis High School a truly Regional High

School supported not only by St. Joseph parish as it had been in the

past, but also by all the parishes in the area. We all agreed therefore

that the decision to close the school would be an extremely serious

step and that every possible solution to our difficulties should be

thoroughly examined."

"The Regional Board has spent many long hours studying the situation.

They have tried earnestly to discover solutions. None has been found.

As a result, they have agonized greatly over the necessity of

recommending that the school be closed. The Diocese, too, has tried

to find staff and funds. The problem, however, cannot be solved

without outside help. It is not forthcoming. In view of these facts, I

have no other choice but to concur that the high school cannot

continue beyond the end of the present school year."

In June of 1970, the last eight representatives of the FIC Order sadly

left the scene of forty-one years of devoted labor. The departure was

poignant. The people were struck with consternation. The scarcity of

vocations that had forced the crushing decision was not about to be

remedied.

AMMENDUM

The FIC presence in Biddeford continued for another six years, into

the seventies, thanks to Brother Richard Hebert's request to be allowed

to submit his candidacy for the post of assistant principal and athletic

director of Biddeford High School.

His wish was granted and in September 1972, a Roman collared FIC

became one of the main cogs at BHS where our constantly hard working

confrere was greatly admired and appreciated for his devotion and loyalty

until August 1978 when he suddenly passed on.