Remembering Vermont Catholic schools: Former Catholic schools in the Diocese of Burlington, St. Peter’s Convent-School, Vergennes
Second in a series
I recently read some information in The Fortieth Vermont School Report made by the Superintendent of Education to the General Assembly – October 1908 – St. Albans, VT. One area of this report from 1908 caught my attention – a tabulation of 27 Catholic schools in Vermont (at the time), their location, grades taught, number of teachers as well as students in each listed school. A few footnotes included which schools only employed lay teachers and which schools offered a commercial or academy course. Among the schools listed, St. Michael’s College was identified as a college and likely included because it was a Catholic institution for learning. Therefore, I focused attention to other 26 grade-level schools. As I continued to survey this table, I noted the larger Catholic schools in St. Albans, Burlington, Winooski, Montpelier, Newport, Bennington, and Brattleboro. I chose to highlight two Catholic schools on this list and three other Catholic schools not on the list. While these schools were widely known in their own communities, their stories quietly receded to the background of Diocesan history once the schools closed. What Catholic populations were served? How were these schools staffed? How were the schools impacted over time?
St. Peter’s Convent-School, 1886 – 1907, Vergennes
By the time St. Peter’s second resident pastor arrived in Vergennes in 1884, Father Pierre Campeau felt that many had lost their faith because the parish had not had a resident pastor or Catholic education from the time the parish was established in 1874. The Vergennes community at that time was comprised of laborers and farmers. Father Campeau managed to increase the size of his parish within the first year of his arrival, so he decided it was time to open a school. The school was built on a lot of land on Elbow Street (Maple Street) purchased by Father Campeau from Prosper Elitharp. Father Campeau also purchased a small wooden house and barn which was renovated into a comfortable home for teachers.
On Aug, 28, 1886, four sisters of the Holy Cross arrived in Vergennes from St. Laurent, Québec. Upon arrival, they were greeted by Father Campeau and were immediately ready for their new mission. Burlington Bishop Louis de Goësbriand arrived the following day to bless their convent and new 200-pound school bell. Vespers and Benediction were included in that day’s activities along with a sermon on education intended to encourage all parents to send their children to the new St. Peter’s School with the promise of a well-rounded Christian education. When school opened on Aug. 30, 1886, 224 students were enrolled. Father Campeau traveled to Montreal in the following weeks to secure the services of one more Holy Cross sister as a result this higher-than-expected enrollment to teach French and the first and second grades.
Music was an important part of the school’s curriculum, attracting visits from several priests of the diocese as well as local teachers. Most classes were taught in French. Students and underwent oral examinations in December and May each year. That first year, these examinations were administered by Father Campeau and his assistant, Bishop de Goësbriand, and even by the local superintendent of schools, who approved of the profound level of teaching.
Over the years, enrollment declined from 224 in 1886 to 65 in 1906. Part of the cause was perhaps financial, as they noted (in 1905) a special mission was given by Bishop de Goësbriand to “pray for the employment of the fathers of the students.” Those children who gradually transferred to the public schools for various reasons were held back a year or two grades, probably because most classes had been taught in French at St. Peter’s.
The Sisters of the Holy Cross continued to teach catechism on Sunday afternoons to those Catholic children attending public school. There were so few students enrolled in St. Peter’s in the fall of 1906 that Father Campeau wrote, “When I leave Vergennes the sisters will soon leave after me, if my successor has less zeal, for he will close the school rather than pay the sisters’ salaries from his own pocket.” Father Campeau left St. Peter’s on Christmas Day, 1906 and the school closed on March 1, 1907. Those who attended the convent-school during its 21-year tenure at St. Peter’s Parish received a Catholic education thanks to the dedication and hard work of Father Campeau and the Sisters of the Holy Cross.
— Kathleen Messier is the assistant archivist for the Diocese of Burlington. For more information, email Archives@vermontcatholic.org.