Remembering Sackville’s Holy Rosary School

As the last holiday of the summer, the Labour Day weekend has become an important dividing point in our yearly routine. Vacations are for the most part over; students in schools and universities are embarking on a new term and there is just a hint of autumn in the air. Its also a time of nostalgia and remembrance for those whose school days are long since behind them.

During the summer just past, I had an opportunity to meet through the Internet and also personally, some former students of Sackvilles Holy Rosary School. Many readers will recall the white frame two storey building on Salem Street which was destroyed in a spectacular fire on Saturday May 26, 2001. (See photograph). These contacts encouraged me to devote a column to reminiscences of the school.

The roots of Roman Catholicism in Sackville may be traced back to the French colonial period. The first church was erected in the village of Tintamarre. This building was destroyed in 1755 during the expulsion of the Acadians. The chalice and bell were saved and buried for safekeeping by parishioners. Years later they were recovered. The chalice was taken to Memramcook where it may be found in St. Anne’s Chapel connected with St. Thomas Church. Unfortunately, the bell was badly cracked and had to be melted and recast.

Well over a century later, in 1885 a second church was opened in Middle Sackville on land donated by Jim and Abner Smith. The new Holy Rosary Church was opened on October 25th, 1885 with the celebration of High Mass. Following later construction of the belfry, the famous Tintamarre bell, now recast, was dedicated. It was destined to peal forth for the next 74 years; summoning worshippers to Holy Rosary Church.

The first priest was Father Alfred Roy of the Congregation of Saint Croix. In 1902 the Bishop of Saint John created the parish of Sackville with missions at Melrose and Port Elgin. The Holy Cross Fathers served the parish until 1907, after which it was administered by secular clergy until the arrival of the Dominican Fathers in 1927. Because of its central location, the Dominicans made Middle Sackville their headquarters for the Maritimes. The first Dominican pastor was Rev. Marc Cot, who served from 1928 to 1936.

St. Vincent’s Church on Charlotte Street in Sackville, was constructed in 1928 and consecrated on Oct. 14th of that year. A short time later, a monastery was built adjacent to St. Vincents Church. The Dominican Fathers then moved from Middle Sackville to occupy their new quarters in 1930. On April 12, 1975 the two parishes were joined together as the Parish of Holy Rosary St. Vincents.

The first Roman Catholic school in Sackville was officially opened on August 24, 1947 by Archbishop Norbert Robichaud of Moncton. The ceremony was held outdoors on a bright summer day. The Sackville Citizens Band provided special music for some 300 spectators, and according to one who was present, an air of festivity prevailed.

On a more serious note, the official part of the proceedings; the blessing of the school, was conducted by Archbishop Robichaud, who spoke in both English and French. The local parish priest Father Louis LaFontaine and Father Clarence Leger of Moncton assisted in the service.

In his remarks Archbishop Robichaud lauded the local parish for its effort in building such a fine school. In particular, he praised the members of St. Vincents and Holy Rosary for their leadership in the financial campaign. Because of the long history of the latter, it was decided to name the new school Holy Rosary.

Not only was a large portion of the funding for the new school raised locally, construction of the edifice was under the direction of a parishioner, Levi Legere of Sackville. Generous assistance was also provided by the Dominican Brothers. One interesting approach was taken in fund raising. Parishioners were encouraged to provide donations for the desks required by both teachers and students. A plaque was then attached to each, indicating the name of the donor.

The building consisted of eight classrooms each with a seating capacity of 30 students. Fluorescent lighting was used throughout. The basement level housed a kitchen, recreation hall, canteen, lavatories, cloakrooms and a furnace room. The school was staffed by Sisters from the Order of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, which had already been active in the Sackville area since 1934.

When the school opened in September 1947, with Sister Marie DesLourdes as Principal, not all rooms were utilized, as instruction was limited to the first six grades. Later, classes for junior and senior high school students were added. Both Roman Catholic as well as Protestant students were in attendance. The latter were offered the special dispensation of arriving at 9:30 rather than 9:00. By this time, compulsory catechism classes were over. The number of Protestant children is not known; however, their numbers were described as being a very small proportion of the total enrolment. One former student (a Protestant) confided that he was sent to Holy Rosary because the nuns were strict disciplinarians.

In an age not noted for an interest in language study, it was significant that the school followed the provincial bilingual curriculum, with a corresponding emphasis on the French language. Another former student recalled: If you had to go to the washroom or wanted to open a window or sharpen your pencil, you had to ask in French otherwise you would be ignored.

Although the school closed in the early 1970s, memories of its quarter century as a parochial school are still vivid. Not surprisingly, many reminiscences centered around the strict code of discipline. In the present day, corporal punishment is not only frowned upon; it is illegal. Not so in the 1950s and 60s. For many male students, a strapping was a badge of honour or at the very least, a rite of passage. A similar viewpoint prevailed in the public school sector. One graduate of Holy Rosary recalled, possibly with a slight tinge of pride: I got the strap six times in one year, mostly for talking in line at recess.

It would be entirely wrong to assume that all memories of Holy Rosary School were negative. Clearly, there was an esprit de corps among the students that is still recalled with pleasure. Several remembered with great nostalgia the annual Christmas concerts in which everyone played a part. For such events the recreation hall in the basement was always jam packed.

Still others mentioned the emphasis on sports and outdoor activities. Michael Milner recalled: The Brothers from the nearby monastery would freeze over a patch of ice to make a slide in the winter. Kids brought things to slide on, everything from sheets of cardboard to toboggans. I remember that enameled stove side panels were really effective. There were lots of those around, with both the Enterprise and Fawcett Foundries going full tilt. The stove panels really flew and if you couldnt stop before you hit the big spruce trees in the driveway, disaster awaited! One incident of bloody injury lurks in my memory. It resulted in a quick trip to the Sackville Hospital for one of the dare devils.

Holy Rosary School also had a number of distinctive programs. One example was the provision of hot lunches. Obviously some of the students came from less than wealthy homes, making a hot meal an important act of charity on the part of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart. As one student recalled Im sure that for some, this was their main meal of the day The smell of Campbells vegetable soup still triggers memories of Holy Rosary School.

Ironically, just two years prior to the destruction of the Holy Rosary School building by fire in 2001, Holy Rosary Church in Middle Sackville was forced to close. Shortly afterward the building was demolished. The altar stone was removed at the Farewell Mass and given to the Diocese of Moncton for safekeeping. The Stations of the Cross, which dated from 1885, were placed in St. Vincents Church, to maintain a connection with the past. The historic Tintamarre Bell may be found at the Acadian Museum, Universit de Moncton.

One final memory. So long as they are alive, graduates and former students of Holy Rosary School will never forget the picture of: … a jolly nun, dressed in flowing habit, standing on the front steps of Holy Rosary School; ringing an oversized hand bell summoning us to our classes.