The rise and fall of Saint Michael’s School in Exeter
In 1932, Clifton Towle, the Superintendent of Exeter Schools, wrote: “We shall soon be faced with a re-division of our school areas and a consolidation of our system necessitated by the opening of St. Michael’s Parish School which will remove a hundred. sixty students from our first four years.
St. Michael’s Parish was established in Exeter in 1859 to serve the growing Catholic population. Although public education was free and available to all children in the city, new immigrants from Ireland and Quebec were troubled by the Protestant environment of the schools. The mornings began with readings from the King James Bible, which was not the version used by Catholics. Likewise, the Protestant version of the Our Father was different from that recited during the weekly Mass. By the 1920s, the parochial (or parochial) school movement had taken hold in the country. Run by the Reverend Daniel Cotter, who arrived in Exeter in 1919, the school was ready to open in September 1932.
Parish schools reduced costs by using teaching sisters as staff. The teachers hired for St. Michael were Sisters of Mercy. The 1934 teaching staff, according to the Portsmouth Herald, assigned the following: “Sister Zita of Boston, Mass., must be in fifth grade. Sister Ernest is to teach the second year, replacing Sister Bernarda, who has been transferred to Dover. Sister Béatrice will teach the first year, Sister Ernestine the third year, the superior, Sister Lucie, will teach the sixth year and Sister Edith will teach the fourth year. The class size was large, with teachers often in charge of over thirty students. At the end of the school day, the exhausted Sisters retired to their own home just behind the school. On entering the convent, the Sisters took a vow of poverty, chastity and obedience. Most orders were either teaching orders or nursing orders. In 1951, responsibility for the school was entrusted to the Sisters of Notre-Dame.
Historically speaking: Dancing through the ages in Exeter
Things changed with the arrival of the Sisters of Notre-Dame. Uniforms were phased in a navy sweater for girls and blue or navy trousers and a tie for boys. Packed full now that the school was teaching students through eighth grade, the building was expanded in 1960. Tuition was shared between the parish and the parents—about $100 per family. The city extended screenings and basic health services to St. Michael’s students, and some of the children were able to ride city school buses. That was, for a long time, the extent of the city’s support. There were arguments on both sides to provide funding for the private school. They were basically city kids whose parents paid the city taxes. However, St. Michael was definitely a private religious school, so public support was kept to a bare minimum. Physical education was not compulsory, so apart from recreation, there was none. Vicki Lukas recalls, “We chased each other around the playground.
A sanctuary dedicated to the Virgin Mary was erected in 1952 between the school and the convent. Made of stone and concrete, the cave served as the site of the annual May devotional celebrations for the parish. Students were heavily involved in these events.
Historically speaking: The arrival of the atomic age
The post-war baby boom had inflated school attendance, but costs were rising by the late 1960s. Fewer young women were joining religious life as other opportunities were available to them. Lay teachers were needed to cover classes – and they demanded higher salaries. In 1970, the school was in financial difficulty. The state of New Hampshire investigated the problems (and costs) of the parochial school system through the Nonpublic School Study Commission. A workaround has been created called “double registration”. If the schools were local day schools, the state would fund the lay teachers, thus taking some of the financial burden from the parish. Exeter voters accepted the plan in 1971. However, this was not enough to keep the school going. Funding was well below what was needed. St. Michael’s School announced that it would close when school ended in 1972. The city now had to bring over two hundred elementary students into the public school system. Voters approved the purchase of the school building, which was well equipped, and it reopened in September as Main Street School.
Barbara Rimkunas is the Curator of the Exeter Historical Society. Support the Exeter Historical Society by becoming a member. Register online at www.exeterhistory.org.