By Thomas J. Neville, Staff Writer for The News-Tribune, Waltham, Mass.
When 32 boys receive their diplomas from St. Mary’s High School this year, the occasion will also mark the end of 82 years of Catholic high school education in Waltham.
The high school, staffed by the Christian Brothers in 1891, has fallen victim to economic pressures and a dwindling number of religious teachers. Since 1969, the Girls and Boys school has been phasing out, and the 32 graduates this year represent the last of thousands who matriculated at the Lexington Street institute,
The last class of St. Mary’s Girls High School graduated in 1970, but there were still 18 girls who had one more year to complete. So, St. Mary’s broke its 80-year tradition of separate in-school education of the boys and girls, and in 1971 the graduating class consisted of 18 coeds and 18 boys
There are many St. Mary’s graduates who have fond memories of their Alma Mater, and their comments reflect the changes in the times during the school’s history.
Charles Mogan of Waltham has vivid memories of the School which he attended until 1905. During those early years when St. Mary’s was known as LaSalle High, Mogan recalls that the classes were held in the church’s hall.
“There was no such thing as girls and boys getting together,” reflected Mogan. He noted that a blackboard, draped with curtains, separated the girls from the boys during class time. He also remembers what he calls the “sacred grass” on the church grounds. “It was a mortal sin to walk on it,” Mogam mused. The second grade was taught in the sacristy of the church, and the first gym was in the basement, he recalled.
Organized sports were almost unheard of in the first few years of this century, so Mogan and his friends would find their own recreation near St. Mary’s. “We used a pick handle for a baseball bat and wore high shoes and knee pants while playing hockey on a pond where Moe Black’s (department store) is now.” He remembers taking walks with his chums all the way to Lincoln, and on occasion they would “steal rides on the electric trolley cars.” Asked how he feels now that St. Mary’s is closing, Mogan simply said “I really think it is a shame.”
As World War I was breaking out in Europe in 1914, St. Mary’s was continuing to thrive. There were now three classes, all taught by One Christian Brother.
Frank Fleming, who now lives in Wayland, was in the graduating class of 1914. He remembers walking to and from school three times a day from his home on Massasoit Street. He and his classmates would go home for lunch in those days.
In the young years, St. Mary’s was primarily a commercial school, concentrating on subjects such as typing, shorthand, bookkeeping and the other required subjects of English and math. Frank Fleming grad’uated from that program and went on to Northeastern University nights where he obtained a degree in accounting. He then went to work for Liberty Mutual Insurance Co. in the financial division.
“I have an affinity for St. Mary’s, and I’m sorry it’s closing,” said Fleming. He still keeps in touch with some of his classmates, and he remembers the five cent movies at the Scenic Theatre (on Elm Street) and the nickle soda pop. He also remembers working every afternoon after school, driving a truck and helping out with a florist business on Worcester Lane.
The academic evolution of the school began with a two-year commercial program. That became a three-year program at the turn of the century. By 1918 La Salle High had grown to a four-year school. Classes were large and the necessity of a new building was obvious. In May 1920, a new vision of the high school became apparent. “A new high school comprising academic, commercial and the scientific departments is the one thing above all things needed in this parish to give our boys and girls a complete religious and secular education.” The present school building was erected and the name changed from La Salle High to St. Mary’s High.
Although it was establishing itself as a strong four-year college preparatory school, it was still oriented toward commercial instruction, and many honors were won by its students during those years. Arthur J. LeClair of Waltham was a member of some of those teams which won honors in typing. LeClair, a 1923 graduate, recalls a New England typing contest in which he placed third behind Lawrence Lane and Raymond Campbell, all of St. Mary’s.
Jack Birmingham won a national championship in typing while representing the Waltham school. He went on to become the President of White Fuel Corp., and a benefactor of his Alma Mater by the annual Birmingham Scholarship. Others who excelled in typing competition in that year were Lawrence Crane, Raymond Tracey and Fr. John Kelley. –
The post war years led to the depression years of the 30’s, but despite the “hard times”, 1931 graduate Leonard Lawless says “It was the best school in the country.” Lawless, a former city councillor and now assistant clerk of courts here, still has respect for the “great teaching and good discipline” given by the Christian Brothers. He remembers the many discussion periods and debates in the school and one. Brother who got the students talking about Al Smith and Tammany Hall.
Every student had to take one hour of typing a day for four years in addition to the academic subjects. “Not many could afford to go on to college in those days, but at least everyone had one basic skill — typing,” said Lawless. The commercial program was gradually deemphasized in the boys division, but the girls maintained a strong secretarial preparation.
Len also recalls the separation of the sexes during his high School days. He mused that his wife graduated the same year as he from St. Mary’s, “But I never met her until the night of the senior prom.”
In 1939 another world war was approaching and St. Mary’s was nearing its golden anniversary. Larry Coen of Waltham, a graduate in 1939, says his time at St. Mary’s were “the happiest days of our lives . . .” He remembers football coach Bill Sullivan who, in his words, “was so good he should have been coaching the professionals.”
There was a 50th jubilee in 1941 and the six Christian Brothers, led by Father Brosnahan, who started the school in 1891, were remembered. .
Over ninety percent of the school’s graduates from the Boys High go on for further education at four-year and two-year colleges. Their success over the years has given to every Senior the best recommendation when he applies for admission to a college. The successes of the girls in further education and in employment opportunities have been the best credentials for quality teaching/learning.
A former teacher at St. Mary’s, Brother Basil Austin, writes, “Although I was only a short time in Waltham, I always had a liking for the little place.” He remarks about Brother Leo Scannell, who “was there for over ten years in the days of Waltham’s glory.” Another former teacher, Brother Richard O’Connor, remarks, “The happiest years of my life as a religious were spent in St. Mary’s.”
By 1967, St. Mary’s felt the pressures of increased expenditures (especially the addition of lay teachers to the staffs), the decrease in the number of religious, the competition from improved educational opportunities in the public schools, the rising charges for tuition and fees; and in 1969, a phase-out over the next four years was announced.
Good teachers make good Schools. Indeed, then, La Salle/St. Mary’s High was a great school. A good school is the sum of the good will — good judgment of the students. Indeed, then, La Salle/St. Mary’s High was a great school.
Eighty-two years are a witness to this school; all of us alive to God are the testimony to the truth and goodness it effected. Many other things could have been written that this school did, yet if it were written in detail, I doubt there would be enough room in many books to record them. They are written in the minds and hearts of the teachers and the students and their parents.