To truly appreciate the dedication and commitment to Catholic education in Lewiston-Auburn, one must start at the beginning. As early as 1870, the children of French-speaking families of Lewiston-Auburn were being taught basic elementary subjects in private homes. It was 1878 when St. Peter and Paul’s Reverend Father Pierre Hevey invited the Sisters of Charity of St. Hyacinthe (aka the Grey Nuns) to help establish the first formal Catholic parish school. Located on the corner of Pierce and Walnut Streets in Lewiston, the Ayslum of Our Lady of Lourdes’ student body consisted of 200 boys and girls by December of that year.

In 1881, the Dominican Fathers of Lille, France assumed administration of the church and began purchasing land, including property on the corner of Lincoln and Chestnut Streets, where they constructed the five-story brick building still known today as the Dominican Block. The building served as the new Catholic school, serving 700 students in 1883 when it opened. In 1884, Father Constant Adam, OP announced evening classes, to be held at the school, for mill workers. Three hundred young women and 200 young men registered.

In the following year, enrollment continued to grow at the Dominican Block. Property was purchased near 250 Bates Street in 1886 and the Marist Brothers of Lyons, France came to Lewiston, undertaking the task of teaching boys in the upper grades. It wasn’t until 1907, when the Dominican Sisters of Nancy, France began a school for girls who were advancing to upper grades. L’Academie, later called the Cours Superieur, was the forerunner for what later became the girls’ section of St. Dominic’s Regional High School.

As the community’s French population continued to thrive, more churches were established to accommodate the spiritual needs of the people and, consequently, schools built to teach the children of those parishes. Since 1881, Catholic schools in the Lewiston-Auburn area and outlying communities have included Ave Maria Academy, Cours Superieur, Holy Cross School, Holy Family School, Our Lady of the Rosary, Sacred Heart School, St. Dominic Regional High School, St. Joseph’s School, St. Louis School, St. Mary School, St. Patrick School, and St. Peter School.

Louise Forgues, of Auburn, taught at St. Dominic’s Regional High School from 1961 to 1973 and at St. Peter’s Junior High from 1973 to 1985, serving as the school’s principal between 1979 and 1985. In 1985, she joined the teaching staff at Holy Cross School where she stayed until 2000. As a teacher, administrator, and school board member and someone who had family members attend some of the earlier Catholic schools, Forgues has witnessed a lot of change in Catholic education, including the closing and consolidation of schools in the area.

“There were many factors contributing to the closing of schools over the years,” she explained. “Dwindling numbers of religious meant having to hire more lay people. That was expensive. Then there were the new requirements of teaching certifications and degrees. Insurance and retirement benefits and salaries all increased with lay people as teachers.”

In 2006, after much discussion and consideration, the decision was made to consolidate all of the area’s Catholic elementary schools. The new Trinity Catholic School had two campuses, one at the former Holy Cross School location with the second serving as the junior high at the former St. Joseph School property. Finally, in February 2010, St. Dominic Academy was established with the merger of St. Dominic Regional High School and Trinity Catholic.

“The decision was not made lightly,” assured Patricia Milton, a 31 year veteran Catholic school teacher, now instructing at St. Dominic Academy’s junior high.

“The staff understood parents’ trepidations about younger children in the same building with high school students. The high school staff and upper classmen have been very welcoming to the younger students,” said Milton. “Daily I see older students helping younger ones with locker combinations or sharing polite conversation. We begin and end our day with prayer. In the midst of a difficult economy, we have been successful in maintaining strong academic and athletic programs as well as extra curricular activity and we continue to look for more we can offer.”

According to Milton, it is that Christian behavior witnessed daily in a Christ-centered environment that is at the heart of the Catholic, academic experience.

“The environment upholds the dignity of the students, the children. We wrap ourselves around their dignity, supporting the whole person, the well-rounded individual,” explained Milton. “Our future is very encouraging. As the largest Catholic school in Maine, we have a pool of talents here and teachers who enjoy coming to teach everyday. Our numbers allow us to teach those subjects that speak to our strengths.”

Milton also points to the continuity of family as a cornerstone to Catholic education in Lewiston-Auburn. The Vallee-Chasse family is part of the history and future of Catholic schooling in Lewiston-Auburn. Considered a “legacy” family, Frances and Paul Vallee, and Gertrude and Marcel Chasse all attended St. Peter and Paul School and St. Dominic High School. Their children, Celeste Vallee and Daniel Chasse, also attended Catholic school together, later married, and now send their own children to Catholic school, all in Lewiston-Auburn.

Frances and Paul remember the days of girls and boys being separated after fifth grade. They laughed. “We saw each other at assemblies, mass, rallies, and confession on the first Friday of the month at St. Peter’s!” The couple also remembers being taught half the day in French and half in English.

Paul said he was glad when he moved to the upper grades and was taught by the brothers instead of the nuns. “The nuns were stricter,” he claimed. That, along with the fact that hockey and basketball became part of his academic experience with the upper grades, held real appeal for Paul. “And we didn’t have as many classes in French!”

They also both remember non-traditional classmates, immigrants who came to the U.S. with little or no schooling. A freshman in class could be 18 years old because he or she needed to catch up. By the same token, many boys around the age of 16 left school to work in the mills. Paul said, “Our sophomore class was half what it was our freshman year.”

When Celeste and Daniel attended St. Peter and Paul and later St. Dominic High School, girls and boys were in the classrooms together again. At the time, moving from elementary school into the high school setting was a natural progression as they existed side by side in Lewiston. There was a sense of connectedness within the school experience then, a feeling that, for Celeste, faded slightly when school locations changed and later consolidated.

With their children attending Catholic schools, now at St. Dominic Academy, the feeling of family and connectedness has been rekindled. Dan said, “Decade by decade, Catholic education has meant something different to every family. Today’s Catholic academic experience reflects a changing world of different cultures, religions, and economic class. Catholic education in Lewiston-Auburn has opened its doors beyond the immediate community to continue to thrive.”

“It is the value-based education people are wanting for their children,” added Celeste, confirming that the student body now consists of different denominations. “Parents want their schools to reinforce the values being taught at home. Kindness, respect for others. We are lucky to have the option for Catholic education, to have a choice.”

Like Milton, Celeste welcomes the continuity of family – the sense of family that a smaller, faith-base school affords. Her children, Matthew (8th grade) and Christine (4th grade), agree. In some cases, they have had the same teachers as their parents.

“I like that we can relate [to family members] through our St. Dom’s experiences,” said Matt.

Christine added, “I like the way our principal, Mr. Bilodeau, greets us every morning and how he sings “Happy Birthday To You” on your birthday.” She also likes his cool ties.

Both brother and sister agree that the school curriculum is well-rounded. “We have good subjects,” said Matt. “And they are well taught.”

Christine’s favorite subjects are Sunshine math and religion. “Except for the tests,” she smiled. “They take me forever.”

Matt finished the interview on a supporting note for faith-based education. “Go Catholics!”

With the celebration of 130 years of Catholic education, Catholic School Week provides an open invitation to families who want to explore the possibilities of a faith-based academic program. Thriving amongst the financial weeds of the economy, the Catholic school community maintains its commitment to the academic development and spiritual wellness of the coming generations. This they do with the continued support of one another and a lot of help from above.

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