Tag Archives: South Lowell

Lowell’s Riverside School: The Lowell Parents’ Strike – 1971

Things have to get fairly dire before your entire student body, well, 97% of your student body, boycotts your school due to “dangerous conditions”.  But, that’s precisely what happened at Lowell’s Riverside School on a Monday morning in late March, 1971.  Of the school’s 205 students in Grades K through 5, just six showed up for school.  Instead, starting at 8:15 AM on March 22, their parents – mostly their mothers – began showing up to picket in front of the school, at Woburn Street’s intersection with Eugene Street.

Robert Healy, Jr., Assistant City Manager, soon arrived at the picket line, which had been announced and expected before that Monday morning.  He arrived with little to offer.  Of the city’s $2.2 million school renovation budget ($12.5 million in today’s dollars), precisely nothing was destined for the Riverside, or any of the city’s other older ‘wooden schools’.  The picketing parents listed and responded by giving Healy a list of no less than 24 problems that they had identified at the school.

The Riverside School – South Lowell, Massachusetts, 1910. (Credit: Lowell Sun: Dec. 3, 1910)

The Riverside, built in the years leading up the twentieth century, had once been a gem of Tewksbury’s school system in the years before Lowell’s annexation of the Wigginville neighborhood of South Lowell.  With its eight rooms (luxurious by period standards), the school was – spacious -; so, spacious, in fact, that two of those rooms were specially designated for its students’ recreation.  A 1910 Lowell Sun article lauded the school’s playrooms and greatly admired the dollhouse and doll tea set that had been built by the students.

Sixty years later, by the early 1970s, things had clearly changed.  The parents’ 24 problems included: crumbling plaster, peeling paint, dim and missing lights, a failing oil heater, shoddy wiring, and a shortage of school supplies.  That wasn’t all.  The school was actually unsafe; the parents charged.  The roof leaked so much water that the wiring in the school’s attic was submerged in puddles.  These were the days before parents worried about mold exposure.

Healy, representing the city manager’s office, wasn’t unsympathetic.  He just had a really tough position to support.  He listened to the picketing parents.  He then explained that the damage to the school’s roof had been a result of maintenance to the school.  An air raid siren had to be removed, and it was – just a month earlier.  The weight of the siren had damaged the roof.  In fact, he said, as the picketers amassed on that March Monday, public works crews had arrived for their second day of work to fix the leaks.  And, a wiring inspector would arrive later that day to review the electrical problems.  The city would fix the Riverside.

Parents picket the Riverside School, Lowell, Massachusetts, 1971.  Credit: Lowell Sun – 3/22/1971

Parents quickly pointed out that maintenance workers wouldn’t fix all 24 problems on their list.  “History is not being taught in the fifth grade because we have no books.”  One parent said.  “Geography is not being taught in the fourth grade because we have only seven books and they have pages missing.”  Another contributed.  One Riverside teacher later confided that she had been forced to use spelling books that dated from the 1920′s.

School officials responded by denying they knew that there was a problem.  The parents insisted that they had contacted the superintendent’s office.  They also reminded school officials about their promise regarding the Joseph G. Pyne School.     When the J. G. Pyne had been built, a few years earlier, the plan had been to move the Riverside children there.  In fact, the School Committee, in 1970, had voted 5-2 to move the Pyne’s seventh and eighth graders to the Moody in order to free up space for the Riverside students.  There was one problem, though.  No one made sure that the Junior High students at the Pyne minded going to the Moody.  They did.  To accommodate the “almost unanimous” wishes of the South Lowell citizenry, school committee officials left the J. G. Pyne students at the J. G. Pyne, and the Riverside students at their crumbling Riverside.

And this led to a mid-March strike where parents kept 199 of the school’s 205 students out of school for a day in protest.    The parents’ list continued.  During the previous winter, classes had been held in classrooms where the temperature hovered near 40 degrees.  With no heat, the students stayed in their coats all day.   As Assistant City Manager Healy listened to their list, he acknowledged that the parents “had a case”.  He promised to fix the school’s supply problems almost immediately, saying that he would talk with the school’s principal and central office.  All they have to do, he said, is call downtown and they’ll get new supplies.

Credit: Lowell Sun – March 22, 1971

Healy knew that the DPW had been addressing the school’s plaster issues, but also acknowledged that he knew it to be only ‘band-aid work’.  Superintendent of Schools Wayne Peters also responded to the picketing parents, saying conditions at the Riverside weren’t really any better or worse than any other old school in the city.  “We could close the Riverside tomorrow if parents and members of the PTAs would be willing to transfer junior high school out of the J. G. Pyne school and bus some students to the Reilly.”  Peters said.  Asked about the school’s extremely low attendance on the morning of March 22, 1971, Peters dismissed it, saying that they would teach the six students.  They would teach just one student.  “It’s only the students who are suffering”.

“The school is not in very good condition, but the city council voted not to include the wooden schools in the $2.2 million renovation program.  I feel for these parents.  I know the situation, but the City of Lowell cannot afford to put good money after bad and renovate these old wooden schools.”

Officials did not perform their investigations into the school’s dismal conditions publicly.  However, over the following four weeks, Superintendent Peters held two meetings with parents to iron out differences and also met with the school’s principal and her teachers.   The principal’s resignation and retirement followed one month later, in mid-April, reportedly at the superintendent’s request.  Repairs came, and the school remained in use, up through the 1981-1982 school year, when its students were, indeed, moved to the J.G. Pyne School.  From personal experience, I can say that I have fond memories of the school, and can still remember its huge classrooms, with long, shiny wood floors, and old woodwork.  I was a member of the school’s final kindergarten class.

Riverside School’s Final Kindergarten Class – Spring 1982. In the years since, I helpfully marked myself with initials that are floating above my head.  Although my five-year-old self enjoyed my time at the school, the maintenance occurring between the time of the Parents’ Strike and this photo ten years later, didn’t quite extend to repainting the main entrance doors.

Today, the Riverside School houses the B.R.I.D.G.E. (Beginnings Respect Independent Diversity Guidance Education) Program at the McHugh Alternative Middle School, a partnership between Middlesex Community College and the Lowell Public Schools.  Established in 1997 for 24 Lowell public school seventh and eighth graders, the program today has grown to serve 50 students.  The B.R.I.D.G.E. program serves students who have experienced past behavioral or attendance problems in traditional school settings.


The First Years of Sacred Heart Parish: Lowell, Massachusetts, 1880′s

Decidedly more rural in the years before the construction of Sacred Heart Church, the land that would eventually sit under the parish’s buildings was then owned by the Meadowcroft and Andrews families.

Moore, Andrews, Whipple, Meadowcroft:  If you spent a good span of your childhood years in Lowell, Massachusetts attending school or church at Sacred Heart, all of these names will be familiar to you.  The streets closest to Sacred Heart carry those names, which date back to the decades before Sacred Heart’s founding when the area was much more rural, and formed the southern edge of the city.  But, who were they?  And how did Sacred Heart come to be built in South Lowell?

On June 7, 1880, James Meadowcroft owned precisely 39 acres of land on the southern side of Moore Street.  Some was tilled; some lay  fallow.  Meadows formed some of his land; the rest was forest.  Meadowcroft was a wealthy man.   He also owned the farming implements, machinery, and livestock to sustain a healthy income.  He had year-round help in running the farm.  And, his farm had produced hay, milk, butter, eggs, and potatoes during 1879.

By no means a young man at 63 in 1880, James Meadowcroft was what that age called a gentleman farmer.  He had retired from his profession as a blacksmith.  His wife, Alice, 60, was just a bit younger.  Both had been born in England.  He had become a naturalized citizen in 1852.  By 1880, all of their children had moved on; only a nephew, George Green, lived with them.  He was 48 and without occupation.  A servant named Sarah Moody saw to their needs.

Some years before, James Meadowcroft had cut out a small portion of his land for his oldest son, John, who lived in a home on the western edge of his Moore Street property with his wife Bertha.  John made his living as a real estate agent.  His other three children had grown up and moved on.  To steal a term from a much later age, the Meadowcrofts were ‘empty-nesters’ and were probably looking to move on from the Moore Street property they had occupied for at least three decades.  Across the street in the former home of William Andrews, a marble worker, the Litchfield family had just moved in.  Paul Litchfield, 46, listed his occupation as a mill owner in 1880.  He and his wife, Sarah, raised their family of five children on the future site of the Sacred Heart School, who ranged in age from 6 to 22 years old.

Moore Street was still a dirt road in 1883 when church officials approached the Meadowcrofts about selling their land to the church.  The street had at least been macadamized (paved with gravel) by 1891, when they approached the Litchfields about the sale of their land to allow for a parish school to be built.  The area had remained very rural and quiet, but the Catholic population was growing in what was then the city’s southern extreme.  By some accounts, the Catholic population in South Lowell had reached 3,000 by that time.  A church was needed, and St. Peter’s was thought to be rather distant for those living in the Bleachery and Ayers City sections of Lowell.  Some folks even came up from Wigginville, just down Lawrence Street – which, at that point, hadn’t yet been annexed from Tewksbury (and wouldn’t be until 1906).

Sacred Heart Church, just a few years after its completion – 1900 (From A City of Spindles – Lowell Trades and Labor Council)

Until Sacred Heart Church performed its first mass in 1884, those 3,000 Catholics remained assigned to the St. Peter’s Church district.  Ground was broken for the new parish on Eastern Sunday, 1884; church fairs were held to raise funds.  Construction progressed rapidly.  Father Joyce, an Oblate father and an assistant in the Immaculate Conception Parish, oversaw the founding of the parish, the buying of its land, and presided over the dedication of its basement, on August 10, 1884 by Archbishop Williams, after a solemn high mass was said by Rev. Father Lefevre of Montreal, the provincial of the order.  While the basement was used for services, the church proper was constructed.  Its corner-stone was laid in June 1896.

The Sacred Heart area, some 20 years later, in 1896. The area has experienced significant development, notably along the western side of Andrews Street and the south side of Moore Street.

The first Sacred Heart School building was constructed to accommodate some 400 students – though, initially, the school had far less.  It opened for the 1892-93 school year.  By 1899, 250 students attended.  Opposite the church, it fronted Andrews Street on one side, Moore Street on the other – though it was still separated by a single building, which was eventually razed and replaced in 1909 by what later became known as the “new old school” that burnt to the ground decades later, in 1967.  As the school neared completion in 1892, plaster was applied to the woodwork in each of its eight classrooms, each 32 by 24 feet.  Each classroom had its respective cloak room, measuring 4 feet by 18 feet.  Lots of attention was paid to the woodwork, to the doors, and to the circular transoms above each.  As the school was completed on its ‘garden lot’, a contemporary writer commented that the setting was ‘very quiet’, ‘surrounded by beautiful trees’ and had an open field in front of the building that was ready for construction to support the parish’s expansion.

Readers – Do you remember the gleaming hardwoods, the transoms, and the cloakroom of the 1892 school building?  Do you have other memories of the church, or any of the three Sacred Heart school buildings?  During my time there, the 1892 school building was used for the primary grades, with the 1968 building housing Grades 4 and up.  If you have any Sacred Heart photographs that you’d like to share, I will work them into a future post.