Have you ever stepped inside 530 Stevens Street? Within those walls that now house Lowell Catholic, there’s history. It’s in the transoms above the classroom doors. It’s in the rows of old yearbooks lining the bookshelves in the classrooms – each descending deeper and deeper into the past. It’s in the chapel that became the library when Mr. Beland converted the pews into bookshelves. There’s history in the hallways, the classrooms, and even in those creaks and groans heard from faraway corners. There’s history in the memories – of late nights on campus, after it grew dark outside, and the lights had been switched off. You never forget not feeling quite alone on the building’s upper floors.
The history of the Lowell Catholic building, the main one for those of us who weren’t there after the subsequent facilities were added to the property, dates back more than a century, to 1910. It was then that the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston started the 13-year process of assembling the property that soon became the campus we recognize today. This map, at left, captures the effort while it was still underway, but nearing completion.
The Early Years – St. Peter’s Orphanage for “Destitute Orphans and Children from Broken Homes”
By the early years of the 20th century, Lowell’s Appleton Street was starting to be viewed as less desirable than some of the up-and-coming neighborhoods of the city, like the Highlands. Led by Rev. Charles J. Galligan, the then-new and since long-time pastor of St. Margaret’s Church, the English-speaking Catholic parishes of Lowell (there were many more of them then) brought St. Peter’s Orphanage out of its first home on Appleton Street and built its new home on Stevens Street. The orphanage’s new location opened during the summer of 1913, long before the cornerstone for St. Margaret’s School was laid over 25 years later. Soon after its opening, the orphanage quickly grew to provide a home and an education to approximately 150 “destitute boys and girls of the English-speaking parishes” of Lowell.
If you were to enter the Lowell Catholic Building, in 1913:
It would’ve looked far more residential. The original building plan, drafted by Architect Henry Rourke who had designed the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church a decade earlier, included cafeterias (called refectories) for the children and for the Sisters on the first floor. The first floor also included parlors, visitor reception rooms, and the chapel.
The building’s second floor might have felt far less alien to anyone who today remembers attending school at 530 Stevens Street. The second floor housed the orphanage’s classrooms, which probably had many of the same blackboards and wood trim present through the remainder of the 20th century.
The third floor held the orphanage’s four large dormitories. In the basement, you would have found recreational rooms, shower baths, and a laundry room.
The 1950’s: The Beginning of the End for the City’s Orphanages, and a new home for Keith Hall
By the 1950’s, enrollment at the city’s Catholic orphanages was falling, and officials decided to close St. Peter’s Orphanage in 1956, moving its remaining 35 children to the Franco-American Orphanage in the Lowell’s Pawtucketville neighborhood. This move not only consolidated the resources and efforts of two orphanages with dwindling enrollments; it also provided a new home for Keith Hall. Keith Hall had outgrown its first home in the Livingstone Mansion at the corner of Chelmsford and Thorndike Streets – to the point that the school had begun to turn potential students away simply because it lacked the space to accommodate them. By the start of the 1956-57 school year, Keith Hall had moved into the 530 Stevens Street building. And, soon after, the Livingstone Mansion was torn down during the construction of the Lord Overpass.
For nearly 30 years, Keith Hall continued on at 530 Stevens Street, outlasting Keith Academy, its all-male counterpart, which closed in 1970. But, time eventually took its toll on the all-girls school and, in 1983, Keith Hall converted to a co-ed institution and was renamed Keith Catholic.
1983-1989: The Keith Catholic Years
Keith Catholic provided an in-city option for Catholic School-bound boys who might otherwise have been sent to Nashua or Lawrence. But, the Keith Catholic years on Stevens Street were short-lived. Labor issues and dwindling enrollment plagued the school. As the 1988-1989 school year drew to a close, its 60 remaining students learned that Keith Catholic would close and that they could transfer to either the co-ed St. Joseph’s High School or the all-girls St. Louis Academy.
Students also learned that, within another year, both St. Joseph’s and St. Louis would merge and form a new school, Lowell Catholic. At the time, Keith’s student count had dwindled to just 60 students, while St. Joseph’s and St. Louis were 138 and 125, respectively.
What’s in a Name? Why were so many schools named Keith?
Keith Hall was one just school carrying the Keith name in Lowell. Keith Hall, Keith Academy, and Keith Catholic were all named for Mary Catherine Keith, mother of A. Paul Keith, who had left a very large sum of money to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston in her memory. Paul Keith’s father, Benjamin Franklin Keith, had made his fortune in the local vaudeville theatre scene. The funds donated by the Keith family not only funded the construction of Keith Hall, but also Keith Academy and the Cardinal’s residence in Brighton. Today, the Keith name lives on in Lowell Catholic’s Keith Gymnasium.
1991 Onward: Lowell Catholic
During a Catholic high school reorg whose complexity rivaled some corporate restructurings, students attended school at either the St. Louis campus on Boisvert Street or at St. Joseph’s on Merrimack Street. Plans called for renovations at 530 Stevens Street to take three to five years, depending on funding. Unlike almost all corporate restructurings, the renovations actually took much less time, and Lowell Catholic’s Stevens Street campus opened for the 1991-92 school year. 530 Stevens Street did not remain completely vacant during the renovations, however. Both Newbury College and Lowell Public Schools rented the facility after the closure of Keith Catholic, the latter to house Moody School students for about three months after they were displaced by a 1990 fire.
From its start over 25 years ago with some 200 students, Lowell Catholic has grown. In recent years, the school constructed its long-anticipated gym, named for the Keith family and McNamara Hall, which houses its science labs and an auditorium. The original building is now called Legacy Hall.
And, in 2015, perhaps coming full circle, St. Margaret’s School, whose parish was extraordinarily instrumental in bringing the LCHS building into existence so long ago, merged with Lowell Catholic High School to form a unified pre-K to grade 12 school, all under Lowell Catholic’s name. Today, the unified school serves some 650 students in grades K-12 and proudly represents all alumni from each of its legacy schools: Keith Hall, Keith Academy, St. Joseph, St. Louis Academy and St. Patrick High School.