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Staples School (Center Street School)

Staples School (Center Street School)
Jul 05, 2017

The old Staples School, originally known as the Center Street Grammar School, was built about 1855. It replaced an earlier school building on Congress Street. From the early 1900s until at least the 1930s, mostly Irish Catholic women taught at the school. Generations of Irish children attended the school. Originally the school was for boys only.

By the late 1870s, Lyman B. Shehan was the principal, who, despite his surname was not an Irish Catholic. Elizabeth F. “Lizzie” Walsh was one of the first known Irish-American women to teach in Portland and the first known at Staples School (1878). Patrick McGowan, along with C.O. Files, was a supervisor of the school at the time, when it was officially known as the Center Street Grammar and Primary, No. 3 School. McGowan was the second Irish Catholic to be elected to the Portland School Board, although some records state he was the “first Catholic ever to be elected to a school board in Maine” (obituary of his nephew Patrick McGowan, Portland Evening Express, 20 Oct 1924). Daniel O’Connell O’Donoghue (1843-1905) was the first Catholic to serve on a school board in Maine (1869), according to his obituary. He was instrumental in getting the first Catholic woman teacher appointed to the public schools in Portland.

By the mid-to-late 1880s, Lizzie Walsh had been joined by her sister Eleanor G. and by Maud A. Deehan and Sarah A. “Sadie” Black as teachers at the school. Maud Deehan was a Portland native, daughter of Patrick Deehan. She moved to Boston in the 1890s and remained a teacher most of her life. Sadie Black was born here in 1865, a daughter of Daniel Black, an Irish stevedore, and his Irish-Canadian wife Mary.

In the 1890s, other Irish girls joined the teaching staff of Center Street School, named the Staples School in 1900 for Dr. Franklin Staples (1833-1904), principal of the school, 1856-1861. They included Delia G. Cady, daughter of Galwegian Jeremiah “Darby” Cady (a retired saloonkeeper and grocer), Mary R. McAleney (daughter of William), Mary E. Connellan, and Nellie R. Collins. Mary E. Connellan (1873-1927) was the daughter of prominent grocer Michael C. Connellan, a native of Clare, and his wife, Honora Hehir. She remained at the school until she married a local contractor, John W. Gulliver, in 1903. Mary Rose McAleney (1866-1950) was a teacher at the school until her marriage to Harry H. Roche July 5, 1899. They had five children, including a daughter Mary who became a teacher and another daughter, Sister Angela of the Sisters of Mercy.

Delia G. Cady married Irishman James T. State three weeks after Mary McAleney married. State operated an apothecary at nearby 2 Pleasant Street. They had a daughter Mary James State (1905-1995), a graduate of St. Elizabeth’s Convent Station (New Jersey) who also received a master’s degree in history in 1929 from Columbia University. She was an English teacher at South Portland High School for 42 years.

By 1903, seven of the nine teachers at Staples School were Irish. They included Lizzie Walsh, assistant teacher in the grammar school, and Mary E. Connellan, Nellie R. Collins, Adelaide Callan, Nellie Gertrude Bulger, Nellie L. Kerwin, and Mabel Murray as assistants in the primary school. That year, Walsh and Connellan earned a salary of $500, while the other teachers made between $400-475. The principal, John A. Milliken, earned $1260 a year. Adelaide Callan was the daughter of John P. Callan, the Fort Fisher vet of the Civil War mentioned earlier. She married and removed to Connecticut. Nellie Bulger eventually moved to Washington, D.C., where she was residing in 1960.

By 1920, all nine teachers at the Staples School were Irish. They were Lizzie Walsh, Ellen R. Collins, Nellie L. Kerwin, Mabel A. Murray (daughter of Irish natives, William and Hannah, and sister to Dr. Thomas W. Murray, a dentist), Alice M. Cunningham, (daughter of Christopher D.), Nellie L. Sullivan, Mary E. Bennett, (daughter of Patrick H.), Esther Hession, and Elizabeth W. “Bessie” Donahue, (daughter of T. F. the clothier). The principal was still J. A. Milliken.

Mabel A. Murray (1879-1938), daughter of a liquor dealer, married Dr. Wallace Wilson Robinson July 4, 1923 in Freedom, New Hampshire; his parents were married at Plymouth Rock! Mabel continued to teach at Staples School until about 1930, seven years after her marriage. Dr. Robinson was the inventor of a “revolutionary tourniquet.”

In 1930, Lizzie Walsh was the principal of Staples School, with ten teachers, all Irish, under her charge, including Nellie Kerwin, Mabel A. Robinson, Alice Cunningham, Mary E. Bennett, Elizabeth W. Donahue, Esther Hession, Helen B. O’Neill, Helen C. Burke, and Ellen and Mollie Alexander. The janitors were Thomas Arms, an English native, and Mrs. Annie Romanoff.

Mollie and Ellen Alexander were the daughters of James W. and Catherine Burke Alexander. Ellen Burke Alexander married Superior Justice Earle L. Russell (1890-1947) in 1934 and they had three children.

Mrs. Annie Elizabeth Rafferty Romanoff (1892-1944), the daughter of Irish emigrants, was the “janitress” of the Staples School from about 1929 until her death. She was one of many women janitors in the school district of Portland in the 1930s; a Hannah Burke was the janitor or nearby Bethel Kindergarten and Subprimary at 283 Fore Street. Annie raised three children by herself at Gorham’s Corner, residing for many years on Pleasant Street. Her son, Charles G. Romanoff (1916-1992) was a longtime insurance salesman, singer, songwriter and musician. He was the father of Chuck and Steve Romanoff, founding members of the semi-famous regional folk group Schooner Fare, who have composed and sing many Celtic and Irish songs,

Of the many Irish teachers at Staples School, Lizzie Walsh and Nellie Collins probably remained there the longest. Neither married.

Elizabeth F. “Lizzie” Walsh (1861-1942) was born in Portland, a daughter of Thomas and Mary Walsh, Irish natives. Her sisters Katie and Eleanor were teachers for a while, but Lizzie was a teacher and later principal of Staple School for 57 years! She was a graduate of Portland High School and the Portland Teacher Training School.

Ellen R. “Nellie” Collins (1876-1927), a graduate of Gorham Normal School, spent her entire teaching career at Staples School (31 years) and was head teacher at the time of her death. She was the daughter of Cornelius Collins and Rose Haffey Collins. Rose was the daughter of Thomas Haaffe (Haffey) and Margaret Donnelly, of Armagh City, early prominent communicants of St. Dominic’s who resided at nearby Cobb’s Court, a heavily Irish enclave. Nellie’s brother Joseph H. Collins was the proprietor of Fessenden’s News Co., 1904-1942.

Staples School started to fall into disrepair by the 1960s. The school was closed in May 1971 when a demolition job destroyed the nearby E. T. Burrowes Building, which work was considered to pose a threat to the children. A South Portland demolition worker, Robert E. Wallingford, 43, was killed when a part of the building fell on him. The school did not reopen for the fall term. In 1980, the City of Portland sold the old school and it now houses a variety of businesses, including Manpower Temporary Agency.

RELATED SITES: Gorham's Corner, Center Street

Author Matt Barker
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