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Kavanagh School/Cathedral High School

Kavanagh School/Cathedral High School
Jul 19, 2017

The Cathedral Grammar School, with an official address at 14 Locust Street, is located between Congress Street and Cumberland Avenue, near the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. On this site, in February 1877, Bishop Healy dedicated Kavanagh School for girls.

Originally, the site was intended by Bishop Bacon to be a convent for the Sisters of Mercy, thanks to a generous donation by Winifred Kavanagh, sister to the late Edward Kavanagh, the first Irish Catholic governor of a New England state (Maine) in 1843. But Bacon’s successor, James A. Healy, decided to build a school on the site.

As early as 1834, Father Charles Ffrench, pastor of St. Dominic’s Church, conducted a school for the Catholic children of Portland. In a letter to Bishop Benedict Fenwick of Boston, dated February 18, 1834, he declared that he was teaching about sixty children the “Catechism, the serving of Mass, Church singing, and religious lecture.” The priest was also teaching them spelling, writing, arithmetic, geography, history, and English grammar. Ffrench had taught school in Dublin for five years before coming to America.

It is not known how successful his school was, but there is no mention of a Catholic school in Portland for another three decades.

The Sisters of the Congregation of Notre Dame opened a girl’s school in St. Dominic’s Parish in 1865, under the guidance of Bishop Bacon, as well as an Academy for girls at their convent on Cumberland Avenue and St. Aloysius parochial school for boys. The Sisters of Mercy, founded in Dublin by Mother Mary Catherine McAuley in 1830, replaced these dedicated nuns in 1872.

Miss Winifred Kavanagh (1806-1883) had proposed to Bishop Bacon the idea of contributing money for a convent for the Mercy Sisters. But after Bacon died (1874), Bishop Healy decided to build a Catholic girl’s school instead, which was named Kavanagh School. Winifred had donated $25,000 for its completion, the school being built 1876-1877.

The new school housed 450 students, taught by eight Sisters of Mercy. The building had a playroom in the basement, eight classrooms, and on the third floor several generations enjoyed musicals and plays in an auditorium that seated more than 500.

At the end of the school year of 1890, Kavanagh School witnessed an impressive military demonstration. The Portland Montgomery Guards (an Irish militia group) gave a “handsome” flag to the school that was presented to the school on June 12th, when the Montgomery Light Guard Veteran Association of Boston visited. Chandler’s Band of Portland and the Salem Cadet Band provided music, while Captain Timothy E. Hartnett of the Montgomery Guards gave a speech. Bishop Healy spoke on behalf of the school in receiving the flag. Colonel Thomas Dougherty of Boston and General John J. Lynch of Portland also spoke. After the ceremony all the military companies of Portland marched in a parade.

In 1909, Bishop Louis S. Walsh decided to open a high school for girls on the third floor of Kavanagh School, with Sister Mary Clotilde Melody as principal. Melody also retained her position as principal of the grammar school. In 1910, the new Cathedral Catholic Girls’ High School opened classes on the second and third floors of the building. When the Cathedral Grammar School was built, which we see today, the high school gained possession of the entire Kavanagh School.

It is beyond the scope of this piece to describe the complete history of Kavanagh School or the histories of Cathedral High School or the Cathedral parochial schools. In the 1960s, the Kavanagh building was demolished and in the late 1960s a new Catholic girl’s high school was built on Deering Avenue. St. Joseph’s Academy and Cathedral High School ceased to exist and thus was born McAuley High School, which still operates today.

Related sites: The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, St. Dominic Church, McAuley High School, St. Joseph"s Convent

Author Matt Barker
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