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Cheverus High School

Cheverus High School
Jul 24, 2017

Cheverus High School is a college preparatory school for boys and girls located on a vast campus on Ocean Avenue. Its origins can be traced to 1909, when the Sisters of Mercy removed from their convent on Free Street in Portland to their new home on Stevens Avenue. Their former residence was converted into a school for the Catholic children of Portland and named the Catholic Institute. As with so many of the sites connected with the Portland Irish on this heritage trail, only some of the early history and highlights can be explored here.

In 1917 the school became a boys-only plant and was renamed the Catholic Institute High School, with Father Timothy J. O’Mahoney as the first principal and Fathers Charles H. Coughlan and John F. Holohan on the faculty. Three Sisters of Mercy taught part-time. Forty-six freshmen entered the school on September 10th, but only seventeen graduated four years later. Fr. Coughlan (1891-1958) soon became principal of both the grammar and high school and remained in that position until he was reassigned to the Chancery in 1923. He became chancellor of the diocese in 1924 and ended his days as pastor of St. Dominic’s Church.

In 1924, soon after Bishop John G. Murray took the reins from the late Bishop Walsh, the school became Cheverus Classical High School, named after Jean Cheverus, the first bishop of Boston who had administered to the needs of Portland’s Catholics intermittently between 1798-1822. Father Samuel M. Donovan became the new principal. When he left the school eight years later, the enrollment had jumped from 90 students to over 200.

In 1926, the Sisters of Mercy who taught at the Institute were replaced by four recent graduates of Holy Cross College: William G. Cunneen, Walter M. Mulvihill, Francis P. Morgan, and Philip Hannan, as well as Ignatius P. Berry. Mr. Cunneen taught four years at the school before entering St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore. He was ordained to the priesthood by Bishop McCarthy in 1934 and returned to Cheverus to become the first person to teach here as both a priest and a layman. Cunneen went on to become pastor of St. Dominic’s, the Cathedral, and St. Joseph’s Church before retiring in 1975. Rev. George W. Corcoran taught Latin and religious courses at the school from 1933 until 1943. He died in 1959 as chaplain of St. Joseph’s College.

In 1932, Henry F. “Whopper” Deetjen became the first Cheverus alumnus to return to the school to teach and coach. A Portland native, he was from a large Irish-German family and his “Fighting Irish” football and basketball teams saw great success. In the fall of 1936, William P. “Bill” Curran (1914-1977) took over the reins as the school’s three-sport coach and remained two years. After a seven-year stint at his alma mater South Portland High School, he returned to Cheverus to coach the basketball, baseball, and football teams for the next twenty-six years until he retired in 1971 as athletic director. He had been appointed director in 1960 and Philip J. “Jack” Dawson was named his assistant football coach. Overall, 19 of Curran’s 28 basketball teams qualified for state tournaments and his 1953 Cheverus Stags football team were unbeaten. Jack Dawson also was an exceptional coach. His 1961 baseball team became the first in the forty-three year history of the Telegram Baseball League to go undefeated. Player Dick Joyce was scouted by ten ball clubs, but turned them all down to attend Holy Cross College, where he also excelled. He joined the 1964 U. S. baseball team which played in Tokyo in pre-Olympic games.

In 1942, the diocesan priests left Cheverus and the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) came to the school to teach. Rev. William E. Fitzgerald, S. J., became the first rector and principal of Cheverus. He was later Provincial of the New England Jesuits. The new staff moved into the old St. Dominic’s Church rectory on Danforth Street (it became St. Ignatius Residence) in the spring of 1942 and remained there until the opening of a new residence on Ocean Avenue in June 1967.

Brother Thomas J. Meehan (1890-1976) became the cook and purchasing agent at St. Ignatius Residence in 1942 and remained there until his retirement in 1972. A native of Worcester, he entered the Jesuits in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., in 1913. He was a constant at Cheverus and other religious communities for over fifty years, “performing day by day the humble, hidden and laborious tasks” and caring for the chapels and altars as Sacristan (see obituary, Portland Press Herald, 18 Mar 1976; also “Cheverus Fiftieth Anniversary, 1917-1967.”)

In 1950, Bishop Feeney announced that Cheverus had been given an unbelievable Christmas present: $500,000 to build a new school. Students had been attending classes in a temporary school at 186 Cumberland for several years. The bishop broke ground for the new school on Ocean Avenue in May 1951. Lester L. Beal designed the building and the prominent firm of F. W. Cunningham & Sons was the contractor. The new Cheverus was dedicated on June 9, 1952.

Alumni of Cheverus High School still remember today many of their old Jesuit teachers. Fathers Daniel Dwyer, Edmund Jerome Hogan, Urban Manning, Robert Hewitt, Joseph Holland, John P. Foley, J. Stanley Bowe, Robert Lindsay, James Dempsey, John Bresnahan, John Conklin, Nicholas McNeil, Bernard Murphy, and Francis Vye are but a few of the earlier faculty. Dr. Leo J. McDermott (1908-1987), a 1925 graduate of Cheverus and of Harvard Medical School, was a local orthopedic surgeon and the school’s physician from 1941 until 1971. In 1970, the school welcomed its first lay principal, thirty-year old David F. Greely, a mathematics teacher and the school’s indoor track and tennis coach.

An almost endless litany of Cheverus graduates have gone on to become prominent in their chosen fields. Two of the most prominent are perhaps Charles J. Loring, Jr., and Joseph E. Brennan. Loring was born into a large Portland Irish family, the son of Charles J. and Mary Irene Cronin Loring and graduated from Cheverus in 1939. He became a commissioned Second Lieutenant in the Air Force and was made Captain in 1944. While on a mission over Korea on November 22, 1952, he dove his F-80 jet fighter bomber into the enemy’s artillery position that was proving detrimental to U. S. ground troops. Charles was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in 1953 and in 1955, a new Air Force base in Limestone, Maine, was dedicated in his memory. Local landmarks named for this brave Irish-American included the Charles J. Loring Jr. Amvets Post and a memorial stone placed on the Eastern Promenade near Washington Avenue. Joseph E. Brennan, Class of 1952, was a district attorney, state representative, state senator, and Governor of Maine (1979-1987). He served two terms in the U. S. House (see Site No. 47).

Cheverus High School celebrated its 75th Anniversary in June 1993. Among the celebrants was John Kearns, 88, a retired Portland policeman and the only survivor of the school’s first graduating class of 1921. Peter O’Donnell, Class of 1979 and a Portland city councilor at the time, said that the school “surely faces more changes, but its mission will remain the same” (see Portland Press Herald, 19 Jun 1993). He could not have been more prescient. In 1998, the school’s president, Rev. John Keegan, S. J., asked his Jesuit superiors to permit the admission of girls to the school. He said that Cheverus would be stronger in many ways, especially financially, and better prepare graduates heading off to co-educational colleges. The unthinkable came a few years later. In the fall of 2000, twenty-five girls entered the school. Seven years later there were 238 girls enrolled. The 2000-2001 saw just fourteen girls participating in school sports, but the number had risen to 108 by 2007.

Father John Keegan resigned as president at the end of the 2004-2005 school year. In twelve years as head of Cheverus, he pulled the school out of debt, helped to double enrollment, and paved the way for renovations and an expansion. The Dorchester native had also been the school’s president from 1980 to 1983. A $6 million expansion at Cheverus in 2004-2005 included a thousand seat gymnasium, a physics laboratory, an indoor track, and the school’s first regulation-size basketball court. A recent newspaper article tells the story of Tom Thornton, from a local Irish family, who was a standout three-sport athlete at Cheverus and at Boston University. As the offensive coordinator for the Stags, he helped lead them to the school’s only Class A state title (1985). Thornton was head football coach at the school from 1986 until 1998 (see “The coach was once a star,” Portland Press Herald, 17 Oct 2008).

Author Matt Barker
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