By Kenneth J. Souza
FALL RIVER, Mass. — In the fall of 1965, Bishop James L. Connolly broke ground for the construction of his namesake boys’ Catholic high school. With his shovel planted firmly in the earth off Elsbree Street, the Fall River bishop was carrying out a deeply Spiritual mission: seeking to ensure a quality Catholic education for more students within the diocese and beyond.
Since that first shovel of dirt was turned over 50 years ago, Bishop Connolly High School has gained a stellar reputation for providing students with a strong academic and Spiritual foundation that inspires lives of purpose, achievement, leadership and service.
“The vision was to have an all-boys school and, at the same time, we had Msgr. Prevost High School here in Fall River,” said E. Christopher Myron, president and principal of Bishop Connolly High School, referring to the boys high school that was under the auspices of nearby Notre Dame Parish. “Prevost was putting an addition onto their school and there was a terrible fire — so they were invited by the bishop to come here.”
That fateful fire in May 1968 just shortly after Connolly opened its doors would bring together two important groups of educators that would ultimately staff and run the high school for the next four decades — the Jesuits and the Brothers of Christian Instruction.
Now, a half-century later, the ideals and methods jointly introduced by the Society of Jesus and the Brothers of Christian Instruction have continued to guide the school and drive its students to success — best exemplified in the motto: “Not only hearers, but doers of the Word” (Js 1:22).
“There were two different charisms which are really melded into who we are today,” Myron recently told The Anchor. “If you look at the Jesuit outlook — simply stated, ‘finding God in all things’ — and then the Brothers of Christian Instruction who really wanted to offer a Catholic education to all, regardless of their socio-economic background, the merger of those two (ideas) is the reality we live in today and we’re really proud of that, because both traditions are strong here and we really hold onto the same view of how to educate students.”
Ever rooted in Christ and the values of the Catholic Church, Bishop Connolly High School Cougars, past and present, will proudly celebrate the school’s golden anniversary this week with a variety of events, culminating with a 50th anniversary Grand Reunion on November 26 beginning at 6 p.m. at White’s of Westport.
“The first class began in 1966, although they weren’t here in September, because the school was still being built,” explained Anthony Ciampanelli, director of admissions and alumni relations at Connolly. “For a couple of months they attended classes in a different location.”
According to a front-page article in the Sept. 8, 1966 edition of The Anchor, that first group of 122 freshmen boys representing 40 parishes from across the diocese temporarily attended classes at the new CCD center at St. William’s Parish in Fall River, until work was completed at the Elsbree Street campus.
Although Bishop Connolly would encounter such speed bumps and unexpected detours throughout its 50-year history, it never wavered in its mission to provide the best, faith-based education to students. In the fall of 1969, when the Brothers of Christian Instruction formally joined the staff, they brought with them a rich tradition of educational excellence that had marked Msgr. Prevost High School since 1927.
Ten years later, with the closing of the all-girls Bishop Gerrard High School in Fall River in 1980, Connolly became one of the nation’s first co-educational Jesuit high schools.
“I know I’ve talked to the (Gerrard) girls over the years, and when they first came in they were such a minority, but they all said they had a great experience here,” Myron said. “And it’s not easy coming from an all-girls school to an all-boys school.”
Bishop Gerrard High School, which operated on the campus of the former Mount Saint Mary Academy (and staffed by the Sisters of Mercy), was itself the product of a 1973 merger between that school, the former Jesus Mary Academy, Sacred Hearts Academy and the high school of Dominican Academy.
“What we really want to impress on everyone is we’ve absorbed all those histories — Connolly, Prevost and Gerrard,” Myron said. “They are all a part of Bishop Connolly now; that’s why we honor them when we have our legacy awards every year. Their history is our history.”
Known alternately as Bishop Connolly Jesuit College Preparatory School from 1987 through 1995, the school and its more than 70-acre campus has, throughout its history, been consistently owned by the Diocese of Fall River; although it is now completely staffed with lay people. The Jesuits withdrew in 1995 and the last remaining Brothers of Christian Instruction left in 2012.
“The Jesuits really loved it here,” Myron said. “When I talk to a lot of them, they say their time here was really among their happiest days.”
And yet, Connolly continues its proud tradition of Catholic education, with nearly 300 students currently enrolled from more than 30 cities and towns in southeastern Massachusetts and neighboring Rhode Island.
“Our enrollment is growing, and we’re excited about that,” Myron said. “But we don’t want to get too large, either. I think you lose out that way. You really want to be able to deal with all the students (on a more personal level). As we move forward, I would say 100 in a class would be enough. To me, that’s small enough where you can still feel like a family.”
“The school’s diversity has been growing over the years, too,” added Ciampanelli. “Now we even have international students. We’ve graduated about 20 international students over the years, and wherever they may be, they’re still Connolly graduates. I think that’s great.”
Ciampanelli said there’s been a concerted effort of late to reach out to Connolly’s alumni more and more, “just to let them know: ‘We know you’re out there,’” he said.
Having them all come back to celebrate the school’s 50th anniversary this week is something that’s been in the works for more than a year.
“We really started a while ago, planning various events,” Myron said. “Last year we had a Memorial Mass and many of the Jesuits and the Brothers of Christian Instruction came back to really honor all those who have passed. We also had a tree-planting back in the spring to recognize various graduating classes. Really, the key is to get (all our alumni) together to celebrate. It’s a wonderful history and we have so many fabulous people who have been a part of this school.”
Hitting the 50-year milestone is an achievement worth celebrating, but Myron also looks forward to Bishop Connolly High School surviving and thriving for many years to come.
“When you think about the history of Fall River and how many Catholic high schools there were, Bishop Connolly is the only one left,” he said. “As we all know, this is a special place; and we have strong sister schools as well — we have five sending schools (here in the diocese).”
Thankfully, through the school’s own financial aid initiatives and the recently-announced diocesan scholarships that will be available courtesy of donations from the Carney Family and the Foundation for the Advancement of Catholic Education, more students will now be able to attend Connolly.
“More than 50 percent of our students receive some form of financial aid, and we’re proud of that,” Myron said. “And now, with the additional scholarships (from the diocese), that’s going to open the door to students even more who need to be in this school; and that’s going to change their lives. There are so many times I talk to wonderful families and the only thing that stops them from (sending) their kids to Connolly is the cost. Many of them have been in our Catholic schools for years, but going from grammar school to here it’s a jump (in tuition), but now that gap is going to close.”
Now in his seventh year at the helm of Bishop Connolly, Myron is not an alumnus of the school himself, but admitted he’s a bit envious of those who are, and he is just as proud of Connolly as his own alma mater. “I wouldn’t even mind telling my fellow (graduates) how great this school is,” he added.
To him, Bishop Connolly is more than just a Catholic school, it’s a family rooted in faith.
“I had a senior recently tell me he was looking to find a college that was just like Bishop Connolly where it felt like a family where he could just be himself,” Myron said. “That really touched me and it was so nice to hear.”
For more information about the 50th Anniversary Grand Reunion this weekend or to buy tickets online, visit www.bishopconnolly.com and click on the “Celebrate Connolly” link.