Origins

The mid-1800s was a time of great upheaval for Catholics in Rhode Island. The entrenched population of the state was unwelcoming and hostile to the steadily rising tide of immigrants, many of whom were Catholic. The state legislature had even amended the Rhode Island State Constitution to limit the voting rights of these new arrivals and sought to deny them any say in the governance of their communities. On March 23, 1855, in the heart of downtown Providence, several thousand angry “Nativists” marched to the Mercy Sisters’ convent with the intention of burning it to the ground. Backed by several hundred Irish workers, Bishop Bernard O’Reilly and Mayor Edward Knowles confronted the mob and implored them to disperse, which they eventually did.

This was the hostile environment confronting the Catholic population of Rhode Island as the 1870s began. In general, these new Americans were a group of people struggling to find success in the New World. They were proud of their new country and convinced that their children needed an education that would help them thrive in a land full of more promise and potential than their native lands.

As a community, these immigrants were convinced that the path to success lay in an education that would allow their children to succeed in ways that they themselves could not. Many sought an education that was also rooted in the faith and values that they knew to be true and eternal. This dream was best summed up by United States Senator John Pastore, who would one day send his own son to La Salle Academy, when he said: “Let me put it this way. Most of our ancestors, and I refer to my own parents and grandparents, were people of the earth. They were poor. And they left their native lands because they thought there was great opportunity here for their children. When they came, their one aspiration and their one dream was to give their children an education and make them something better than they had been.”

That desire was the impetus for the Brothers of the Christian Schools to begin their long association with the Diocese of Providence, the poor and working class of Rhode Island, and the thousands of young men and women who have graduated from La Salle Academy over the last 143 years.

Brothers Arrive

From the 1850s through 1871 the bishops who oversaw Rhode Island (the Diocese of Providence was not formally created until 1872) begged the Christian Brothers to start a school in the state. Repeated requests by Bishop O’Reilly were politely turned down because the Brothers simply did not have enough manpower to start a new school in Rhode Island. The requests continued under O’Reilly’s successor Bishop Francis McFarland. Finally, in 1866, the American Provincial of the Christian Brothers promised that as soon as he could spare them, he would send some Brothers to open a school in Providence sponsored by the Diocese. Filled with hope for the future, Bishop McFarland struggled to raise revenue to purchase property that would be the site of a new school for the Brothers once they arrived. By 1870 McFarland had purchased and renovated a building on Fountain Street and had one of his priests, Fr. Henry Kinnerney, along with a lay faculty begin instruction at this building. But it was a school without identity or direction, an institution treading water until someone could provide it with an identity and mission.

In 1871, three brothers arrived in Providence to operate the school and instill it with the values of their order’s founder, St. John Baptist de La Salle. Brother Ptolemy (Dandurand) became the school’s first principal. The Brothers gave the school direction and purpose and a set of core values that the school still holds dear today. A school, our school, was born.

With the Brothers’ arrival in the fall of 1871 a new era was about to begin for Catholic education in the state. In 1876, Bishop Thomas Hendricken, who like his predecessors was deeply impressed by the devotion and dedication of the Christian Brothers, gave the school its official name, La Salle Academy, in honor of the founder of the Christian Brothers.

La Salle Academy Grows

Soon the Academy faced a growing demand to meet the needs of the students of the Diocese of Providence. The school was bursting at the seams with students and it became clear to both the Brothers and the Diocese that the Fountain Street building was not big enough to meet the desire for a Lasallian education.

By 1921, Bishop William Hickey purchased several acres of land at Hazard Farm and began construction of a new building to house La Salle. Like the bishops who preceded him, Hickey worked tirelessly to make sure the new La Salle Academy building would be a success. On September 21, 1925, with 40,000 people present at the ceremony, Bishop Hickey welcomed people to the new center of Catholic high school education in the state. La Salle Academy officially opened at its new location, where it remains to this day.

For the next sixty years, La Salle Academy continued to grow and prosper. Its alumni grew to include many prominent individuals in various circles throughout the country. Graduates included future bishops, priests, Christian Brothers, United States Senators, advisers to United States Presidents, mayors, governors, judges, Pulitzer Prize winners, an Attorney General of the United States, professional athletes and thousands of alumni, alumnae and benefactors who lived their lives infused with values the Brothers of the Christian Schools had instilled in them.

The New La Salle

In 1983, Bishop Louis Gelineau announced that two neighboring all-girls schools, St. Mary’s of the Visitation and St. Patrick’s High School, would be merged into La Salle Academy. For the first time in its history, beginning in the fall of 1984, La Salle Academy would be a coeducational school. La Salle’s student population quickly assimilated to the change and soon the school had its first female class president and class valedictorian. Three years later La Salle adopted the president-principal model of leadership for the school. Brother Jerome Corrigan became La Salle Academy’s first president and Brother Frederick Mueller took on the mantle of principal. The presence of young women at La Salle greatly added to its rich tradition. La Salle wouldn’t be the school it is today without the change. As Bro. Michael Mc Kenery, La Salle’s second president, stated:  “I am more convinced than ever that coeducation was the right choice for La Salle at the right time.”

The Future

As La Salle Academy prepared to enter the 21st century the grounds and structure of the school underwent their biggest physical change since the opening of the new building in 1925. In 1989, the De La Salle Christian Brothers were given governance of La Salle by the Diocese of Providence. In 2000, the McLaughlin Athletic Center and the Brother Michael Mc Kenery Arts Center were opened to further expand the horizons of La Salle students both physically and artistically. In 2004, the Shea Science and Student Center was opened so that the Academy could remain on the cutting edge of science education. In the fall of 2011, the Cronin Fields and Cimini Stadium were completely renovated and a competition track and synthetic field were installed. The new century dawned with La Salle Academy continuing its tradition of excellence, committed to the Gospel values of Jesus Christ and its patron saint, St. John Baptist de La Salle.

Proud of its tradition and heritage, constantly aware of its origin in, and continued dedication to, educating the children of the working class and the poor, and imbued with incredibly strong values, La Salle Academy students and faculty continue to add to the legacy begun in 1871. 
The distinguished history of La Salle Academy is filled with many memorable events and people, but the true greatness of the school is the tradition that is being added to, and strengthened, every day by the students who now walk its halls. La Salle’s tradition is alive and growing.