In 1862 Abraham Lincoln was president of the United States, Jefferson Davis was president of the Confederacy, and America was embroiled in the devastation of the Civil War.
In the midst of this national turmoil, a seed of faith and learning was quietly, but firmly, planted in the small city of Winooski, Vermont. The Sisters of Providence, with the support and encouragement of the first Bishop of Burlington and a young priest from Quebec, began the journey that would lead to the existence of what is now Saint Francis Xavier School.
It was in 1862 that the Bishop of Burlington, Louis De Goesbriand, first asked the Sisters of Providence to tend to the spiritual and academic needs of the children of Winooski. Hundreds of immigrants had come to Winooski from Quebec to work in the woolen mills. These predominantly French speaking, Catholic families were struggling to adjust to their new home. Bishop De Goesbriand knew that a Catholic school with classes taught in French and English would be vital to helping their children thrive while also sustaining their faith.
The first teaching Sisters had no place to live in Winooski, so each day they walked from the Catholic orphanage in Burlington to Winooski to hold classes. In 1863 they rented space in the Baxter Block in the center of Winooski and taught two classes, one for boys and one for girls.
In 1868, the Reverend Jean F. Audet, age 26, arrived from Quebec and was appointed Curé of Winooski. His new parishioners might have expected him to immediately start construction on a church, but Father Audet focused his attention on the school.
Masses were held in rented space as a combination convent and school was built. St. Louis Convent and School was officially blessed by Bishop De Goesbriand in January of 1869. The faculty consisted of three Sisters and one lay teacher. The enrollment was 140 students; families paid fifty cents a month for each child, though families with three or more children paid just twenty five cents for the third child and the rest were free. As for Father Audet, it should be noted that this determined, young priest spent the rest of his life serving Saint Francis Xavier Parish. He was still residing in the rectory at the time of his death at age 75 on December 28, 1917.
The years have also brought changes to the school community. Once students came almost exclusively from the City of Winooski, but today Saint Francis Xavier educates students from seventeen different cities and towns across northwestern Vermont. Of the twenty three faculty members, just one is a Sister of Providence. The mission of the original Sisters, serving families new to this country, continues. The refugee resettlement efforts in Vermont have brought students from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Republic of the Congo, Burundi, Ivory Coast and Vietnam among other countries. These students join class-mates whose families have attended Saint Francis Xavier School for multiple generations, creating a vibrant community of learning and faith. And, to this day, the policy remains that families with more than three children in the school pay no tuition for the fourth child and beyond.
Principal Eric Becker is proud to be part of that community. “We are in the midst of an exciting time at Saint Francis,” says Becker. “We have experienced a tremendous resurgence in recent years. We have a remarkably talented faculty, committed parents, great students and some very dedicated supporters. Saint Francis Xavier School has so much to celebrate.”
The motto of the Sisters of Providence continues to resonate at Saint Francis Xavier School and is prominently displayed at the entrance: “Living and teaching in the spirit of Christ.”.