The Beginnings : A School Is Born
In 1927, the Sisters Faithful Companions of Jesus bought half of the Chase Property on Cory’s Lane in Portsmouth, Rhode Island. Mother Philomena Higgins, fcJ, then the Superior General of the Sisters Faithful Companions of Jesus, wanted the Sisters, teaching in Providence schools, to have a quiet place where they could come for rest, retreat and relaxation during the summer vacation. The property consisted of eight acres of land on which were situated the manor house, a small caretaker’s cottage, a carriage house and stables.
In 1951, Mother Catherine Windle, fcJ, the Superior General, visited Portsmouth and saw the potential of opening a school. On September 14, 1953, Saint Philomena School was formally opened in the carriage house with Mother Joanna, fcJ, the first principal, and her staff of three Sisters greeting seven students. In the early days, the faculty was primarily Sisters FCJ. Soon after, in the early history of the school, dedicated lay men and women joined the Sisters in staffing the school. The school quickly increased its enrollment, and, by 1957, it was evident that more space was needed. That same year plans were initiated to begin construction on a new building.
The 1960's & 1970's: A Time for Growth and Expansion
In 1961, the single story brick building opened its doors as a girls’ high school whose first students would graduate in 1964. In 1962, an addition was put on the carriage house to accommodate the elementary school students. The building became known as St. Joseph’s. Sr. Elizabeth Alexander, fcJ, who was then the principal of the school and local superior of the convent, oversaw the construction of a two-story colonial brick building and the demolition of the manor house which was beyond repair. In 1969, with enrollment declining in the high school, and with another Catholic high school for girls opening on Aquidneck Island, the Sisters decided to close the high school and expand the facilities of the elementary school.
In the early 1970’s, Saint Philomena School embraced the open-school concept. This educational approach individualized instruction, allowing the children to learn at their own pace. As enrollment increased, this approach had to be modified in order to optimally meet the needs of the students. In the 1970’s, with enrollment in the 300’s, the second floor of the main building was converted to classrooms. The Sisters, whose convent formerly occupied that space, moved into a new convent facility built onto the north side of the main building. A multi-purpose room was added to the old high school building. In 1977, a one room building was constructed to the east of the Saint Joseph’s building to accommodate expanding kindergarten enrollment. Eventually this building became the library and then evolved to its present use as the Art Center.
The 1980's: Constructing a Bright Future
Enrollment in the 1980’s was approximately 440 students. In the early part of that decade, professional development in technology was provided to the faculty and a computer room opened. In the mid-eighties, a hallway and three rooms on the first floor with basement area below were added to the west side of the main building. The rooms became the chapel, dining area and kitchen for the Sisters FCJ. In 1985, the school has employed a resource teacher to assist students who needed extra help in the academic area of school life. This offering complemented the Synergetic Connection programs for gifted and talented students. A part-time guidance counselor was hired to work with students in small groups. In 1989, the auditorium was built providing seating for 500, with a beautiful stage, two music classrooms and a computer center. That same year, professionals from the local community were asked to serve as members of a Board of Consultants in an advisory capacity to the Sisters FCJ and the school administration. As technology improved throughout this decade, the school continued to upgrade. Computers were also installed in each of the classrooms and in the school library.
The 1990's: Excellence in the Making
The 1990’s saw continued expansion in enrollment and school life. In 1996, students completed two years of work constructing the nature trail on campus. The school would use this trail and the nearby beach for science lessons and as a learning center for other subjects in the curriculum. In 1997, the Sisters FCJ changed the governance model for St. Philomena School to a Board of Trustees with limited jurisdiction. After much research and discussion, a constitution was drawn up and approved and the new Board of Trustees began to assist the Sisters FCJ and the administration of the school in this new role. This board continues its valuable service to the school to this day. In 1999, Saint Philomena School was recognized for the first time by the United States Department of Education as a Blue Ribbon School of Excellence.
The New Millennium of Possibilities
As the school community embraced the 21st century, Saint Philomena School would begin the new millennium with forward thinking built on a history of success. The school was poised to embrace the next exciting chapter of evolution as a community of faith and excellence. In April 2000, the Board of Trustees approved the first Strategic Plan for the school. In 2001, renovations took place in the main building. At the same time, on the second floor of the main building, renovations were completed to provide larger classrooms for the students in grades one and two, while giving the resource room more space and providing a teachers workroom. In 2001 and 2002, the administration and faculty developed a manual for Model Content Standards and Suggested Grade Level Expectations for the school curriculum. In 2002, the school launched a Capital Campaign. Four additional acres on the east side of the campus off Cory’s Lane were purchased, and in 2003, groundbreaking took place for a state-of-the-art building for students in grades 6, 7 and 8. Soon after this construction, the former 4-8 building was completely renovated for grades 3, 4 and 5.
In 2005, the Saint Philomena School community began to transition from religious to lay leadership as the last fcJ Sister principal, Anne Marie Walsh, fcJ, announced the closing of the community and eventual closing of the convent at Saint Philomena. The school would begin a carefully planned transition to become a sponsored FCJ community where the vision, values and charism of the Society would be cared for and maintained by dedicated lay faculty and staff with spiritual support and governance from the international Society.
New Horizons & New Leadership
The school welcomed the first lay principal in 2006. Mrs. Donna Bettencourt-Glavin ushered in almost a decade of school advancement and improvement as the school community transitioned to lay leadership and the faculty and Board of Trustees assumed more of a role in continuing the lived traditions of the Society Faithful Companions of Jesus. In the fall of 2006, the first Pre-K program was opened offering two, three and five full day programs. Over the next nine years a host of academic and programmatic expansions came to the Saint Philomena community. . The math program was expanded to include high school level geometry and a third math grouping to more appropriately meet the needs of all learners. An After School Activities program was added, as well as string instrument instruction and an expanded band program. The "junior high" educational concept was faded out to create a middle school program. An outdoor amphitheater was dedicated in the nature trail after its completion in 2009. The convent at Saint Philomena School was officially closed in 2009 and the few remaining elderly Sisters were moved to alternate locations. The school administration would hire the first campus minister this year to ensure continued spiritual identity that would enhance Catholic and FCJ spirituality. Also in 2009, Saint Philomena School earned its second recognition by the United States Department of Education as a Blue Ribbon School of Excellence. In 2010, the basement in the 6-8 building was cleared out to create a cafeteria and flexible space for instruction. In 2011, the school dedicated a new and expanded playground area. After much planning and support from the Society, the vacant convent was repurposed and remodeled for educational space as a Learning Common.
In 2015, Mr. Brian Cordeiro was hired as principal to foster the charism of the Society of Faithful Companions of Jesus and lead the school into the next chapter of the school’s bright future. The Learning Common was dedicated in the fall of 2015 and opened to include a new library, primary reading room, technology center, student health office, faculty room, and learning breakout rooms. In 2016, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges renewed accreditation for the school and commended the school for leadership, faculty, vision and mission. The school adopted its next strategic plan in 2017 and began charting a path toward renewed educational excellence and commitment to mission.
Securing a Bold and Vibrant Future
Nearing the culmination of a multi-year strategic journey to ensure a vibrant and strong future as an extraordinary Catholic independent school in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, In March 2021, Saint Philomena School was named the newest and 25th member of the Network of Sacred Heart Schools. With the coordination the founding FCJ Sisters, Saint Philomena School transferred sponsorship to the Religious of the Sacred Heart and the Board of Trustees took ownership of the school and 26 acre waterfront campus. This historic partnership and acquisition of assets roots the school in a very strong position to continue serving as a leader in Catholic and independent education in New England and beyond.
The Network of Sacred Heart Schools, reflective of the educational mission of the Religious of the Sacred Heart, consists of 25 Catholic independent schools in the United States and Canada, and additional international Network of schools in 30 countries. Saint Philomena School of the Sacred Heart joins a select group of award-winning elementary and high schools, as well as co-educational and single-gender schools, and the range of schools represent a variety of organizational models and structures. Being part of the Network provides access to a wealth of resources as well as various formation and leadership programs for both educators and students. It secures the future of Saint Philomena School as a strong Catholic independent school continuing to serve new generations of young people with courage and confidence.
Much growth and many changes have taken place since Saint Philomena School opened to a few neighborhood children in 1953. Now, just as in the beginning, the students and parents of Saint Philomena are part of a school community committed to fostering the courage & confidence of children! Ours is a bright future with much more history to make.