As you drive down to the Glen Manor House, the combination of a school and stately mansion seems like such a mismatch. How a school became part of Glen history is the story of Elmhurst Academy.
By 1960 Reginald Taylor had inherited Glen Farm and he was looking for ways to sell the property. The Sisters of the Sacred Heart had a school in Providence called the Convent of the Sacred Heart, Elmhurst. The buildings were in tough shape and they made the decision to buy this waterfront area of Glen Farm to make a new home for their school. Reginald Taylor sold the Manor house and 43 acres to Elmhurst Academy of the Sacred Heart during a meeting at the Biltmore Hotel in New York City. The Manor House served as a dormitory for boarding students. Added to the house were classrooms, a chapel, a convent and a dining hall. Elmhurst Academy opened its doors in 1961.
Education at Elmhurst began with first grade and went through high school. Most of the 22 children in the primary grades had older sisters in the school. In 1963 there were 23 nuns and a lay staff of 15 people. Ninety-five percent of the students went on to college. A 1963 Providence Journal feature article quoted Reverend Mother Husson as saying that at Elmhurst “Our ideal is to educate girls to be wives and mothers, women who can fulfill their first responsibility and who, nowadays, can take their place in the world if necessary.”
Two graduates of Elmhurst Academy, Suzanne Santa and Mary O’Connell Cummings, shared their memories of Elmhurst as a Catholic girls school. Suzanne was interviewed by a class of Elmhurst Elementary School fourth graders and Mary wrote us a letter in answer to our questions.
Suzanne was a boarding student and she remembers the day starting at 6 AM. They dressed in their day uniform of plaid skirt, dark blazer and big ugly shoes. There were actually four uniforms for boarding students - one for school, one for gym, one for dinner and a white uniform for special occasions. Their rooms at the Manor House varied through the year. Half the time they roomed with three others in one of the Taylor bedrooms and the other half year they shared a room that was in the servant’s quarters. After mass in the chapel they would go to study hall (where our kindergarten is now) and quietly studied. School began at 8 AM and ended at 3:30 PM, but there were sports after school. Elmhurst offered field hockey and sailing lessons. Most boarders went home on weekends, but some stayed almost year round at Elmhurst. On weekends they would study, play tennis and practice for chorus. Food poisoning (they called it the Green Death) was sometimes a problem, but a nurse or doctor was on hand to help.
Day student Mary Cummings started high school at Elmhurst the year it opened in Portsmouth (1961). Mary’s report card shows that they were graded on personal appearance, courtesy and cooperation in school discipline as well as traditional subjects such as French, English and science. Classes were about 50 minutes long and there were bells that signaled the change in classes. They practiced curtseying and had to curtsey whenever they passed a nun.
In 1995 an Elmhurst Elementary student interviewed Mother General Whalen. She gave us an idea of what life was like for the sisters who lived in the convent. They were “cloistered” and lived apart in their own community. Their small sleeping quarters are located around the chapel. They awoke at 5 AM for a one hour meditation in the chapel. Meditation was followed by singing prayers in Latin. They then went to breakfast and started their teaching day. Their teaching day ended at 4:30 PM, but in the evening they graded papers or quietly prayed for hours.
In 1972 Elmhurst Academy closed its doors. The Town of Portsmouth bought the property for $1,350,000. The town used the school as Elmhurst Elementary School until that school was closed in 2010. More on Elmhurst School in a later blog.
The Elmhurst Reuse Committee has pondered what to do with the school property and the recommendation has been to tear down the school building and perhaps develop a riverside park. Some voices in town would like to work to save the chapel. Whatever happens to the building, it is my hope that the townspeople of Portsmouth will enjoy this historic property for generations to come.