The years prior to Assumption College's fiftieth birthday brought many challenges. While attempting to strike a balance between growing as an institution and preserving its characteristic French heritage, the College would be rushed into its greatest transformation when the most devastating tornado in New England history destroyed the Burncoat campus. These changes and events were significant ones for the rising institution, setting the course for the future. This future would be intertwined with the Massachusetts community and, in particular, with a New England family dedicated to public service-the Kennedy family.
The Kennedy Legacy
The Kennedy Family of Massachusetts has long been dedicated to public service. Joseph Kennedy Sr. made his fortune in Massachusetts and married Rose Fitzgerald, the daughter of Boston Mayor John Fitzgerald. After various successes, he was appointed American Ambassador to England. He claimed his greatest successes to be in his nine children, many of whom became deeply involved in public service. This public service brought many of them to Assumption College's campus throughout the years.
During World War II, Ambassador Kennedy's eldest son, Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., was one of the most experienced pilots in the Navy. In 1944, after passing up leave, he volunteered for a dangerous mission over Western Europe. During the mission, his plane exploded for unknown reasons resulting in his and another pilot's deaths. The Navy awarded Lt. Kennedy the Navy Cross, and the Navy Air Medal for his service. The Kennedy family was devastated by the loss of their gifted eldest son. In his memory, the family created the Lt. Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation, with the intent of continuing public service in Lt. Kennedy's name.
The Greatest Single Casualty
When the student's left Assumption on June 7, 1953 they had no way of knowing how important their premature departure would be. Two days later, on June 9, 1953, the Assumptionists held retreat on Assumption's Greendale campus. At 4:25 pm the winds spiraled into a tornado touching down in the town of Petersham and, over the course of 84 minutes, screamed through 11 towns with wind speeds about 250 mph.4 By the time the tornado reached Assumption at 5:08 pm, it was considered to be at least an F4 tornado. Fr. Polyeucte Guissard, A.A., who had seen the storm develop and tried to warn the others, commented after that it was "An indescribable scene: [There was] no square, no tree, no garage, no farm, no college classrooms … intact-the convent of the sisters vanished." Fr. Engelbert Devinq, A.A. was found amongst the rubble. He was conscious while receiving extreme unction, and squeezed the hand of one of the brothers before perishing, still trapped. Two members of the Antonian Sisters of Mary were also found dead: Sister Marie St. Jean Martel, age 26; and Sister Marie St. Helene Simard, 48. With the loss of three members of its religious faculty and property damage estimated between 3 and 4.5 million dollars, Assumption was "the greatest single casualty" of the tornado.
Following the disaster there was a huge outpouring of local support. Holy Cross took in the homeless Assumptionists and allowed them to use classrooms for summer school. Assumption students were given the use of the library and science labs at Clark University. The local community lent sympathy along with financial support, and the Kennedy family would also make a contribution. Senator John F. Kennedy toured the Worcester area, witnessing the devastation, specifically visiting Assumption. He would later comment "No institution could have suffered the losses that Assumption suffered that day and survived if there was not in the minds of those in positions of responsibility an overriding sense of the function and need of such a College." In these words, Kennedy celebrated the work of three Assumptionists who kept the College's tradition alive: Fr. Desautels, Fr. Dufault, and Fr. Moquin.
A Change of Address
These three men decided to rebuild the preparatory school where it stood, and move the College to a place that would allow for growth and a greater future. After a temporary stay at 1010 Main St, the College officially moved to its current Salisbury Street address. This would not have been possible without the contributions of the local community and that of the Kennedy family. Following the Senator's tour of the crippled campus, local Bishop John Wright united his mutual friends in the Kennedy family and at the schools. It was arranged that a donation of $150,000-the largest the college had received to date-be made to Assumption for the rebuilding effort. This donation was made on July 20, 1953, a little more than a month after the disaster, at Worcester's Sheraton Hotel. Senator Kennedy's fiancée, Jacqueline Bouvier; and his sister, Jean Kennedy, were in attendance to make the contribution in honor of the Lt. Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation.
The College's fiftieth anniversary in 1954 was more than a celebration of the College's founding, it was also a celebration of rebirth. Had the tornado not struck, Assumption would still have been in a period of great change, but now it was also changing its address. The anniversary celebration was held at the Sheraton Hotel, with Edward "Ted" Kennedy in attendance.
The Continuing Search for Truth
The 1954 to 1955 school year came to a close with a commencement ceremony held in the gym of the Prep School. Senator John F. Kennedy was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Laws, and gave the commencement address. He spoke of the need for colleges and the roles they would need to play in educating the minds of tomorrow, "Assumption has the function common to all universities, the continuing search for the truth, both for its own sake and because only if we possess it can we really be free. Never has the task of finding the truth been more difficult. In a struggle between modern states 'truth' has become a weapon in the battle of power - it is bent, twisted, and subverted to fit the pattern of national policy. . . . Thus, the responsibility of a free university to pursue its own objective studies is even more important today than ever before." Kennedy commented on the importance of the College's durable French tradition in carrying out these goals, common to all, but specifically to those at Assumption with an understanding of the French tradition's "extraordinary vitality."
Construction on the new campus continued, despite several delays, until November 1956 when the doors were opened for students. La Maison Français housed classrooms and a French cultural center, and was attached to the library. A dormitory, now Alumni Hall, was built to house students and the 17-member religious faculty. The religious faculty were housed on the bottom floor of the building, which also included a Chapel (the current home of the Registrar's Office). In appreciation for the sizable donation of the Lt. Kennedy Foundation, the new science center was named in honor of the fallen war hero. Making up the rest of the campus were the dining hall, later named for benefactor Mae M. C. Taylor, and a power and heating building.
The first on-campus commencement was held in the new dining hall in June of 1957. The commencement featured Lt. Kennedy's younger brother, Robert F. Kennedy, as speaker. Robert, who was currently serving as Chief Counsel for the Senate Committee on Government Operations, was also awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Laws from the College during the ceremony. Over the next 11 years, Robert would become Attorney General, a New York Senator, and a popular contender for the Democratic Presidential Nomination until his assassination on June 6, 1968.
Campus development continued as the College grew into its new campus. On October 2, 1958, Senator John F. Kennedy revisited the campus to officially dedicate the science center to his older brother. Senator Kennedy spoke from the steps of the new Lt. Joseph P. Kennedy Memorial Science Center in a well-attended dedication ceremony. John and Jacqueline Kennedy were led on a tour of the building after the Senator personally unveiled a large portrait of his brother in the building's entrance. In the library of La Maison, Jacqueline Kennedy entertained questions from students attending the nearby Notre Dame Academy, and then, accompanied by Brother Armand Lemaire, A.A., went to the dining hall for a luncheon.
A Close Association
The sixties began under the leadership of the nation's new president, John F. Kennedy. In 1961, the year of the Bay of Pigs and the building of the Berlin Wall, President Kennedy would mention Assumption while speaking to the City Council of Paris, France. "More people speak French in my own section of New England than any other language except English. These descendants of Frenchmen who have been separated from this country (France) for more than three centuries maintain in their lives the faith, the tradition, the culture, the understanding which that language and that background gave them, and they send their sons to Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts to learn French. That is why I said at the American Embassy this morning that France is more than the sum of its parts. This long influence, which stretches around the globe, which is part of your tradition, is a source of strength to us today."
Also that year, Edward "Ted" Kennedy would make his first appearance at the new campus as Assistant District Attorney for Suffolk County. He gave a talk about recent changes in Latin America, while campaigning for his first seat in the Senate. The discussion was held in the dining hall over lunch, where he spoke partly in French. Following this luncheon, he was given his first tour of the campus, including the building dedicated to his eldest brother. Kennedy went on to win election to the Senate, beginning a Senate career that has, thus far, lasted more than forty years.
In 1962, the year of Edward's election, his mother Rose Kennedy would come to Assumption to give "an illustrated talk." Rose's presentation, entitled Impressions de France was conducted entirely in French. During the program she was made an Honorary Volunteer of the College. Following the presentation she accompanied the Assumptionists to their common room in Alumni. There they watched her daughter-in-law, Jacqueline Kennedy, guide the nation through the first televised tour of the White House. Rose lived to be 105, and has a rose garden dedicated to her in the North End of Boston in honor of her many charitable works.
On November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed in Dallas, while riding in a motorcade through Dealey Plaza. In mourning for the College's frequent guest, a memorial service was hosted on campus in the newly built gymnasium. Seven months later Senator Edward Kennedy delivered the Commencement Address for the class of 1964. He thanked the College for its support following his brother's death by saying, "I cannot come here today-to a college which has had such a close association with my family-to a college which has been so kind to all of us, without thanking you, from the bottom of my heart, for the prayers you have offered in our behalf in the months since last November". Senator Kennedy then changed his focus to discussing his support for a controversial piece of legislation. This legislation had been the subject of deliberation on the Senate floor for three months with no resolution. He was asking for the audience at Assumption to lend their support to the Civil Rights Bill. "It is a wise bill and a moderate bill which seeks to turn grievances of our Negro citizens away from demonstrations in the street and into the courts of law." Kennedy capped his address by stressing the importance of the bill that he called "… a landmark in the struggle for equal opportunity for all Americans."
The Senator then moved on to challenge all colleges and universities like Assumption to make their voices heard in national politics. "A man in public life has so many demands upon his time that he has not enough chance to think deeply about the complex issues of the day. The fresh ideas, the landmark ideas, often come to us from the colleges where men have time to think and reflect."11 Kennedy gave examples of situations where the ideas of academics became the policies of Americans, and encouraged his audience to make more such examples.
The Legacy Continues
Senator Edward Kennedy returned to Assumption to ask the Class of 1979 what they thought 80s would hold. “What goals shall we set for the country in the coming decade? How shall we—how shall our children and our grandchildren—remember the eighties?”
Kennedy went on to say that the future direction of our nation would largely depend on the contributions of the coming generations. “The tinder is there waiting for the spark. And, often, especially in the recent past, it is the young people who have been the first to try to meet the need.” He also recognized the importance of an educated youth, and our duty to ensure that each young person has an opportunity for higher education. “It is not easy to get to Assumption College. The tuition here is $3,000 a year, and room and board costs an additional $1,500, which make a total cost of $4,500 a year. . . . In the coming months I shall propose a plan — the so-called ‘Campus Loan Program’ to reform our present academic aid programs and insure full educational choice for all college students.” 13
Since then the Senator has returned three times. He gave an Admissions address in the Switzer building in 1984. He hosted a roundtable discussion in La Maison with the Consortium schools about keeping college affordable. The Senator also played an important role for Assumption in Washington, obtaining federal dollars to supplement the Richard and Janet Testa Science Building. Kennedy returned in October 2003 to give the Keynote address at the building’s dedication.
A few significant testaments to the Kennedys’ support still linger around Assumption’s campus. The science building dedicated by the late President endures and still displays the original painting of Joseph P. Kennedy unveiled in 1958. Taylor Dining Hall, where many Kennedys ate and a few spoke, has been renovated, but still feeds the Assumption community. The archives still hold the records of the Kennedy visits, and the podium RFK and JFK stood behind to give their Commencement Addresses remains nearby. It rests in the back corner of Assumption’s campus, on the other side of the woods, in the Assumptionists house at the end of Old English Road.
Assumption College has grown since its struggles in the 1940s and 1950s. The durable French culture the Kennedy family repeatedly spoke about contributed to this growth. It was the work of many driven and generous persons who upheld the Assumption College tradition. The Kennedy’s contribution to this effort has continued through the years, a constant reminder of their original gift, which stands—physically and symbolically—in the center of campus.
Text researched and written by Jonathon Weaver ’06
Archival information and photos provided by Fr. Donat Lamothe, A.A., Assumption College Archivist
Editing and graphic design: Victoria Hughes Waters ’87, Hughes Publications Services
Produced by the Office Of Public Affairs, Assumption College
John F. Kennedy Dedication of
Kennedy Science Building, 1958