The Sun’s Chris Scott reports that the Franco American School, which closed as a school this past June, will be sold to a partnership of the Coalition for a Better Acre and TMI Property Management & Development which plans to convert the school into 40 units of market and affordable housing. The developers plan to preserve two religious sites located at the rear of the property: A trail of 14 Stations of the Cross that was installed in 1912, and the Grotto, a cave-like structure that features a life-sized statue of Jesus on the cross. To the rear of the Grotto is the start of the Northern Canal. On the other side of the canal is the start of the Northern Canal Walkway which goes all the way to the Tsongas Arena.
Located alongside one of the earliest bridges across the Merrimack, the site of the Franco American School has always been an important place in this region. As the eighteenth century drew to a close, that parcel was owned by Phineas Whiting who maintained a house and a store on the premises. Whiting also owned a farm that extended almost to the Concord River, through what is now downtown Lowell. He and one of his neighbors, Josiah Fletcher, formed a partnership and purchased Thomas Hurd’s woolen mill which was located on the west bank of the Concord River, just upstream from the Pawtucket Canal (right where the Lower Locks Parking Garage is now located).
When Lowell received its town charter in 1826, Whiting’s home was still just one of a dozen structures along that stretch of Pawtucket Street. Most of the early growth of Lowell occurred closer to downtown and the newly constructed power canals.
In 1859, another Phineas Whiting, sold the Pawtucket Street parcel to Frederick Ayer for $9000. Ayer had come to Lowell just eight years earlier to assist his brother, James C. Ayer, in the latter’s patent medicine business. That business was extremely profitable, so the Ayer brothers went from poverty to riches in a very short time. By 1876, Frederick had replaced the old Whiting home with a three-story brick mansion, one of the most ornate buildings in Lowell at the time.
Frederick Ayer added to the size of his land holdings the following year (1860) by purchasing an adjoining parcel of 67,000 square feet that bordered the Merrimack River from the Proprietors of the Locks and Canals for $3300. Ayer added a final piece to his homestead in 1889, paying Harrison W. Streeter $12,000 for a 13,200 square foot strip of land along what is today known as Fanning Street, but was then called Beacon Street. (Also in 1889, there was a street behind the Ayer parcel, running alongside the river. It was called Falls Street).
In 1899, Frederick Ayer and his family moved to Boston and the Ayer Mansion in Lowell sat vacant until July 15, 1908, when Ayer conveyed the property for $1 to Joseph Campeau, Joseph Lefebvre, and Leon Lamothe, three Catholic priests at Lowell’s St. Jean Baptiste Parish. The property would be a home for orphaned children and would be operated by the Sisters of Charity of Quebec.
In April 1909, members of Lowell’s French Canadian community organized a Massachusetts corporation called L’Orphelinat Franco-Americain and on April 30, 1909, the three priests conveyed the former Ayer Mansion to the corporation. In 1912, a four-story brick wing was added to the back of the home. In 1964, the corporation’s articles of organization were amended, changing the corporate name to Franco American School of Lowell Inc. The school continued to operate until his June when classes ended for the academic year.