I set out to discover Xavier Residence Hall’s past and published my findings in a feature story for The Campus Herald, Johnson & Wales University’s student newspaper. The article was first published as the headliner for the January 15, 2014 printed edition.
HIDDEN TEMPLE: The history of JWU’s oldest residence hall
Abby Bora//Staff Writer
Natalie McKenna started high school at St.Francis Xavier Academy in 1945 at the age of 13. “My first year, I did not want to go,” she said. “I had other friends… I wanted to graduate with them. My father insisted I go.” Many Johnson & Wales freshmen find themselves in young McKenna’s place each fall: starting at a new school, and standing in Xavier Hall.
Every day, McKenna was dropped off by a bus in downtown Providence and walked to 60 Broad Street. At the time, Xavier Hall was just called the “convent” by students. Many nuns–some teachers and some housekeepers–lived there, worshipping in the chapel on the second floor. That year, there were no other spaces available, so the incoming business students were placed in the convent. The science and classical students took classes in the newer buildings, some of which are now a part of the Xavier Academic complex.
After the school was closed in 1983, 132 years after it opened, Johnson & Wales bought the nuns’ convent and renamed it Xavier Hall. Now, this building houses approximately 240 freshman and sophomore students. Singles, doubles, triples and quads are offered as Tier One, Two and Three rooms. The four-story building has co-ed halls with common bathrooms, a quiet community, recreation areas and a laundry room in the basement.
Students who currently live in Xavier Hall fill the rooms formerly occupied by the sisters. “I think that people enjoy some of its architecture because it’s slightly older,” Xavier Hall residential assistant Will Nosack said. “The staircases and the designs on the ceiling have decorative elements to them, which gives the building character.”
The story of Xavier Hall begins in 1850, when Irish Catholic Mother Mary Francis Xavier Warde was offered an invitation by Hartford’s Bishop O’Reilly to open a convent in Providence, according to an online Catholic encyclopedia, NewAdvent.org. Warde was one of the first Sisters of Mercy in the United States; she opened their first location in Providence with four other sisters in 1851. The nuns also ran an accompanying school called St. Francis Xavier Academy, named after the Catholic missionary, Mother Warde’s own namesake.
Soon after it was established, the building was surrounded by a mob. The crowd was “threatening them with death if they would not immediately vacate the premises,” NewAdvent.org states. In the mid-1800s, Irish Catholics were persecuted in the United States by groups like the Know Nothings and the Klu Klux Klan. “The nuns who started the school had many hardships and persecution,” McKenna said. Throughout the struggle, Mother Warde insisted that no shot be fired unless it was in self-defense. The sisters managed to maintain possession of the convent, and Mother Warde went on to open many others in the Northeast.
Xavier Hall, the oldest of Johnson & Wales’ residence halls, was erected in 1874 to house the nuns and classrooms. At the time, the campus contained a high school for young women and a co-educational elementary school. According to StXavierAlumnae.org, Joseph Banigan of the Woonsocket Rubber Company financed the construction of the chapel for the school. It was designed by a “master artist” from England, and most of the original work, which depicts the story of Mother Mary, remains intact.
When McKenna attended the school over 70 years later, it was exclusively a girls’ high school. Much like Xavier Hall residents of today, she was not allowed in the chapel, which was reserved as a place for the nuns to worship. Underneath the chapel, where the Bridge Center is today, was a library for students. McKenna studied basic subjects, as well as some specifically aimed to help her in the business world, like typing and bookkeeping. “The teachings of the dear Sisters of Mercy, which were instilled in us, have remained throughout our lifetimes,” McKenna said. “We were and still are to this day, a sisterhood.”
Today, the alumnae of St. Francis Xavier’s Academy meet up often. They publish a newsletter, and keep in touch “even if it is only a Christmas greeting,” McKenna said. After the Academy closed in 1983, another opened in Coventry, only to be closed in 2001. Nevertheless, the Alumnae Association still encourages education through a scholarship fund. Meanwhile, The Sisters of Mercy have expanded across the Americas, carrying on their message of spirituality, service and community.
McKenna expressed that she and other alumnae would be overjoyed to return to see the chapel. She recalled a classmate who was married in it, and how once the building was sold to Johnson & Wales, the alumnae had hoped they would be allowed into the chapel for their meetings and mass. In recent years, this has not been possible. According to Brian Lanoie, the senior facilities project manager, there are currently no plans to renovate the chapel or to make it more accessible to the public.
Despite her reluctance when she began at St. Francis Xavier’s academy, McKenna has nothing but fond memories to share. “It was an experience I am so grateful for,” she said. “It was just a different picture than the public school. We got a very wonderful education. I would not be the person today if I did not go to St. Xavier’s.”