When I first emigrated from Sicily at age seven into the North End of Boston, my transformation from a country bumpkin to my new urban environment was a personal culture shock into the four story Hanover Ave. neighborhood. I was welcomed by my immediate neighbors with love and bore the taunts of a “grease ball” on the streets and in school. Those very early formative years is when I found the safe-haven from the taunts at the North Bennet St. School, Robert Murray’s Children’s Haven and other Social Service Agencies so important to immigrants in those days, which contributed to the North End’s cultural and financial development.
The North Bennet Street Industrial School was originally established to teach new immigrants the trades of cabinet and jewelry-making along with printing. The North End Industrial Home was first originally established at 39 North Bennet Street in 1879 by fifty volunteers from an organization known as the Associated Charities as a settlement house serving the needs of recent immigrants in Boston’s North End. In the late nineteenth century, the North End was among the most densely populated areas in the United States. Pauline Agassiz Shaw joined the ranks of the volunteers in 1880. She founded a kindergarten and nursery school in the building and donated the money needed to lease the building for five years. The North End Industrial Home grew as a school for children and their mothers, as well as a training ground for prospective teachers. Recreation rooms, a lending library, and social clubs for working adults were also housed in the building.
My experience with cabinet-making still allows me to enjoy a desk and bookcase I made almost sixty years ago. I also vividly remember John Dexter, “Mr. D.”, as a man who always showed respect to the children who used his club to play basketball and chess, or to pursue other interests. His assistant, Mario Di Leo, was always smiling and helpful. It was a tremendous atmosphere to learn citizenship and civil responsibility.
Today the school has moved to its new location at 150 North Street and continues to teach new students the real fine art of craftsmanship in the era of computers that can only produce robotic creations.
Recently, Sarah Turner has been selected to be the next President of the North Bennet Street. In this position, Turner will spearhead expansion of the school’s public programs and community partnerships within the craft-education world, while continuing the school’s 137-year legacy of training students for careers in traditional trades and fine crafts.
Their service to our community continues.