Sister Bridie retires

Sister Bridie Mullins, the much loved and highly respected Principal of Loreto School retired on August 24 last. The date was significant in Clonmel history, because it marked the occasion, 130 years ago, when on August 24 1881, four Loreto Sisters travelled from Fermoy to take up residence in a house on Suir Island.

Sister Bridie Mullins, the much loved and highly respected Principal of Loreto School retired on August 24 last. The date was significant in Clonmel history, because it marked the occasion, 130 years ago, when on August 24 1881, four Loreto Sisters travelled from Fermoy to take up residence in a house on Suir Island.

Their mission was the establishment of a secondary school for girls. It was the first secondary school in Clonmel. Just a year later, senior students sat their examinations under the old Intermediate system. By 1898, and this time in the newly built High School, another group of Loreto girls sat their examinations, having studied the then available curriculum – English, Irish, Arithmetic, Algebra, French, German, Sewing and Music.

By then, because the building on Suir Island had been damaged by a fire in a nearby premises, the school moved to ‘Roseville’ on the Colville Road, a house which had been built by the Quaker Grubb family. At that time there were forty students. When Sister Bridie retired last August there were 520 students on the rolls, and a very large and new school building, with a modern sports complex, had extended into the old orchard and gardens of the original ‘Roseville’.

The 19th century was groundbreaking in the development of education in Clonmel, largely because of the work of the religious orders. The Presentation Sisters came to a room in a building in Irishtown in 1813. Such was the poverty and deprivation of the time that the children had to be given breakfast before any sort of instruction began. The Christian Brothers came in 1830 and the Sisters of Charity in 1848. The enrolment was remarkably high – as many as 500 children on the rolls of each school. This reflected the expanding population, over-crowding and poverty.

The very basic ambition was instruction in religion, literacy, numeracy and some elements of hygiene, but such was the success that within little more than half a century, secondary education could be introduced, in which the Loreto Order was a pioneer in Clonmel, and in which the Order is still a pioneer, not only in the western world, but in Kenya, Mauritius, Morocco, Peru, South Africa, Tanzania, East Timor, India, Sudan.

Inspired by their extraordinary foundress, the 16th century Mary Ward, the core values of Loreto education are essentially that ‘the Gospel values permeate the entire school experience’ and that ‘discernment, involving reflection on experience leading to action, will inform and influence policies, structures, practices and pedagogy’.

Mary Ward would have been unique in any generation, but she was especially outstanding in the turbulence of the time in which she was born – the Reformation in England. She was a member of a Yorkshire aristocratic family, which remained loyal to Catholicism and identified as the Recusants. For this, her family had to move from their home, her grandmother was imprisoned, and their lives were constantly under threat. Mary herself felt she was called to the religious life, which for women was then enclosed.

At a time in history when they had little influence or power, Mary Ward wrote – “I hope in God it will be seen that women in time to come will do much”. But to do much they needed to be educated. In pursuit of her vision to establish schools, she undertook hazardous journeys over the Alps to try to obtain papal permission for the foundation of a religious order which allowed women to work outside the enclosure. In this, as in so many things, she was a pioneer.

She, and her small group of companions, were dismissed as – ‘They are but women’. She was derided, imprisoned, suffered gravely, and was ‘condemned by the Church she loved and sought to serve’. But on her journeys she did manage to set up some schools in Bohemia and Bavaria, many of which survive to this present day, and because of their excellence, have achieved considerable status.

Mary Ward returned to her own country in 1639, thirty three years after she had set out on her mission. By 1642 she was again in a country of revolution – the Parliamentarian (Cromwellian) Wars. She made her way back to Yorkshire, where she died in 1645. An assessment of her achievements at that stage would appear to be limited, but such was her legacy of faith and commitment to the education of women, that, by 1703, her companions established the Mickelgate Bar Convent in York . The Convent was specifically devoted to the training of women for working in unenclosed Orders. Mary Aikenhead, the foundress of the Irish Sisters of Charity, was trained there, as was the Dublin woman, Frances Ball, who established the Loreto I.B.V.M. Order in Ireland in 1822.

In the vicissitudes of history, the achievements of these extraordinary women, and their contribution to educational and social changes in Ireland has yet to be fully acknowledged, though a Clonmel woman, Professor Maria Luddy, has already contributed to such an acknowledgement in her studies on 19th century Irish women. But there is much more work to be done.

The Mary Ward vision “that in time women will come to do much” was the inspiration of the first four Sisters who set up their small secondary school on Suir Island in 1881. It was still a time when the status of women was circumscribed. Even the universal right to vote was in a remote future.

It has been a vision that has sustained all the Sisters who have taught and served in the school over 130 years. And it was a vision enthusiastically and energetically embraced by Sister Bridie. While setting academic achievement at a very high and successful level, she saw education in a much more comprehensive and life-enhancing compass.

She believed that school should be a joyous experience, where young people should thrive, be trusted and encouraged, helped to discover themselves and their skills and talents. She had a mantra: school should be a place of love, laughter and learning. In this, she was following the Loreto policy of holistic education: faith and wisdom development, personal excellence and commitment to justice, peace, integrity and social change.

Sister Bridie is the last Loreto Sister to serve in education in Clonmel. The school is now under lay management, but the trusteeship of the Order, members of which still serve on the Board of Management. There is a commitment to maintain the ethos and the legacy. It is an ethos and legacy handed down over the centuries to thousands of current and former students by the visionary, Mary Ward. She is particularly remembered in all Loreto schools in the month of January, since she was born on January 23, 1585 and died on January 30, 1665.

And to Sister Bridie: Many years of happy retirement – a wish from generations and generations of Clonmel women.