Spiritual ancestors and the Marian Academy
By Roxana Kawall
September 21, 2003
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In 1847, six Ursuline nuns from Ireland in long, black, voluminous serge habits, arrived in ‘The Colony,’ accompanied by two postulants (girls who had applied to enter the Convent). Their families were naturally upset and alarmed by this dangerous undertaking to a far-off tropical country, not knowing if they would ever see them again, and did their best to dissuade them. It is reported that the father of the Superior, Sr Mary Regis O’Brien, forlornly followed his daughter to the ship, where he took a final farewell of her. Indeed, one of the postulants, Sr Mary Rose Tierney, a little twenty-year old girl when she arrived, was to die only five years later. Her fellow postulant, Sr Veronica Gavin, followed her friend in 1862.
The eight had come to a Colony which still stank of the slavery abolished a mere thirteen years before; to a new covered market which had been built only five years before; and to a Georgetown which had only achieved city status a mere three years before.
Maybe only the mosquitoes were the same - or perhaps worse; malaria had not yet been eradicated from the coast by Dr Giglioli. The very first railway on the whole of the South American continent, now itself scrapped history, was not yet even completed. When it was, the first locomotives would be named ‘Mosquito’, ‘Sandfly’, ‘Marabunta’ and ‘Scorpion.’ In fact, only three years before had the first “general purpose” iron railway in the world been completed in the United Kingdom.
Eight women and 1847... Their mission? The education of young girls... They had left their St Joseph’s Ursuline Convent in Athlone, Ireland, which was later transferred to Sligo, in answer to a request from a person who had actually been the first Catholic priest to arrive here in 1825, Bishop John Hynes, OP, Vicar Apostolic for British Guiana.
The trip out took a little longer than the maybe thirteen-hour plane journey from London modern-day Guyanese find tiresome. Their ship weighed anchor on June 1, 1847.
On July 1, 1847, and after one month on a sailing ship, the eight found themselves swaying on dry or at least dryish land; not even being allowed to stop at their place of residence - which in any case was not ready for them - they were conveyed in probably also swaying carriages to the Presbytery adjoining the Church of the Resurrection, where they quickly changed from ship clothes to their religious habits and immediately went to the church “thronged by the faithful.”
This day of 1847 is sanguinely recorded in a slanting hand in the Annals of the Ursulines: “On the day of their arrival Right Rev. Dr Hynes read for them a brief from His Holiness Pius IX confirming the foundation of a monastery in Georgetown.”
Although camped out at Meadow Bank because their Camp St home was not ready for occupancy, the Irish arrivals lost no time, and conducted a Retreat for 40 ladies and began religious education with poor children. They moved into their Camp St home on August 28, and a stunning two months after arriving, opened the very first Secondary School in the Colony for girls on August 31, 1847. They named it after the first South American saint - St Rose of Lima.
Admittedly, the intake was four day-students, two of whom were non-Catholic. Boarders were admitted shorty after, and by January 1848 there were twelve more students. It is interesting to note that many boarders would later come from Venezuela. Although the nuns were struggling, Bishop Hynes in 1851 had been visiting the Public Hospital and found two little children whose mother had just died. He asked the nuns to take them in. From this, St Ann’s Orphanage was born, as well as a school to educate the orphans and the poor neighbourhood children, St Angela’s. Over time, other schools would be established by the Ursulines: St Philomena’s, St Ursula’s, St Agnes, St Joseph’s Prep School (for boys), St Mary’s in Berbice and St Patrick’s in Barbados.
Incredibly, despite the deaths of the postulants, these nuns struggled on their own for eleven years, until 1858, when four more nuns arrived to help them, much to their joy and renewed vigour. This was also the year when the first Guianese postulant, Miss Charlotte Gomes, entered.
An extract from the mutual history of the Ursulines and St Rose’s by Sr Jacqueline Da Silva, OSU, in the commemorative magazine issued to celebrate the 150th anniversary of both entities reads: “The early years were full of hardships and deprivation, for the Sisters lacked sufficient food.
One Sister in later years told how she would gladly have swept the crumbs off the children’s table because of hunger. That same Sister removed her shoes after school to make them last longer as the community could not afford to buy another pair. On one occasion when the doctor was summoned to see one of the religious who was ill, he reported to the Bishop: “Those ladies are not sick; they are slowly dying of starvation!” It is also related that the Sisters collected bits of cardboard and strong paper, to make slippers for themselves to wear in the house, in order to save their good shoes for school use only.”
Somehow the Ursulines managed to remain a continous presence in Guyana for the next one hundred and fifty-six years. It is the spiritual descendants of these eight nuns who today now manage the Marian Academy, having outlasted the scrapped railway, and what was tantamount to their own scrapping, the take-over of the church-run schools in 1976, after they had managed it sucessfully for almost a hundred and thirty years.
In 1876, twenty-nine years into the Foundation, everything very nearly came to an end. There were ten nuns in the Community, not enough for all the work. The Bishop, now Bishop Etheridge, sent Mother Hearne to Ireland “to plead for continual reinforcements from the Irish Ursuline Houses if the Mission were to survive.” Instead, she returned with two sisters from Sligo sent to help her pack up and wind up affairs. “However, God wanted this foundation to survive, for on arrival these two nuns, Sr Margaret Mary O’Reilly and Sr Mary Joseph Hutch saw the needs of the country. The Bishop offered all the Sisters a choice, would they go home to Sligo or remain, abandoning their future to Jesus, Mary and Joseph? The only question asked: which decision would be for the greater glory of God?
The community decided to stay...” It is strange that it was exactly one hundred years after this momentous decision in 1876, that another decision was made, but not by the nuns, when under the dual control system of the time, the school was taken over solely by government in 1976.
Continuing the parallel, down more than a century, in 1997, during the sesquicentennial anniversary celebrations of the arrival of the Ursulines and the founding of St Rose’s, the then Superior of the Ursulines remarked that were it not for the financial help of the Ursuline Houses abroad, the nuns would have all had to pack up their bags and leave Guyana.
Yet, one year later, in 1998, something momentous happened...
It seemed as if the little ship from 1847 were still continously sailing towards Guyana. The nuns of St Joseph’s Convent, Athlone, in 1847, after many Masses, prayers and penances, “to obtain true light and inspiration,” had put the whole project of whether or not to go to British Guiana under the protection of St Joseph, himself protector of Mary. On 1 June 1847, they set sail. The name of their ship had, quite coincidentally been the Glenmuire, or Glen of Mary.
One century and a half and one year later, the fruit of their work continued, when the Marian Academy, dedicated to Mary, was founded in 1998. One person involved in the setting up of the Marian Academy, relates how she had promised Mary that if such a school were to happen, it would be named after her. And the Marian Academy is a school that very nearly did not happen. Those who know feel a sense of awe and wonder, of real miracle even, at the establishment of the Marian Academy.
There is not much difference with the Ursulines of today. Very few, not even the parents whose children learn behind the shining facade and who see the pair of shoes but not the cardboard sandals, realise the stories or personal sacrifices behind the Orders such as the Mercy Sisters, the Carmelites, the Jesuits, the Ursulines, the Scarboroughs, the Sisters of Charity, the Benedictines; but they all have similar stories behind the story. The Mercy Sisters for instance have with their own hands polished school floors for their own pupils until late into the night. One Ursuline Sister recently remarked half-jokingly that they would be quite happy to eat some of the food items which are donated to them to distribute to the poor, “but we do give it all out,” she added.
What was it like, after a twenty-two year hiatus, with the danger of being taken over a second time, to have no twenty-year olds among you this time, in fact to be “all of a certain age” and very few, to be without financial resources and kept alive by the charity of others, and yet to jump into the dark and start the Marian Academy in response to the pleas of parents - and the call of God?
Having taken out a massive bank loan at 17% interest to start the school, which in no time turned into two massive loans to be re-paid over many years, one Sister confided that she could no longer sleep at nights over this, and would lie awake asking herself what had they gone and done. It may not help to note here that the nuns were still paying off up until into the 1970s on the various ongoing building projects, St Rose’s, St Agnes, St Angela’s, in the Camp St compound founded since 1847. At the time of the take-over they were then paid G$2000 rent by the Government for very many years for the use of all those buildings. Today the rent paid is US$52 - not exactly enough to feed the nuns, and maintain their Convent plus the Marian Academy. Like their forebears who ran an annual garden party for the same purpose, those who run the Marian Academy also hold an annual school fair helped by willing parents (the Marian Academy Family, they call themselves); the proceeds go solely to the Building Fund. The Marian Academy is a totally non-profit school; all money has to be raised by themselves; but all money raised goes back into the school. Within, for Guyana, an amazing five years, the school moved from rented premises in the Legion Building on Carifesta Ave to the opposite side of the road, via a temporary building famously known as the ‘cow pen’ to a newly built Primary Block, a phase of building which included Administration, Nursery and Primary accomodation, with Junior Library, Junior Computer Lab and Art Room, as well as an Assembly Hall in which was also housed a Canteen, a Games Room and a Music Room. The Secondary Block, dedicated on 8 December last year, also includes a Senior Library, Art Room, Information Technology Room (Computer Lab), Food and Nutrition Room, and Biology, Chemistry and Physics Labs.
On the recent CXC exams, Sr Marie Harper, OSU, the Headmistress, who is from Jamaica, noted that the passes in English and Maths were above the national average. She also notes that her policy of promoting English B in the school paid off; out of 20 candidates, seven, or almost half, achieved distinctions.
Nonetheless, the problems faced by the school are the same ones every school in Guyana, whether public or private, cannot escape; staffing, price of books, parents, teachers and children under the intolerable common entrance exam pressure, and the big one, ever increasing costs. Still, kindergarten places for September are snapped up in two weeks as soon as offered in February, and there is a long waiting list; newcomers wait and enter at all levels. Next year, the first class out of which most of the children have been with the school from its inception, although only from Prep A and not from Kindergarten, is due to sit the Common Entrance.
For many years in Guyana, parents, teachers, children and Ministry of Education have been circling each other in an unnecessarily adversarial defensiveness, a sort of compulsory disease always, but always, brought on by the over-large Common Entrance, which also induces that sad desperation that can only be felt in each individual parent-child heart, for a place at a good school. Many dreamt therefore of no extra lessons, in a clean school, a school where education was real and not exam-induced, where teachers were actually in the classroom, and civilization was taught through poetry, art, music, the sciences, and the languages of the stranger. But those involved in the Marian Academy will tell you straight that the school only made its miraculous appearance after an acknowledgement of the God-shaped hole in education - and a prayer for it to be filled.
On the 15 September 2003 the Marian Academy celebrated five years since children first walked through its doors. If only those eight nuns, sailing here from one hundred and fifty-six years ago, could know.
Note: The Marian Academy has issued a hundred-page Commemorative Souvenir Magazine to celebrate its five years, which is due to be launched at the school at 10:30 am tomorrow, September 22.