Sisters of Mercy
On the 14th of October, 1851, at the earnest and repeated request of the Very Rev. P. Malone, then Administrator of Ballina, the Mother Superior of St. Patrick’s Convent of Mercy, Sligo, Mother M. De Sales McDonnell, accompanied by Sr. Mary Joseph Jones and Sr. Mary Augustine Nolan, professed nuns; Sr. Mary Angela McHugh and Sr. Mary Gertrude O’Connor, novices, and Honoria Kevany, postulant, came to Ballina and took up their residence in a large house provided for them in Knox Street. The house was located where the new Allied Irish Bank is now built. However, the house was too big, unfurnished and situated in a locality unsuited for a convent.
Soon after their arrival in Ballina the Sisters were on the move again to a smaller house on the Rehins Road, very prettily situated with a lawn in front, a small grove at the back and walk all around, having a view of the river and the town. The house, then owned by a Mr. West, is now occupied by the Quinn family. In December, 1851, Mother M. De Sales returned to Sligo leaving Sr. M. Joseph Jones in charge. Ballina remained a branch house of St. Patrick’s, Sligo, until 1854.
In January, 1852, Mother M. Joseph became ill and was unable to continue her work Mother M. Paul Dillon was sent to take charge as local Superior on January 15th, 1852. The snow was falling for almost the entire journey as she and Sr. M. Augustine travelled to Ballina by the public car. Mother De Sales died on 13th July, 1854, and on the 16th July, 1854, acting on the express wish of Mother De Sales the new Ballina foundation was launched in the presence of the Most Rev. Dr. Feeny. Mother M. Paul Dillon was appointed Mother Superior.
Following their vows to a life of caring, the Sisters soon made a foothold in the local community when they took charge of the Girls’ National School in that same year. Two years later they set up a Benefit School for Catholic children in the town and by 1855 they felt the necessity to move nearer to the schools and so moved their convent to two adjoining houses in Arthur Street. (The caring tradition which was brought to this place by the Sisters has continued since as it is now the site of the Community Centre where the Sisters of Mercy continue to serve the poor with the help of the St. Vincent de Paul and other societies).
During their days in Arthur Street the Sisters had many trials and worries, including severe financial hardship. However, they survived from day to day and opened a Poor School in an old disused corn store on Ardnaree Hill soon afterwards. Here they taught mainly girls, although boys were allowed to attend until the age of 10 or 11 years, and had to trudge home each evening to often little more than a small saucer of porridge for dinner. Many young Sisters gave their lives to the poor people in this way as most of them had been brought up in much better circumstances.
September 13th, 1863, was an historic occasion for the Sisters of All-Hallows Convent as the foundation stone was laid for the present convent building near the workhouse and Fever Hospital (now St. Joseph’s Hospital). Called the Convent of the Immaculate Conception, All-Hallows, the building was finally erected due to the dedication and perseverance of Rev. Patrick Irwin, who was then administrator in Ballina, and on May 3rd, 1867, the Sisters moved out into their new home, which has expanded ever since to its present capacity.
For a number of years a boarding school for girls operated in the Northern wing of the Convent — it closed in the 1880s to make way for a new secondary school which, when opened, was called “St. Mary’s Intermediate School”.
Very few records of the early years exist up to 1911; even the Principal’s name is unknown.
Sister Ann McGoohan [Principal 1913-1943]
In 1913 Sister Anne McGoohan became Principal and the school continued to expand.
Subjects taught included Irish, English, Latin, German, French, Mathematics, History, Geography and Book-keeping, and examinations were taken at junior grade, middle grade and senior grade levels. Staff at the time were Sr. Philomena, Sr. Bonaventure, Sr. Agnes, Miss Browne and Miss Walshe, Miss Margaret Carroll joined the staff about 1920.
Mother M. Isabella Ruttledge, a Franciscan Sister, still lived in Glasgow, attended the school between 1913 and 1917, and amongst her contemporaries would have been Sr. Paul Loftus (Carysfort Convent of Mercy), the Harte sisters, Crosby sisters, Walshe sisters and Timlin sisters. With the coming of Independence in 1922 a number of changes were to take place in education, the first of which was the introduction of Intermediate and Leaving Certificate Examinations in 1924.
In 1926 the school became an “A” school, i.e., all subjects were taught through Irish — a policy which continued until 1965.
By 1933 progress was remarkable with excellent results achieved in Intermediate and Leaving Certificate examinations and pupil numbers increasing annually.
A decision was taken to build a new school. St. Mary’s building was completed in 1938 and opened officially in 1939.
Sister Philomena [Principal 1943-1960]
After thirty years’ service to the Ballina Community, Sr. Anne went to Belmullet to open a new Secondary School in the Erris capital. Sister Philomena took over duties as Principal in Ballina.
By 1946 there were over 100 pupils on the roll and further expansion was warranted. By 1954 the top floor of St. Mary’s was completed and the same year it was officially opened by the late Dr. O’Boyle, Bishop of Killala.
Mother M. Benedict [Principal 1960 – 1972]
In 1962 the numbers had reached the 200 mark and when free education was introduced in 1967 it increased still further to 300.
This warranted still further extensions, so St. Anne’s was erected and opened in 1969, when the student population was 370. This was soon to be followed by a cookery kitchen and sewing room in 1972.
Sister Genevieve [Principal 1972 – 1981]
In 1973-74 the ambitious project, today referred to as the “Assembly Hall”, was built and funded mostly entirely by funds from the Convent Community.
With the increasing numbers in the early ‘seventies (now over 400), extra space was necessary. St. Joseph’s was called into use, to be followed by two sets of four prefabs, which still grace the yards. The range of subjects increased too — Religion, Irish, English, French, Spanish, History, Geography, Mathematics, Science, Chemistry, Biology, Accountancy, Busi¬ness Organisation, Economics, Physics, Home Economics, Musicianship, Art, Civics and P.E.
The numbers had now passed the 500 mark and a new dimension was added to the curriculum — Career Guidance. A member of the teaching staff was released to train in UCD. Today this is a permanent feature of the school.
Sister Attracta [Principal 1981-2004]
When Sr. Attracta took over as Principal in 1981 numbers were still increasing – and plans were afoot for building a major new extension, which was to be completed by the late 1980s at an estimated cost of £100,000.
As numbers increased so too did staff and consequently the range of subjects. St. Mary’s Secondary School was granted a full-time Secretary in 1982, and was one of the very few schools in the country selected to participate in the Transition Year Option introduced in 1986.
In recent years Sr. Attracta has supervised the installation of a computer room and computer science is now one of the most sought-after subjects on the curriculum.
On Friday, November 6th, 1987 Sr. Attracta supervised one of the biggest transitions in the history of the school – the move into the new ultra-modern deluxe school.
Hallmarks of Sr. Attracta’s principalship include the unforgettable musicals — “Joseph”, 1984; “The Boyfriend”, 1985; “The Mikado”, 1986, and ‘The Arcadians”, 1987. Interspersed with these musical excursions were the European trips to Paris, Switzerland, Austria, the Rhineland and the Low Countries.
Mrs. Patsy Sweeney [Principal 2004- 2016]
The first lay Principal and 7th Principal in the school's long history, Patsy stepped into the long shadow of her illustrious predecessors confident in the knowledge that she had been trained at the ‘Feet of the Masters or Mistresses’, having served as a member of staff under the tutelage of Mother Benedict, Sr Genevieve and Sr. Attracta since 1972. Patsy had also been involved in all the major curricular innovations of the 70s and 80s from the Department of Education’s “North Mayo Pilot Project on Education” in 1976 to the Transition Year Project and the European Studies Project in the 1980s. All this led to her selection in 1994 to the Department’s newly formed Transition Year Support Team and her subsequent secondment from St Mary’s for 10 years until she relinquished her position as National Co-ordinator of Transition Year in 2004 to return to the helm of St Mary’s.
Leading one of the largest all-girls School in Mayo and one of the most successful all-girls’ school in Connaught, she continued to nurture a tradition of academic excellence and scholastic achievement seamlessly interwoven with sporting, cultural and artistic prowess. Facilitating the transfer of trusteeship from the Sisters of Mercy to the new school trust CEIST (Catholic Education, an Irish Schools Trust), while still ensuring the school retained a strong Mercy ethos, was one of the major successes of her tenure.
Some other major successes enjoyed by the school during Patsy’s principalship was the securing of the long awaited new School Building Project, the establishment of the School Meals Programme, a major expansion of school buildings, a very successful Whole School Inspection, All-Ireland Schools Titles in Soccer and Table-tennis, with provincial titles in Gaelic football, Rugby, Volleyball and Athletics. The school Musical tradition continued to flourish with the Annual School Musical and the school Choir’s appearance on TV in the final of the All-Island Schools Choir as well as hosting the Christmas edition of PoncXL on TG4.
A vibrant Transition Year programme brought further success with numerous national titles for Enterprise and Mini-Company, Beat the Bank Challenge, the prestigious Taoiseach’s Award for Enterprise, winning the inaugural Press Pass Awards, both CEIST and Nevin Mc Guire All-Ireland Cookery Titles , while hundreds of young ladies today proudly boast Silver and Bronze Gaisce Awards. Fundraising too reached new levels with the school earning a prestigious Guinness World Record and also winning ‘Beat the Apprentice’ for their contributions to Our Lady’s Hospital Crumlin.
But it is probably the academic legacy of this period that Patsy is most proud of – 4 JP Mc Manus All Island School Scholarships, a Naughton Scholarship, Ad Astra Academy winner, Entrance Exhibition Scholarships to every University in Ireland and being ranked in the top 10 feeder schools in Ireland to Teacher Training Colleges- all the result of excellent teaching and learning leading to excellent JC and LC performances.
All of this would not have been possible without the support and co-operation of an exceptionally talented and dedicated staff, which enabled Patsy to deliver a 21st century holistic education rooted in our tradition, mindful of the legacy she inherited and always determined to be a ‘guardian of the gates of the past and custodian to the doors of the future.