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Monday 22 July 2019

St Louis sisters leave a lasting legacy

After 148 years in Ramsgrange the final three sisters are leaving the convent house, bringing to an end their presence there

Sr Mary Clancy, Sr. Stephen Brennan, Bishop Denis Brennan, Sr. Annuncia Murphy and Fr. Brian Whelan.
Sr Mary Clancy, Sr. Stephen Brennan, Bishop Denis Brennan, Sr. Annuncia Murphy and Fr. Brian Whelan.

David Looby

For more than 148 years the St Louis sisters have contributed greatly to the provision of education and spirituality in the area.

On the large campus there has been an elementary school, a secondary day and boarding school, a home economics college, and latterly a secondary school with day and boarding students, up until the 1970s.

Today Ramsgrange Community School and Ramsgrange NS educated children from a large hinterland. The home economics college, the convent and the old primary school have been transformed into new thriving enterprises serving the 21st century needs of the area.

Ramsgrange was one of the very early St Louis houses the order opened in Ireland after Monaghan. The Sisters of St Louis were founded in France in the mid-19th century. Following an invitation by the Bishop of Clogher to establish a school in Monaghan, three sisters left for Ireland in January 1958. In February 1871 a second request for sisters arrived in France. It came from Canon Thomas Doyle in Co Wexford. Sr Genevieve Beale, who was in overall charge of the growing congregation in Ireland visited Canon Doyle in Ramsgrange, where she was greeted by Bishop of Ferns Thomas Furlong. Canon Doyle and Bishop Furlong impressed on Mother Genevieve the need for more schooling in the area and she agreed to send a founding group of sisters to Co Wexford, making Ramsgrange the second branch-house of the St Louis Sisters in Ireland.

On May 4, 1871, a small group of four sisters set out by train for Ramsgrange. They were Sr Marianne O'Sullivan, Sr Aloysius Lennon, Sr Columba Smith and Lizy Beale. The group arrived two days later in Waterford where they were met by Canon Doyle.

They continued their journey by steamer to Duncannon and on to Ramsgrange to their new home.

Canon Doyle lost no time in getting education going in his parish and barely a week after their arrival the sisters received their first pupils in the remains of the old church which had been burned during the 1798 rebellion.

Forty pupils came that first day. 15 years later, replacing the first school, a new school was built at the convent gates and in 1896 opened its doors to 68 pupils.

Three months after the sisters' arrival the official opening of the convent took place on August 25, the Feast of St Louis.

Canon Doyle started building work on a new convent that very month and weeks later, in September, the sisters opened a secondary school and boarding school for the daughters of local farmers and merchants. 20 pupils arrived that first day.

The educational endeavours of the sisters were not confined to the village of Ramsgrange. They taught in three schools, namely Ballyhack, Duncannon and Shielbaggan.

Pupils learned everything from the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic to science, poultry-keeping, cookery and butter making. By 1875 there was new accommodation built for the sisters and the boarding school which prospered. The 1901 census tells us there were 26 boarders between the ages of five and 16, mostly from counties Wexford and Waterford, but some also from as far afield as Mayo, Armagh, Dublin, Limerick and Kerry,

The young community of sisters very soon increased from the original three to around 20.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the recently established Department of Agriculture in Ireland was planning on opening five colleges throughout the country to train young women in the practical skills of household management, including cookery, laundry, poultry-keeping, dairy and needlework.

Ramsgrange was chosen and the sisters chose a technical college run initially by two teachers, who initiated the first 30 girls into the course. A

nd so began the 80 year history of the school that made Ramsgrange a household name in rural Ireland.

Canon Doyle, who died two years previously, would no doubt have given his full blessing to the venture.

In 1905 the boarding school closed after 35 year.

Students of the Practical School were accommodated in the section of the school recently vacated by the boarders. From the start the school was an enormous success and buildings were extended and more farm land acquired. Students were entered for different competitions and exhibitions, especially the RDS Spring Show, enjoying many successes.

The years 1965-1969 brought new developments and upheavals to the Ramsgrange campus and a new domestic science building opened in 1967, along with a new secondary school, which was officially opened in 1969, but in reality it had started with 40 students two years previously, at the request of local parents. This in the very year free education was made available nationally. The school grew to number 250 students when it finally closed its doors to be absorbed into the community school which opened in 1977.

The St Louis Sisters continued playing a key role in the education of local children and teenagers and a number of sisters taught in the community school. The last sister retired in 1997. However, as co-trustees of the community school with three nominees on the board of management, the sisters continued to be active within education in the area.

Between 1975 and 1992 the sisters gradually withdrew from teaching in the four local primary schools.

In 1984 came the devastating news of the government's decision to cease funding for the country's rural domestic economy schools. The resulting closure of the college after 80 years caused huge upheaval and upset locally.

This was followed by the closure of the big convent in 1990 when the sisters left the old gothic-style building and moved to their house in the convent grounds.

The old convent was taken over by the South-West Wexford Community Development Group and re-modelled into a centre for the provision of community programmes, accommodating a family resource centre, a crèche, pre-school classes, computer classes, gardening and other activities such as the St Louis Stitchers.

The Domestic College became an outreach building for the Shielbaggan Outdoor Education Centre. The old primary school and gate lodge became another base for Senior Citizens Concern and were transformed into the St Louis Day Care Centre which caters to the needs of elderly people in the area to this day.

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