London: Ursulines celebrate 150 years in East End

The Ursuline Order marks its 150th anniversary of working in the East End fittingly just a few months before the area is set to be engulfed by the Olympics.

The Ursuline convent is literally a couple of miles from the Olympic Park, situated at the back of St Angela’s school in Grosvenor Road, Forest Gate.

The house will be one of the places where families of athletes from developing countries will come to stay.

“We will be working with people here, offering hospitality - including bed and board - to the families of athletes from the developing countries," said Sister Catherine Kelly, who is one of the four remaining nuns living at the Ursuline house.

The number of nuns has certainly come down over the past few years, going from 50 based at Forest Gate in 1962 to the four left today. But those that remain continue to do the work of the Ursulines in the community.

The Belgium based Ursuline order first came to London in 1851 but encountered such hostility that some returned home. Then 11 years later they were invited back by local priest Father James McQuoin to start a school. The sisters received much support at the time from Cardinal Nicholas Wiseman.

It was from here that St Angela’s school developed. Further schools followed in nearby Ilford, Brentwood and Wimbledon in south London.

St Angela’s was initially for borders, there were seven by 1863 when Cardinal Wiseman visited. In the 1870s, St Angela’s, a day school for girls grew up alongside the boarding section. The popularity of the school grew with 800 girls attending by 1934.

“There were fees, but the school was made accessible to local girls,” said Sister Una McCreesh, one of the remaining Ursuline nuns, who retired as head of St Angela’s in 1993 after 17 years in charge.

The early years of St Angela’s were marked by some visionary strong heads. The first, Sister Xavier Hynes, served from 1878 to 1921, then Sister Angela Boord who retired in 1934. Sister Angela Mary Reidy was the head to guide the school through the war years, becoming the first to implement the 1944 Education Act together with nearby boys school St Bonaventure’s.

There are no fees paid by the children at the school today, which seeks to serve Catholics in the area. There are now more than 946 pupils. In addition there is a joint 800 strong sixth form run with St Bonaventure’s across both sites.

“The VI form attracts people from across the cultural barriers, including Sikhs and Muslims,” said Sr McCreesh, who recalls it was the vision of the first sisters to bring education to the Catholic community of east London. “The Catholic ethos has not been watered down, whilst seeking to be open to the whole borough of Newham,” said Sister McCreesh, who attended the school herself before coming back to teach and eventually lead the school.

Sr Kathleen Colmer, who taught at the school for five years, as well as being head at nearby St Antony’s, stresses the importance of empowering women. “The school educated women so that they could take a stand in the work place and parishes,” said Sister Colmer. “The school retains the Ursuline tradition of high performance, following gospel values and the spirit of service. The training of women to become independent thinkers is also important.”

One of the prominent memories for the sisters was the fire at the school in 1982. Described as “the great fire,” it began at the end of the school day. It started as a result of some work that was being done involving a blow torch. High winds on the day ensured that the fire rapidly spread and eventually took off the roof and top part of the school before being put out. This was the accommodation area where the nuns lived in those days. “We had to get accommodation elsewhere for months,” recalled Sister Kelly. Some were put up in Grosvenor Road, whilst others went out to the other convents in Ilford, Greenwich and Wimbledon.

The last sisters left the school in the 1990s but have continued to work in the local community.

Sr McCreesh was involved in the founding of the community organising body The East London Communities Organisation (Telco) which later became part of London Citizens. She was chair of trustees, retiring a couple of years ago. All the sisters have taken part in London Citizens campaigning actions, such as the march down the Mile End road to Queen Mary College calling for a living wage for workers. “We’ve marched everywhere,” said Sr McCreesh, who is presently chair of the Brentwood Justice & Peace Commission.

There are also fundraising activities for projects in Ethiopia, which involves the Ursuline schools. “We are fund raising for Ethiopia at the moment. The Ursuline schools in England have raised over £17,000 for a girls washroom for an orphanage in Ethiopia,” said Sr McCreesh.

In addition to her work with More than Gold on the Olympics, Sr Kelly runs a foot care service in the local parish of St Anthony’s. The service runs out of the convent weekly but Sr Kelly also does home visits. “Its nails, corns and calluses,” says Sister Kelly.

Sr Colmer is responsible for Ursuline Links, a project for young people to give them opportunities to serve needy communities in the UK and further afield.

The 150th anniversary will be marked in May with four days of celebrations. On 4 May, there will be Mass in the morning then a day of celebrations at the school, which will include the banging of the gong 150 times. The following day will be for former students to come and celebrate. The next day will be for the local neighbourhood and parish to come to an open house. Then there is the big celebration on 8 May when Ursulines from all over the world will come to the convent and school, including the present Mother General of the Roman Union and the Mother General of the Thildonk Congregation. There will be Mass at St Anthony’s celebrated by Bishop Thomas McMahon, with the local priests invited. There will then be a reception on the convent lawn under the tulip tree that has stood in the same place since the original school was built back in the 1850s.  

Sr Colmer summarised the work of the Ursulines as going out with Christian principles: “People always matter, we hope what we are trying to do now helps open people up to God in their lives."

As for the future, the sisters say that it is in God’s hands. “People are looking for God in different ways. We are working locally with young people and in the deanery with the religious,” said Sr McCreesh. No doubt the work of witness to gospel values, inspired by the foundress St Angela, will continue on in whatever way the spirit guides.

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Tags: East End, London: Ursulines

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