Sad passing of Mamie K. Pederson

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Tributes have been paid to the well-known former principal of St Cecilia’s College, Mamie Pederson, who died on Friday.

Current St Cecilia’s Principal Kathleen Gormley talks of a woman who was small in stature but had a big presence.

Mrs Pedersen was the principal of Cecilia’s College from 1982 – 1991. Mamie was a very charismatic principal who took up the mantle of leadership from Miss Terry Cunningham who was the first principal of St. Cecilia’s College.

In doing so Mamie had to take some very tough decisions and even though she was under 5ft, she stood tall in the world of educational leadership.

In her own words she always told us ‘I came to St Cecilia’s in September 1969 – the same year as the army’. She had transferred from St Columba’s Girls’ Primary School, Long Tower, where she started her teaching career. Her earlier days at the school were the memories of soldiers and army personnel, glimpsed through the double-doors leading to the classroom block which they occupied, until accommodation was provided for them in the army camp across the road from the school. She experienced daily rioting outside the camp, and had to face the barricades each morning to gain entry of the school grounds.

In those days education was constantly disrupted by frequent bomb-scares and often staff had to escort pupils to safety - who lived in the immediate neighbourhood - when the school had to be evacuated at short notice. Pupils who travelled by school-bus were collected daily at the top of Clarendon Street – the nearest point to which the buses were prepared to travel. The homes of many of the pupils were subjected to house raids and it was not unusual for a child to fall asleep at her desk and Mamie who was ahead of her time in pastoral care always comforted them. Hence the children of her teaching days respected and loved her. The tragic deaths of two of the pupils Annette McGavigan on 6th September 1971, and Kathleen Feeney on 14th November 1973, were traumatic experiences for her. Annette had been in her class that afternoon (there was a bomb-scare and the school had to be vacated quickly). She said, ‘I did not realise it was my last time to see her alive. Their deaths had a numbing and stunning effect on everyone’.

Mamie instilled self-belief in children in the school and helped to restore self-confidence to pupils disappointed by their “failure” at the 11 plus Selection Procedure. In her second year as principal, the 11-16 Curriculum Development Programme was launched by D.E.N.I. This was a five year programme intended to make schools re-examine their curricular provision to help prepare their pupils for the changing and challenging world of the twenty-first century. Schools were invited to apply for admission to the programme which was to be phased-in in three stages. Mamie ensured that we were to the forefront in Phase One. As a result the school was entered for, and won, the Schools’ Curriculum Award – an honour given to those schools in the British Isles, which fulfil the required criteria for good schools. The award was made in the Barbican Centre in London in November 1990, and it was a proud day for Mrs Pedersen and Mrs Cowan who attended with some students. Resulting also from this curriculum success came St. Cecilia’s inclusion in the publication “The Good State Schools Guide”, which listed the three hundred best schools in the British Isles.

Her former vice-principal and the Principal of the college from 1991-2002, Mrs Grainne McCafferty said, ‘I worked with Mamie in St. Cecilia’s for about 20 years and there was no doubting her conviction, energy and dynamism. Having come from the Long Tower School to St. Cecilia’s she brought her wealth of knowledge and love of the Long Tower, its people and traditions, to bear on her work in St Cecilia’s. She led the school with great distinction through very challenging and difficult times in the eighties. Mamie was a great storyteller and many of the events of these difficult years were later retold by her with great insight and relish. As Principal in St. Cecilia’s her undoubted and single-minded focus was on the welfare, progress and development of the pupils. That focus on the pupils was her driving force and made her the influential teacher and Principal that she was. She engaged warmly with pupils, especially with those who had any kind of difficulty, whether inside or outside school. Her legacy is in the abiding strength and success of the school and its roots in the local community’.

Mamie’s love of Art always ensured that our presentations were outstanding. She was a great fan of the School Shows and many past students will remember the biennial musicalproductions (Oklahoma, Lilac Time, The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady), to namebut a few. Mamie ensured that tradition played a big part in the history of any establishment and during Mamie’s leadership St Cecilia’s was not without its tradition of recognised functions and activities. The school Masses, school retreats, Lenten and Christmas carol-services organised by the dedicated chaplains were impressive and devotional occasions. Ever mindful that we are in the Long Tower Parish, she gave an oak leaf to each pupil to celebrate St. Columba’s Day. It is therefore fitting that God should call her home on the eve of his feast day.

Even though Mamie felt the roots of the school were in the Long Tower she was a firm believer in reaching out to other communities. The school also played a pioneering role in the establishment of cross-community links with Clondermott High School. She hoped that by sharing and co-operating in mutual projects, the parents of tomorrow would have greater mutual understanding and tolerance. In the first year of Co-operation North, 1985, a joint project involving St Cecilia’s, St Joseph’s and Foyle and Londonderry College with Grange Community School Dublin took first prize and a special award for “The Year of the Child”.

Mamie felt that the role of the parents was vital to the stability and success of any school and teachers and parents should be seen to support each other to ensure the maximum support for the pupil. The weekly home visits made by form teachers which formed the back-bone of our home-school links programme during Mrs Pedersen’s time was further strengthened by the formation of the P.T.A.

Mamie was quick to acknowledge the support given by the chairmen and members of the Board of Governors. Fr George McLaughlin, Fr Eamon Graham and Father Paddy O’Kane were frequent and very welcome visitors. The longest serving governor of St. Cecilia’s, Mr Martin White paid tribute to her as ‘a leader who set St. Cecilia’s College on the ladder of success. Mamie created a sense of stability in an unstable time. Pastoral care was the corner stone of everything she did. She knew children by name and usually their mothers and grandmothers too’.

Mamie has left a huge legacy for St. Cecilia’s as it was she who designed our school crest, put the pastoral system in place, changed our uniform to green and mentored many of us in her own very unique style. St. Cecilia’s has been the better for her time here as teacher, vice-principal and principal. Mamie herself was a most apt advocate for St Cecilia’s as a person that placed value on the enriching power of education for all its pupils and directed them upwards towards aspiration and belief in themselves and their own potential. She will be greatly missed but in St. Cecilia’s her spirit will live on.

Mrs Pederson’s funeral will take place at 12 noon tomorrow (Monday) at Our Lady of Lourdes, Steelstown.