The closure of the Nazareth House on Bishop Street last Saturday marks the end of an era in Derry. A local woman who spent some sixteen years in the care of the nuns there told ARTHUR DUFFY it’s an emotional time as she thinks of their efforts and the generosity of the people of the city down the years.
SATURDAY last, September 7th, signalled the end of an era and, indeed, the loss of an institution which has served the city of Derry and the North-West area well over the past 121 years.
And for so many of those girls who passed through the Nazareth House, the closure evoked vibrant memories of days now long gone.
Indeed, for one such lady, Ann Simpson, who entered the Nazareth House at the tender age of four following the separation of her parents many years ago, Saturday’s closure brought great emotion as she recalled a very happy upbringing in the care of the Sisters, an upbringing which she insists “instilled discipline and good values.”
Speaking this week, Ann recalled how she departed the Bishop Street establishment having found work and, at the age of 20, married local man, Denis Heaney.
Having left her home, Ann remained in Derry, brought up her family but maintained close contact with the nuns who, she said, played no small part in fashioning her future.
Commenting on her childhood in their care, she wanted to put on record the generosity and the significant role the people of Derry played in ensuring that her childhood was a happy one.
“I’m sure there are so many people out there, maybe now in their late 40s and 50s, who will remember the presence of a nun every Saturday standing in the doorway collecting money to keep the Nazareth House open,” she said.
“And for me now, as a wife and mother, I can fully appreciate the importance of all those pennies that were given to the nuns so that the girls in the Nazareth House received what I now believe to have been a very privileged childhood.
“Obviously as young girls growing up in Bishop Street, our thoughts were on fun and nothing else.
“But we not only received an education from some beautiful, caring nuns and, indeed, lay teachers, but the values of love, hope and prayer were instilled in us from an early age. The nuns also offered us great guidance as we grew up and I believe those values have served me well.”
In what was, at times, an emotional interview, Ann was adamant that the central role played by the ordinary citizens of Derry in the upbringing of the thousands of children who passed through the Nazareth House had to be acknowledged, now that the Nazareth House had closed,
“I entered the Nazareth House when I was just four years old. I qualified as a nurse when I was 18 and I left the Nazareth House to get married.
“And, make no mistake about it, we girls gave the nuns a good run for their money on occasions,” she laughed.
“We were no angels back then and, yes, we had our chores to do on a regular basis, more often than not doing everything in our power to avoid them!
“But it was a very happy upbringing where love and care dominated our lives.”
Mention of the controversy which has cast a dark cloud over the Nazareth House in recent times, following allegations of physical and sexual abuse, predictably saddened Ann.
“Obviously, I’m aware that the Nazareth House has also been involved in controversy but I certainly did not suffer from any form of abuse, nor have I any proof of any girl who did,” she insisted.
And refusing to get embroiled in discussing those controversies, Ann opted to focus her attentions on all those members of the Derry public who had contributed to making her life a happy one.
“Local people, many of whom are now dead and buried, were so generous when providing money to not only keep us fed and clothed, but they helped us develop into good citizens. Derry people were very good to us.
“The nuns walked the streets, knocking on doors every Saturday, collecting money from local people, many of whom were struggling themselves, money was so tight back then, but Derry folk always seemed to support us no matter what.
“And so many Derry businesses, quite a few having sadly disappeared over the years, hosted fantastic Christmas parties and functions for us.
“So much so, that we always seemed to have something to look forward to and I really think that the interest, support and loyalty of all those fantastic people and business organisations must be recognised now that the Nazareth House has gone.
“And the contribution of all those nuns who cared for us and looked out for us, again so many of them having passed away, must also be acknowledged,” she said.
“The arrival of the nuns eventually helped end those regimented costumes we all had to wear all those years ago. They changed all that, we actually became fashionable, we had our own clothes to wear and we all became independent and we were individuals again which was so important.
“I can also remember those fantastic parties in Sea Eagle and in so many other venues spread across the city at various times of the year, thanks to the generosity of Derry people. They were great times, happy times and we had so much fun.”
Ann says back then there were 108 girls, from all over Ireland and beyond, living in Bishop Street under the care the nuns and music was another big thing for them.
“I was actually a very proud member of the Nazareth House Ceili Band and we performed at so many venues throughout the North West. We also travelled to England and Germany, unforgettable trips.
“It was great fun, travelling to venues to play. Dance was also an important part of my life growing up.”
Having left Bishop Street to marry a local man, Ann continued to keep in close contact with her home and her friendship and admiration for one Sister in particular remained prominent.
Sister Aidan, a former headmistress in the Nazareth House Primary School, died 11 years ago and was buried in Scotland. Her death really knocked Ann back on her heels.
Just last week Anne was on a trip to Glasgow and she made sure she took time out to visit Sr. Aidan’s grave.
Having accepted the fact that her home would disappear and realising that the senior citizens who took up residence in Bishop Street have all been moved on, Ann also believes it is very sad for those people .
“The old people who had been cared for there have since left which is very sad as they have also lost their home. And while the nuns have gone to other Sisters of Nazareth centres, the move from Derry was very traumatic for them as well.
“So I really do hope that the Nazareth House will not be forgotten by the community. I believe it played an important role in Derry’s history and now that it’s gone I sincerely hope it will not be forgotten.”