Sister Emmanuel's years at the heart of Thornhill College

The nucleus of the present Thornhill College commenced many years ago shortly after the Sisters of Mercy had come to Derry in 1848.

Along with their work of visitation and of teaching adults and children, the Sisters also started a private school for girls in Pump Street. At the Bishop's request, boarders were accommodated in the convent in order to facilitate pupils who had long distances to travel.

The school was known as the Convent of Our Lady of Mercy School, Derry. Its first Scheme of Government under the then Ministry of Education was drawn up in February 1925 and signed by the late Reverend James O'Kane P.P.V.F. the sole surviving trustee in whom the school had been vested in 1890.

The Sisters in Pump Street had often wished to have a healthier place, away from the city, to which they could transfer their boarders. This opportunity presented itself when Watt's Distillery closed in Derry, and the Estate at Thornhill, with its extensive and beautiful grounds, became available for sale. The Sisters, with the kind assistance of the late Robert Boyle, a well known builder in Derry, completed the purchase of the property in 1929.

The house was adapted to the needs of the nuns and of the boarders. A new building, consisting of an Art Room and a Science Room was added to the adaptation of the existing stone built stable areas to provide classrooms and other necessary facilities. A playground area and tennis courts completed the requirements.

The Sisters involved moved from Pump Street to Thornhill Convent along with the boarders, and the Convent of Our Lady of Mercy School was officially transferred and opened on 8th September 1932 with an intake of 120 pupils, and a staff of about seven Sisters and three lay teachers.

To envisage the school building as it was then, we have to think only of the old early school building including the veranda and two science rooms. There were no other structures around, but only green areas and paths. Some of the names of classrooms may still be familiar: The Sacred heart Classroom; Our Lady's Classroom; The Little Flower; St. Philomena's; St. Brigid's and St. Patrick's. The spiral stairs at that time were on the outside of the building and lead up to the two small rooms above the Little Flower Classroom.

Day pupil

I went to Thornhill as a day pupil just five years after it had been opened, and well before the advent of the eleven plus examination. I was lucky to have obtained an entrance scholarship at the end of my last year in primary education in St. Eugene's Girls' School, Francis Street.

I remember well walking down Lawrence Hill on the first school morning in September to catch one of the two buses which served the school. I was both excited and apprehensive, and proud of my new navy blue uniform and the white panama hat! It was good to meet other pupils waiting also at the bottom of the hill. We became good friends, and watched out for each other every morning to make sure that we all got aboard.

When we arrived at the school we were welcomed by the Sisters and were soon given our respective rooms and classes.

Even though the school was small, I experienced a few weeks of confusion and a longing to be back in my 'old school'. I thought that I would never get used to moving about form one class to another, and i missed the security of being with the same teacher all the time. In all my own dealings with pupils in later years, the memory of this always made me more conscious of and concerned about the needs of new pupils coming from primary school into the secondary school system.

During my time in Thornhill, I was always aware of the beauty of the surroundings. When we went out at lunch break on our first morning there it was like being in fairyland, from descending the veranda steps, then following the lovely path which led down to the playground and tennis court. The whole area was surrounded by green fields and lawns, colourful with beautiful shrubs and flowers.

There was a special place at the left side of the path, just before we went into the playground, in which we watched bigger girls playing among the shrubs and trees. As the days went on the new pupils also gained access to this favourite spot which had been

christened 'Paradise'. We could climb up on the branches, play 'hide

and seek', or just sit there and look down over the terraces and paths leading to the River Foyle. This Paradise unfortunately was 'lost' and never 'regained' as progress, in terms of new buildings and structures, took its toll on the beauty of those early surroundings.

Examinations

We soon settled down to study, and had the advantage of an extra day in school on Saturdays. We had two or three years preparation for the completion of our Junior Certificate examination, and a further two years to prepare for the Senior Leaving Certificate.

I have happy memories of my years as a pupil in Thornhill, and remain grateful to the Sisters and Staff for the education and training I received there. During the years after leaving school, I continued to feel the influence of their instruction, example and prayers.

In May 1946, I myself entered the Convent of Mercy, Pump Street. I went through the postulancy, was initiated into deeper ways of prayer and spirituality, and completed a period of academic training. I made Final Religious Profession in August 1952, after which I was sent to live in Thornhill Convent and appointed to the permanent staff of the school.

Again I experienced the great kindness of the Thornhill Sisters and was helped and supported in every way, both in my life as a religious Sister, and in my efforts to become an effective teacher.

I watched the school growing in numbers over the years. After the Education Act, Northern Ireland in 1947, the number of pupils had increased rapidly as grammar school education became available to more and more children through the eleven plus examination. The school also had a change of name to Thornhill College, Convent of Mercy Voluntary Maintained Grammar School, and received increased grants from the Department of Education as two major building programmes were carried out.

The demand for places, however, continued to outstrip the permanent capacity of the school. Because of the Department's concern regarding a possible change over to Comprehensive Education and the difficulty in estimating what the future intake would be in a comprehensive system, an interim emergency building only was approved in 1976. This, the last building to have been completed on the original site, was opened in 1981. It was in no way adequate and resulted in a continuing heavy reliance on the addition of temporary classrooms and accommodation.

After the completion of the building in 1981, negotiations were continued with the Department of Education. After many years of much effort, preparation and disappointments on the part of Staff, Governors, Trustees and Parents, the present building was approved and has been opened since 2004.

I had been Principal in Thornhill since 1973, and had the privilege of carrying on the good work accomplished by the previous Principals, and of working for the School, Staff and Pupils for fifteen years. During those years there were many new developments in education, curriculum and school administration.

I was supported and helped by a dedicated and loyal staff, by my religious community, by experts and advisers form the Department of Education and by the co-operation of parents and pupils.

The financial burden on the community became less due to the increase of grants from 65% in the early days to 85% at the time I retired. It is good that since 1993 the school has been receiving 100% grant.

Retirement

I retired from Thornhill School in 1988, but continued to work as one of the trustees up to 1996 when, by a decision of the Congregation, the Sisters of Mercy withdrew from trusteeship, and gave it over to the Bishop and the Diocese.

The present principal, Mrs. Sarah Kelly, who succeeded Sister Christopher as Principal, completed the task of finalising all the work associated with the new building and since 2003, along with her dedicated staff, has very successfully taken up the challenge of this new era for the school, across the road form the old site in the new Thornhill College, where everything possible for the advancement of the full development of its pupils is being offered.

I wish Mrs. Kelly, her staff and all the pupils continuing blessings and success in all their undertakings as they now celebrate the 76th anniversary of the transfer of the school to Thornhill in 1932 from the Mercy Convent in Pump Street, Derry.

As part of Thornhill's 75th anniversary, the school is erecting a sculpture in the school grounds. To do so they need to raise 50,000 and are calling for past pupils to help them reach their goal. To donate to the fund, visit the school's website www.thornhillcollege.org.uk and follow the link to 'Just Giving' where you can donate securely. Alternatively donations can be made to The Sculpture Fund at the school itself.

Next week we talk to Eamon McAteer, the teacher who has designed the sculpture, Maurice Harron who has helped bring the project to life and some of the pupils who are adding very personal touches to the project.