130 years of Catholic education

St. Francis School, the first Catholic institution in The Bahamas opened its doors with a 15-strong cohort of students. Today, the Catholic Board of Education (CBE) celebrates its Founder’s Day and 130 years of Catholic education in The Bahamas, with enrollment in CBE schools at 2,500 and which rises to 3,300 with the inclusion of enrollment at St. Augustine’s College (which does not fall under the CBE), but excluding populations that would have been enrolled at the hurricane ravaged Abaco schools of St. Francis de Sales and Every Child Counts, and boasting an alumni community of thousands.

Among the rich legacy of thousands of people who have received a Catholic education is Sister Annie Thompson, who received most of her primary education at St. Francis & Joseph School and rose to the top post at the lower school where she served as principal for three years.

“I didn’t even know they went that long, but that’s great, and still standing means it’s excellent. It means the base is good, and the product they produced is great,” said Thompson in reference to today’s century plus three decades anniversary. “I hope that it will continue and that we will continue to produce the well-rounded citizens that we’ve been producing.”

Thompson, 78, entered the Catholic school system as a third-grade student after her dad converted to Catholicism. She recalled having originally attended a public school and entering her third-grade year in a classroom that she thought was too crowded.

“I didn’t want to be there so I went up to St. Francis School and registered myself. The classrooms were not as full as in the public schools where they did an excellent job as well, but it was just a little too crowded,” she recalled.

“It was very good,” said Thompson of the education she received at St. Francis School. “We were educated by the Sisters of Charity and Sisters from St. Martin Monastery who were Blessed Martin de Porres Sisters at St. Martin Convent. The Sisters were very strict, and they made sure you did your work properly. In the classroom the children were well-behaved and the teachers did a good job.”

The first St. Francis School buildings.

It was at St. Francis School where she received her introduction to sports, specifically basketball and track and field.

Thompson, who also headed St. Bede’s Catholic Primary School for many years, also now has a school named after her, the Sister Annie Thompson Pre-School, on the compound of the former St. Bede’s Roman Catholic Primary School on Sutton Street, off Kemp Road.

Today, Catholic education celebrates with Founder’s Day Assemblies simultaneously at all CBE schools, with the exception of Saints Francis & Joseph School in New Providence (the celebration will take place tomorrow) and St. Francis de Sales and Every Child Counts in Abaco (schools that were devastated by Hurricane Dorian).

Assemblies will take place at 9:30 a.m. at New Providence Schools St. Thomas More which has a total enrollment of 371 students, Xavier’s Lower School which has a student body of 317, St. Cecilia School at which 384 students are enrolled, and Aquinas College which has an enrollment of 568 students; and Grand Bahama’s Mary Star of the Sea Catholic Academy which has an enrollment of 329.

St. Francis & Joseph, the first Catholic school in The Bahamas will hold a special celebration on Tuesday, November 5 at 9:30 a.m.

CBE’s inaugural Founder’s Day celebrations will take place under the theme “Faith-Filled Past … Hopeful Future!” – a tribute to the founders of Catholic schools in The Bahamas, and acknowledgement of the rich tradition of local Catholic schools steeped in faith, academic excellence and service to others.

CBE officials say today they celebrate the students of Catholic schools who learn, serve and graduate with a bright and hopeful future.

Highlights of the Founder’s Day assemblies will include student performances, re-enactments of the history of Catholic schools and a special Founder’s Day message from Archbishop Patrick Pinder.

Founder’s Day is important as the Catholic education system is the largest private educational system in The Bahamas, one of the oldest education systems, and has thousands of alumni.

November 4 is the actual date the first Catholic school, St. Francis, opened in The Bahamas.

In 1889 Archbishop Corrigan approached Reverend Mother Ambrosia Sweeney of the Convent of Mount St. Vincent-on-the Hudson, to send a group of Sisters to Nassau to being a social and educational mission in The Bahamas. In response to his request, Sweeney, along with seven other Sisters of Charity and three lay women arrived in Nassau.

On October 28, 1889, Sweeney along with Sisters (nuns) Dolores Van Rensselaer (the Superior), Mercedez Donovan, Maria Corsini Gallagher, Teresa Alacoque Nagle and Casilda Saunders and three lay women arrived in Nassau and immediately began seeking ways by which to serve the needs of the Bahamian people – and since five of the Sisters were educators, they felt that educating Bahamians would be the best approach to take.

On November 4, 1889, the Sisters of Charity opened the first of Catholic school in The Bahamas – St. Francis School, a free institution, in a rented house on West Street, on grounds south of the church. Fifteen students showed up on that first day; by the end of the first week, enrollment at the school was doubled. By the end of that first month, they needed a larger facility. The St. Francis & Joseph School of today is the product of that first school.

A couple of days after St. Francis School was opened, another school, St. Francis Xavier Academy, a fee-paying school was opened in a section of the rented St. Francis School. The Xavier’s Lower School of today is the product of St. Francis Xavier Academy.

The founders’ vision was to equip the Bahamian populace with the skills, attitudes and behaviors that would help to further develop the people. And for 130 years Catholic schools in The Bahamas have provided an exceptional education to families of diverse backgrounds.

Jestina Adderley, 71, who also attended St. Francis School recalled penmanship being a focus of the nuns on students, and having to attend Mass religiously on Thursdays and Sundays.

She recalled the education she received as “wonderful”.

CBE officials say Catholic schools throughout the country remain committed to providing quality education and ensuring affordable fees to ensure Catholic education is accessible to as many people as possible.

“In Catholic schools we do small things in great ways,” said Claudette Rolle, director of Catholic education. “Founder’s Day is a way for us to not only celebrate our humble beginnings, but also demonstrate the overwhelming impact that this diminutive group of committed Sisters had on the development of the Bahamian educational system. Today, we no longer have the religious serving in our schools, but remain steadfast in serving our communities and making the ordinary … extraordinary.”

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Shavaughn Moss

Shavaughn Moss joined The Nassau Guardian as a sports reporter in 1989. She was later promoted to sports editor. Shavaughn covered every major athletic championship from the CARIFTA to Central American and Caribbean Championships through to World Championships and Olympics. Shavaughn was appointed as the Lifestyles Editor a few years later.

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