Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so, as a youngster, Verdell Williams’ admiration for the Sisters of Charity and the love they displayed teaching Bahamian students meant she wanted to be just like them. But her call to the sisterhood was short-lived once her dad learnt of her intention.
“To understand, you need to know that I am an only child and my father wanted grandchildren. When I spoke to my parents about my intentions, I remember as clear as day, my father looking me in the eyes and asking if my ‘head was any good.’”
When he didn’t entertain the thought of her becoming a policewoman, she went back to the times spent with the Sisters of Charity in the classroom and how they loved what they did, and she decided on becoming a teacher.
Because her father was dead set on having grandchildren, that meant Williams could not join the convent, so she did the next best thing – she became a teacher herself.
“Although I was not joining them in ministry, I was joining them in the profession,” said Williams, a retired Catholic Board of Education (CBE) teacher and Catholic school alumni, as she spoke at Xavier’s Lower School on Monday, November 4, the date of the 130th anniversary of Founders’ Day and Catholic education in The Bahamas.
“They became my mentors, guiding and helping me throughout my studies on my journey to becoming a great educator who they one day would appreciate,” said Williams.
She also gives credit to the person she became in life to the Sisters of Charity, who she said were an integral part of her spiritual, moral, educational and social development, as a result of not only the church’s teachings, but from the educational system, having attended Our Lady’s School from kindergarten through sixth grade, and a short stint at Xavier’s College – institutions that were supervised by the Sisters of Charity.
“It is often said that the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world. For many persons, when we think of that hand, we think of the hand of a biological mother. I probably would agree, because typically it would refer to biological mothers or parents, but in this instance, I will use it in reference to [the] unconditional love, support and genuine interest demonstrated to the people of The Bahamas by the Sisters of Charity during their tenure.”
Williams also spoke to students about her many memories that included the nuns mixing powdered milk for students every morning; the catechism classes during which they learnt more about the doctrine of the church and Latin; and the Fridays after class when the nuns would take them to church to clean the candleholders from the altar for Sunday Mass duties, which she said she and her classmates didn’t mind doing because a treat awaited them afterwards.
“After the cleaning, we assisted the nuns in cutting up the cheese. For every time we cut, we sneaked a bit of cheese. By the time we were through cutting, our bellies were filled and we were glad. We were even happier because we got a piece of cheese to take home.”
Wililiams said what amazed her the most was how the Sisters of Charity, adorned in their habits, would roll up their sleeves, package food and clothing and distribute them to everybody in need – whether Catholic or non-Catholic. She said they embraced everyone without hesitation.
“I can proudly say the Sisters of Charity believed in service. They lived up to their calling.”
She said over the years she watched the Sisters of Charity demonstrate love to all mankind – the agape love that the Bible speaks about; as well as living the Word, and showing the students how to live in the Word.
“They made us all feel special and appreciated. As a result, they had an impact on my life and it caused me to be drawn to their calling because of their lifestyle of service,” said Williams.
Simultaneously as Williams spoke at Xavier’s Lower School, Alexia Edgecombe – accountant and fellow CBE alumni – addressed the student body at St. Thomas More School, where she told the populace that she truly believes a Catholic school education prepares students for life and creates a well-balanced and well-rounded individual as in addition to academics, they learn sports, Christianity and family life. She said they gave her a strong foundation for her life.
Edgecombe said when she received the invitation to speak and shared the news with friends and colleagues, that they laughed, because they know her as one of those people who always promotes Catholic school education – bragging about how good it is, and daring someone to prove her wrong – to the point where some people, she said, get mad with her.
“I always tell them, if I compare my nieces and nephews and compare the ones who went to a Catholic school and those who did not, there is a striking difference. For the ones who have, I say you can drop them in the middle of the ocean and they would survive.”
Edgecombe said she was grateful to her parents for making the decision for her to receive a Catholic education, and encouraged the St. Thomas More students to thank their parents for affording them the opportunity to have a Catholic school education.
She also urged the students as they celebrated their Founders’ Day to make a promise to themselves to work harder, listen more, practice more, study more and be a better student and person.
“The harder you work, the better your grades will be. So, by the time you get to SAC (St. Augustine’s College) or Aquinas, you would be used to hard work and getting straight As.”
Edgecombe reminded students that there isn’t anything magical to being successful. She said success is the result of hard work.
“A Catholic school education has given me a high standard for learning and for the way I live my life. It has added value to my life. I have integrity. I am more responsible and I have a better discipline because of it. I was taught to carry myself as a young lady. I remember the nuns saying ‘do not be so loud’, or ‘young ladies sit with their legs closed’, or ‘you have the rest of your life to be a woman, so no need to rush.’”
With that advice, she said she was still encouraged to be confident, but never rude or arrogant. She was taught to be strong but still loving and kind; how to always strive to be a better person, and to honor and respect God.
Sister Mary Benedict Pratt, the former superintendent of Catholic schools and a Catholic school alumni, spoke at St. Cecilia’s School where she encouraged the students to not take Catholic education for granted.
“We are standing on the shoulders of persons who made great sacrifices to get us where we are today. The quality of education of our Catholic schools is second to none. Our Catholic schools have always led the way. We were the first school system to have a spelling bee, then everybody followed. We were the first to have sports, then everybody followed. We were the first to have social programs – the drug program – then everybody followed.”
At its peak, Catholic education had 24 schools. Today there are five CBE schools operational – Aquinas College; St. Cecilia’s School; St. Thomas More; Mary, Star of the Sea Catholic Academy; and Xavier’s Lower School – after Hurricane Dorian devastated St. Francis de Sales and Every Child Counts schools on Abaco in September.
Also tapped to address various CBE schools during the Founder’s Day celebrations were Justice Keith Thompson, a Catholic school alumni who spoke at Aquinas College; and Caline Newton, a businesswoman and CBE alumni who spoke at Mary, Star of the Sea Catholic Academy.
Sts. Francis & Joseph School, which is the product of St. Francis School, the first CBE school in The Bahamas, held its Founders’ Day celebration separately from other schools and was the only school to host its celebration on Tuesday, November 5 at which Catholic Archbishop Patrick Pinder spoke about reflecting upon the role the CBE plays in continuing the rich legacy of Catholic education towards a brighter, hopeful future.
“One hundred and thirty years ago, seven Sisters of Charity along with three other women responded to the call to begin a social and educational mission in The Bahamas. The founders’ vision was to equip the Bahamian populace with the skills, attitudes and behaviors that would further develop the Bahamian people and shape our destiny. Within a week of their arrival on November 4, 1889, the sisters opened St. Francis Xavier School, the first school in The Bahamas. Fifteen students showed up on this first day; before the end of the first week, enrollment had doubled. Today, the Catholic education system is the largest private school in The Bahamas and the second largest educational system in the country. Our Catholic schools serve more than 3,300 students.”
Pinder said the CBE-educated are called to emulate their founders, using the same skills and behaviors to assist people who are in need.
“The power of the few to stand up and make a difference in the lives of individuals and the wider community is the very foundation upon which Catholic schools in The Bahamas were built. The founders arrived here to be of service; may our lives reflect their true spirit of love, kindness, goodness and faithfulness,” said Pinder.
Sister Annie Thompson, former Sts. Francis & Joseph School principal and a CBE alumni, also spoke to the students about her conversion to Catholicism and the result of it on her life and where she is today.
“I attended the first Catholic School that was started in The Bahamas. I can also say that because I attended that school and they followed their motto of education to teach the whole child, and they exposed us to sports in particular – basketball and track and field – for which these grounds are famous; my love for sports got the better of me.”
Thompson also gave credit to all the nuns, including native Bahamians and the many different priest orders, for the work they did in The Bahamas in helping them to get to where they are today.
CBE’s inaugural Founders’ Day celebrations took 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.
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 bring a social and educational mission to The Bahamas. In response to his request, Sweeney, along with several other Sisters of Charity – Dolores Van Rensselaer (the Superior), Mercedez Donovan, Maria Corsini Gallagher, Teresa Alacoque Nagle and Casilda Saunders and three laywomen – arrived in Nassau on October 28, 1889. They 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. 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.