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Portadown, Armagh – 103 Thomas Street

THE STORY OF OUR COMMUNITY

 103 THOMAS ST, PORTADOWN

The first community in Portadown was founded on 15th October 1882 from Granard. The founding Sisters comprised six professed sisters and three postulants. The Sisters were Mother Emeria Harbison, Mother Joseph Keating, Sr. Mary Aloysius Creasewell, Sr. Francis Xavier Moore, Sr. Mary Margaret Atkinson and Sr. Brigid Reynolds. The foundation arose from a desire ‘to begin anew their apostolate among the children of the working classes’.

They took up their abode in the old parochial house, William Street, Portadown. An account written in the Centenary celebration booklet speaks of Mother Emeria recalling the day when she and Sr. Mary Joseph had first stood in the hall and recoiled at the dank dark dreariness of what was to be their home.

On 21st November, 1882 they were introduced by the Parish Priest, Rev. Laurence Byrne to the children and girls of the town. Two rooms in the convent were used as classrooms. The first pupils came from cramped little houses in River Lane, John Street, Curran Street, David Street, Marley Street and Francis Street that now exist only in oral recollection or old newspaper files. Attendance increased rapidly and in 1883 it is recorded that 80 pupils were enrolled in the evening class.

Most of the children went to school barefoot, particularly in summer, and few would resist running after one of the town’s three street watering-carts to cool their feet. In the classroom the children would carefully put away their “piece” to be consumed at lunchtime. Each of the country children would add the sod of turf they had carried from home to the hearthside pile that would be used judiciously during the day.

Each day began with the roll being called and prayers recited, the woodbound slates and slate pencils would be distributed and a purposeful quiet would descent on the room.

Co-adjutor Bishop, Dr. Logue, was concerned about the cramped conditions in both school and house, and persuaded the Sisters to negotiate with Mr. G. Shillington for 4 acres of land fronting Thomas Street as a site for the new convent.   The annual rent of £83 was thought to be too high and a burden on resources.

In 1885, a collection was taken up in the parish and realized £80. Archbishop McGettigan bequeathed £100 to the sisters in 1887. When Thomas Marley died in February 1889 he left the Sisters £70 and £500 for building purposes. On 17th April 1898, the St. Patrick’s Hall Committee appointed a group of members to act as stewards at the sister’s special fund-raising entertainment. The sisters continued to raise some money themselves and were helped by the people and clergy.

On 29th August 1898 the first sod was cut and excavations were begun for erection of a convent building of red brick.

On 30th July, 1900 the sisters took possession of their new convent in Thomas Street. Work commenced on a new school adjoining and the sisters taught in the meantime in the basement of the convent building. A convent chapel was built and dedicated in 1925 to our Lady of Perpetual Succour.

In 1901 new schools were blessed and 155 pupils were enrolled. In 1907 heating was installed in the schools and management was transferred from the Superior, Mother M. Emeria Harbison, to the parish priest. The community increased to 14 sisters. Because of the exertions of the local curate, Fr. Thomas McDonald, the numbers of students increased rapidly. Two more Sisters were required to teach.

By 1926, school attendance had increased to 255. In 1933 a girls’ school in Curran Street amalgamated with the convent school bring attendance to over 300. In 1937 a girls’ school in Corcrain was made a junior school and resulted in a further increased attendance. Two secular teachers were appointed. By 1948 the attendance had reached 500.

In 1950 a second storey was erected over the assembly hall to provide 2 classrooms and an office. Two years later, in 1952, a dining hall and kitchen were built to supply dinners. In 1955 more space was needed but Portadown Town Council refused to grant a right of way to a proposed site at the rear of the Convent. In 1956 a two-storey byre and hayloft were reconstructed to provide three classrooms. In 1961 two new classrooms were used for the first time.

In 1965 the foundations were laid for St. Brigid’s Intermediate Schools. The community donated £10,000 toward this giant parish project. St. Brigid’s was blessed in July 1967 and in September enrolled 250 students. The community purchased a car to transport Sisters to the new school.

In 1970 the school changed from a voluntary to a Maintained School under a “Four and Two” Committee. Heating, lighting and cleaning became the responsibility of the County Armagh Education Committee.

In April 1976, Sr. Mary Turley was missioned to Portadown from Greenhills, Drogheda. When the post was not advertised there, she was re-missioned to Belfast in September 1976. Having secured a teaching post in St. Gabriel’s Boys’ Secondary School she initially traveled each day from Portadown. She was involved with the setting up of the Flax Trust with Fr. Myles Kavanagh, CP – the Trust aimed for reconciliation through economic and social development, ‘peace one person, one job, at a time’.

During 1988/1989 at the request of the Provincial Leader, Sr. Emmanuel Campion, to initiate a project to help the deprived people of Portadown, Sr. Mary was missioned to Portadown from Leixlip. With the door-to-door help and support of the Portadown Community, particularly the elderly Sisters, she set up Bannside Development Agency Ltd, a socio-economic regeneration initiative drawing its members from both sides of the religious divide; also an OAD Community Association, the Bannside Children’s Group, a Community Group, an Arts and Crafts Group, the Scribblers Group, the Homework Club, the Edgar Obins group and later Bannside 2000 LTD. She was vice chairperson of the Greater Craigavon Partnership, the first female Catholic to be invited on to this body; she was also a director of a number of companies in Northern Ireland including the Royal Hospitals Trust and the Northern School Advisory Board of the Ian Gow Memorial Trust.

Sr. Kathleen was given the key to No. 28 Garvaghy Park on 1st April, 1988. By then, Sisters were involved in ecumenical gatherings such as Clergy Fraternal and in Meditation & Prayer groups. The Portadown community supported the efforts of Sr. Joan Brosnan and Sr. Mary Turley as they began ministries in Belfast, the Flax Trust, and the Bannside Community Development Centre in Portadown.

Sisters were also involved in cross community activities, PACE, Clergy Fraternal, Women of Faith (Belfast), Bible Studies, the Maranatha Prayer Group, St. Vincent De Paul Prison Ministry, Christian Aid, Parish Programs for Renew and Journeying Together, Forum for Catholic Women, Preparation of people, adult and children for the reception of the sacraments, Church Music and Eucharistic Ministry to the people in Nursing Homes.

The convent was closed on 31st July, 1996. The building and land was sold to David Rice of Armagh. The contents of the chapel were gifted to a number of churches in the Armagh diocese. The building was eventually developed into the Mourneview apartments and ownership has changed a couple of times since.

At present (2008) a Sister is involved in the Flax Trust – reconciliation and enrichment through education, training, social development and respect for cultural difference; the Bannside projects, visitation and directorships of a number of companies in NI. The Presentation Sisters KOINONIA provides ecumenical programmes for Healing, Reconciliation, and Spiritual Growth. Specifically this is through weekly Meditation, classes in T’ai Chi, Spiritual Direction, occasional mini-retreats, and a monthly Women’s Group. A Sister continues to bring the Eucharist to two Nursing Homes and engages the with individual needs of people she meets. We continue to participate in a ministerial group now known as Churches Together in Portadown, the Parish Pastoral Council, The Liturgy Committee, various committees connected with these and the Diocesan Women’s Committee for Developing the Role and Ministry of Women in the Church.

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