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The Historical Success of St. Joseph High School
“The Sisters shall feel convinced that no work of charity can be more productive of good to society or more conducive to the happiness of the poor than the careful instruction of women. ”
This was the conviction that led the Sisters of Mercy, a community of Roman Catholic nuns, to establish St. Joseph’s Mercy High School in 1897, three years after they launched their mission in Guyana.
The School began with secondary education classes given to a few girls in the Sisters’ Community Room at Dettering Hall, a former Dutch residence, located in the Charlestown ward of Georgetown. In 1899, it became a Boarding School, with Mother Columbia, a trained dramatist, as its first principal. She served for twenty-three years (1897-1920), and, during her tenure, the School produced some of the best dramatic performances in the country.
She was succeeded by Guyanese-born Sister Gabriel Fernandes, who engineered the expansion of the School with the construction of a new two-storied building at the corner of Charles and Holmes Streets in 1925. The new building brought space for more classrooms and a separate Drama hall, where many excellent performances were staged.
To cope with the rapid growth of the School, the Sisters appealed to the Mercy Center in the United States for help, and, in 1935, Sisters Mary Consolata Muldowney, Austin and Clarita were the first American Sisters to join the staff at St. Joseph’s. At the same time, the Boarding facility was closed to make room for the increased number of day students.
In 1938, under the direction of Sister Mary Elizabeth Robinson, a commercial (business) department was added. This demand for this specialty grew so rapidly that an annexe was built in 1939 to accommodate these students. The new three-storeyed structure also accommodated an Infant School department, which admitted both girls and boys. By 1939, St. Joseph High School was recognized by the University of London as a secondary school.
In 1944, the celebration the Sisters celebrated their fiftieth anniversary since their arrival in Guyana, and this event was made more memorable with the award of the coveted British Guiana Scholarship to a St. Joseph High School student, Elsa Gouveia.
As the demand for more classes grew, more expansion took place at the School. In 1950, an Art department was introduced. With all these developments, the School did not receive any financial aid from the government. One of its main sources of fund was the income generated from its annual “Tour Around the World” fair held around mid-year.
At this fair, cultural displays and tastes of various countries, such as Ireland, England, Spain, India and China, were presented.
Another important milestone in the School’s history was the establishment of the Old Girls’ Association in 1953. The three-fold mission of the organization was:
To promote a bond of friendship among its members and loyalty to the School;
To help in the progress of their Alma Mater by providing scholarships among other things;
To provide for the spiritual and social aspect of its members.
Among the many activities organized by the Association were weekend spiritual retreats, garden parties and the publication of a magazine. Funds were also raised for the School’s Building Fund. In 1956, the organization granted its first award. This was given to the School’s best all-round student, and won by Josephine DeAbreu, a Third Form student at the time. The Association also presented a Public Address system to the School, which was especially welcomed for Assembly.
After thirty-five years of dedicated service, Sister Gabriel retired in 1954. She was succeeded by Sister Mary Consolata Muldowney.
During Sr. Consolata’s tenure at the helm, a Board of Governors for the School was established; this was in 1955. Its first members were: Sisters Consolata and Elizabeth Robinson, Patricia O’Connor, Aldora D’Ornellos, Celestine DeFreitas and Carlos Gomes. During this same year, Home Economics classes were introduced under the direction of Sister Margaretta Phillips, and at this juncture, enrollment had risen to about 620 students.
By this time, the Preparatory section was relocated to another building under a new name, Stella Maris. This made way for further development at St. Joseph High, and, in 1957, a Science department was added, with Sister Mary Emerentia Bowyer in charge. The main subjects taught were Biology and Health Education.
Towards the end of the decade, the Charlestown district was rezoned as an industrial site. This meant that the School had to be relocated. It was moved to Woolford Avenue, in the Thomas’ Lands section, starting a new era for St. Joseph High School.
On 25th March, 1960, ground breaking for the new construction took place. This was followed by laying of the cornerstone on 2nd July, 1961 and formal blessing /opening on 4th October.
The new building boasted a spacious foyer, airy classrooms, and Art room, Biology and Home Economics labs. Heading the Biology Department was Sister Celine Marie Kirsch, who arrived in Guyana in 1960. The construction of the new school opened the way for greater success. In addition to Science, Mathematics, History, Foreign Languages and English, Art, Business, Needlework and Cookery also made the curriculum. Also, through the hard work of Sister Consolata, university boards gave permission for the Oxford and Cambridge examinations to be written at the School.
In an effort to cater to the all-round development of the girls, the School introduced supervised games and other extra-curricular activities, such as drama and ballet. Sports were given a boost with the development of the grounds at the eastern end. Thanks mainly for the assistance of Joseph and Everest Vieira, M. J. Mahanger and the Georgetown Town Council.
Despite the political turmoil of the early sixties, the academic achievement of St. Joseph High School remained outstanding. In 1962, Sixth Form student, Audrey Bynoe was awarded a scholarship to pursue undergraduate studies at the College Misericordia in Dallas, Pennsylvania. She had followed another student, Enid Patricia Housty, who was also awarded a scholarship to the College in 1958. Ms. Housty graduated Magna Cum Laude with a Bachelor’s degree in Music Education and went on to secure a Doctorate in Musicology. In 1963, Sandra Vieria also won a scholarship to pursue undergraduate studies at Misericordia, while Joan Dummett secured hers for Howard University in Washington, DC.
Sister Consolata stepped down in 1964 and returned to the United States. For the next five years, the School was led by Sister Mary Ellen; after which time, Sister Mary Admirabilis, the second Guyanese-born nun to be appointed to the head post took over.
The female students of St. Joseph High School can be picked out in any crowd. The distinctive royal blue uniform stands out as, perhaps, the most attractive and trendy uniform in the country ever since it was adopted in 1965.
Coinciding with the Sisters’ 75th anniversary, in 1969, the newly constructed northern wing was blessed open. This section houses the Biology, Chemistry and Physics Labs, the Home Economics and Technical Departments, the Cafeteria and the expansive Patio.
In 1970, three more students were awarded university scholarships. Camille Gaskin won a scholarship to study Geography in Germany, while Rosemarie Jeboo and Claire Davis won theirs in other fields of specialization.
The decade of the seventies ushered in dramatic changes. Sister Therese Marie Marques was promoted to Principal in 1971, and within her first two years in this position, the curriculum was revamped to meet the requirements of National Development. Under the new system, courses like Craft, Co-operative Development, Homemaking, School Leaving and West Indian Literature were added. In 1973, Red Cross officials were also invited to form a unit in the School that offered courses in Home Nursing, Maternal and Child Care services and First Aid. In this same year, the School received confirmation of its Grade A status from the Ministry of Education.
New House and Merit systems were also introduced in 1973 to provide students with incentives for good conduct and citizenship. The following year, a Diploma system, emphasizing both academic performance and personality assessment, was introduced.
In 1975, complying with a government mandate, St. Joseph High School officially became a co-educational institution. For the first time, boys were admitted to the lower forms. For some years before this, the School had been admitting boys to its Sixth Form program, so not too many physical alterations had to be made.
The 70’s and 80’s were some challenging years for the School. Although the Sisters had virtually lost the freedom to direct the School’s operation, Sister Therese co-operated fully with the government but when she resigned in December 1983 that ended the dynasty of the Sisters of Mercy at St. Joseph High School.
The following year, history was created when, for the first time, a male, Mr. Guru Govind, was appointed as head, though it was in an acting capacity. Months later, he left to reside in the United States and was succeeded by a Mr. Shivraj, who also served for a short period.
In 1984, the new school year began with a newly appointed principal Mr. Arthur Brown, who has been described as a disciplinarian and hard worker, has also been credited for restructuring the curriculum to sustain a high degree of discipline and improved academic standards. He is also credited for ensuring that the Cafeteria was operated in the best interest of the students and for engaging the co-operation of the Parent Teachers Association in carrying out projects that benefited the School.
Mr. Brown left the job in 1988 and was succeeded by Mrs. Joan Kendall. Some of the highlights of Mrs. Kendall's eight-year tenure were improved exam results, refurbishment of school facilities and the establishment of an Environmental Club and Class Councils. These councils were formed to foster better relationships among parents, teachers and students. Apart from ensuring that classrooms were always kept in a clean and tidy manner, Class Councils played a meaningful role in helping to promote the social, academic and moral development of the child. Mrs. Kendall is also credited with restoring the observance of St. Joseph day on March 19th, at the school.
Taking over from Mrs. Kendall after her retirement in 1996 was Ms. Gloria Croft who acted in the position for one year and was replaced by Ms. Brenda Garrett who subsequently retired in 2001. Since that time, Mrs. Ingrid Fung has been the Headmistress who continues to lead students to live up to the motto which was started in 1897 - TO KNOW, TO LOVE, TO SERVE, and to hold the flag and shield of the Great "St. Joseph High School" to peaks that are extremely hard to reach or to be compared to.
Woolford Avenue, Georgetown, Guyana