The Lancashire Evening Post, 18th March 1988
The End of an Era
The Convent of the Holy Child Jesus
DECADES ago the streets of Preston belonged for one afternoon a week - to the boys and girls from two town centre schools.

Thursday was half-closing day and when the school bell rang at the town's Winckley Square Convent School and Preston Catholic College pupils emerged to claim the empty streets.

As Preston emerged from a market town to thriving city centre so to has the character of education in the town. The schools are long closed and shortly another Institution will go – the East Cliff Convent run by the founders of the girl’s school, the order of the Holy Child Jesus.

Negotiations are under way for the sale of the building, which was once an annex of the convent school. The nuns who remain are preparing to move to more modest premises - two semi-detached houses in Ribbleton.

Photograph: Sister Louise (centre) and the nuns of the East Cliff Convent.

Sister Louise and the nuns of the East Cliff Convent
To them it is a time for hope and joy - an opportunity to find new ways of serving the community.

But for past pupils who assumed their school and the convent would last forever - HCJ nuns first arrived in Preston in 1853 and the school celebrated its centenary in 1878 - the news marks the end of an era.

The present superior Sister Louise accepts this, but believes change must come: "This house was very good when it was full. People went out teaching and came home here in the evening to be a community and they were always involved in the parishes. But now it's to big and there are no families around here. It’s all offices”.

The splendid convent building which boasts 28 rooms and magnificent vies over Preston's Avenham Park was, she admits, causing a crisis of conscience as well as of convenience: ”I feel good about moving out because as an active community we need to be near the people. It's no good being cut off here."

Another nun Sister Gabriel agreed: "HCJ nuns started off in Preston working in small groups in the parishes and in parish schools. Now we’re going back to what we used to be. We started off in small communities living as close as we could to church or school.

In 1879 those nuns moved to premises in Winckley Square to form one large community. Over the years adjoining properties were acquired and extensions built. In 1971 the nuns moved out of the Winckley Square premises to nearby East Cliff in order to provide more classroom space for pupils. The junior and senior schools there acquired a fine reputation for educational excellence. Meanwhile other members of the HCJ community continued teach in local primary and high schools.

When the order was founded many girls had no access to good primary or secondary education. In Preston alone between 1863 and 1869 Holy Child nuns taught an incredible 24,000 pupils at three schools. But the growth of a public education service in the 20th century gave families access to improved neighbourhood schools.

The Order, which had taken charge at many schools increasingly handed over management of those primary schools to lay people. Sister Gabriel explained: "We came here to do a job and that Job was done. We had trained most of the teachers - it was really time to let them take over the work."

Their order was established, primarily as a teaching order, by an American convert called Cornelia Connelly, but her principle admonition was that her nuns must meet the wants of the age.

Sister Gabriel is now embarking on a retirement Job - setting up a bookshop at Salford Cathedral.

A decline in vocations and the trend for religious communities to live in smaller groups have also rendered larger premises redundant. The dramatic changes in the church following Vatican II - the Council of Pope and Cardinals who met in the 1960’s to review the direction the church should take - have also played there part in the decision to move on.

The nuns say their perceptions have changed : "We are interpreting education in a much wider way. The needs of the Church are so enormous," said Sister Louise.

"When you think of AIDS and homelessness and unemployment there are many other needs - our foundress said we were to meet the wants of the age and it's very important we keep to that," added Sister Gabriel.

The revolution affecting religious life in the last 20 years have given the Sisters new confidence. "The basic change has been in the understanding of our vows. Our whole life had been determined by men's understanding of religious life. Our rules were very much taken from men's religious orders - for example, our foundress was impressed by the Jesuits and by St Francis De Sales and other French religious writers.

“The women’s liberation movement also had a certain amount of influence on religious life. Now we have more responsibility for are own life”, said Sister Louise. Now the five nuns who will move to Ribbleton are making plans for their new work in the parish of St Maria Goretti.

It’ the biggest parish in the town and there are 4,500 Catholics there. We wanted to be in a parish where there were no other religious communities.”

Another group of five HCJ nuns have already moved out to live in St Austin’s Place. Some remain as teachers, others plan to help the parishes in different ways.

The removal of furniture - using a loaned horsebox – to the Ribbleton premises has begun. But the final move is some weeks away.

As for keeping apace of the times, nuns have even been known to take visitors back to the original convent site to have a coffee at “Winckleys on the Square”, the restaurant and pub which opened after the school closed and the site was sold and dived into office accommodation.

“It’s sad to be in a place for a long time and then leave. Leaving is difficult and ever change is difficult. There is a gap between how the religious understand their own lives and how our past pupils understand our lives. They looked on the sisters and saw changelessness and security. We were always there and then all this changed, maybe they were never really given a true understanding. They have seen a lot of negative signs. Maybe they have not seen enough positive signs. They have not seen the dynamism and the strength and all the new beginnings."

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© The Lancashire Evening Post, March 1988