On Friday, 16 October 2015, The Society of the Holy Child Jesus will be celebrating the life and ministry of Holy Child sisters in Preston, England over the last 160 or more years.
It is with sadness that we close our last community house here. But we are confident that the practice of loyal and robust Catholicism, with which we are proud to have been associated, will continue to flourish in Preston.
The Society of the Holy Child Jesus was founded in 1846 and a mere two years later the Jesuits in Preston invited the Society to take responsibility for the parish schools. Five sisters came in 1853, setting up home in St Ignatius’ Square. More sisters arrived the following year and between them they taught in all three Jesuit parishes – St Ignatius’, St Wilfrid’s and the newly established St Walburge’s.
In the 1850s the town was developing rapidly: the population had increased fourteen-fold in the previous 60 years. Work, for the vast majority, was in one of the 87 mills that the town boasted and living conditions were grim in the extreme. The children in the schools had firsthand knowledge of destitution, unemployment, homelessness and hunger. So the sisters, alongside their teaching, tried to respond to the social and spiritual needs of whole families. They contributed food and other material help, and set up night schools, and Sunday schools that taught much more than the catechism, and were involved in every aspect of parish life.
For more than a century, as the town expanded, sisters took responsibility for school after school in the newly founded parishes: the Sacred Heart, the English Martyrs, St Joseph’s, St Mary Magdalene in Penwortham, St Anthony’s Cadley, St Bernard’s Lea, as well as in the long-established St Mary’s in Friargate. Later they also taught in the Catholic secondary modern and comprehensive schools. Their contribution to Catholic education and parish life in Preston cannot be exaggerated.
In 1875 the Society bought their house in Winckley Square and opened a school for ‘young ladies’ with about 50 pupils, half of whom were boarders. As well as this, linking Winckley Square with the parish schools, they accommodated and trained pupil teachers. Like the parish schools, Winckley Square flourished, providing, as Cornelia Connelly intended, an education that helped students to “grow strong in faith and lead fully human lives”.
By the middle of the twentieth century – and not before time – lay people (many of them Holy Child educated) assumed the headships of the schools. The number of Holy Child sisters in the town decreased, the sisters moving first to East Cliff and then to St Austin’s Place where the community participated in the life of the parish much as the earliest sisters had done.