(From the first edition of The Lanthorn, Christmas 1913)
"She went to school as Mary Jane
"And came home as Jeanne Marie."
The jingle echoes down the arches of the years from the days when autograph books were part of the stock-in-trade of most Eccles Street school-girls. The autographed inscriptions ranged from impressive quotations from classics in various languages, through the original, the witty, the romantic and the platitudinous.
At one time the satirical verses pithily unfolding the history of Mary Jane's extra ordinary metamorphosis were, to use the modem idiom, high in the charts. Each verse, summarized by the above refrain, depicted the successive stages in a process so incongruous with the reality of what took place in Eccles Street that the irony never failed to raise a laugh. It described graphically what the spirit of Eccles Street was not: something pseudo, something affected, something arrogant and snobbish. Eccles Street was never associated with material grandeur or affluence; hut was rich in culture and a Dominican simplicity and straight-forwardness.
Mary Jane was not subjected to the agony of what is termed today an identity- crisis. She came home from school more Mary Jane than ever, Mary Jane enhanced because she had been accepted as herself, viewed as a potential saint in Saint Paul's meaning of the word, maturing by the development of her own integrated human personality. In this she was encouraged by the trust which is the very heart of the spirit of Eccles Street.
It is easier to talk about the spirit of Eccles Street, exemplifying it by memories and anecdotes, than to write an article in which it is defined and committed to cold print in such a way that all Ecclonians past and present will respond with: "Ah yes! that is the spirit of Eccles Street!" A spirit is an elusive thing which refuses to be pinned down by scientific analysis.
When faced with the writing of this article for the centenary edition of The Lanthorn I recalled and shared, with a representative assortment of other past- pupils, innumerable memories and impressions from my own school days and could, there and then, have written a vivid account entitled: "I Remember Eccles Street". I could have begun with my even earlier pre-Eccles Street romantic ideas of boarding schools gleaned from Angela Brazil's books about girlish frolics in exotic schools for the upper leisured class.
But the reality of life in Eccles Street proved beyond doubt that fact is not only stranger than fiction, but more satisfying and exciting. How could it be otherwise in any Irish Dominican school true to the traditional spirit of the Dominican sisters who began their educational apostolate in 1644 in the convent of Jesus and Mary, Galway; continued and expanded their ministry courageously through the centuries of penal persecution so that by 1882 there were in Ireland, flourishing Dominican convents in: Galway, Cabra, Drogheda, Sion Hill, Dun Laoghaire, Belfast and Wicklow, while from these convents others had already been founded in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the United States of America (Louisiana). The story of each convent from 1644 to the present day is a fascinating saga of courageous trust in God's Providence, following the example of Saint Dominic and sharing his vision of the future of the Order.
The vision, fortitude and practical common sense with which the little group of nuns from Sion Hill in 1882 set about transforming the rather stark buildings of numbers 18 and 19 Eccles Street, into the future home of a Dominican community, and an educational establishment to answer the needs not only of the time, but those of future generations, can be taken as a parable of the spirit of Eccles Street.
The gift of insight, of looking at what is and envisaging what it should
and could be, must be activated by a spirit of initiative, enterprise, faith
in God and the courage to face up to and accomplish great and difficult
things. It is the gift of Magnanimity possessed in abundance by Saint Dominic
and in greater or lesser measure by those who claim to follow him.
"Greatness is genius in undertakings of much pith and moment. . . a great man is one who can do that which when done is of the highest importance."
(William Hazlitt, "The Indian Jugglers")
Those who knew Saint Dominic, in an effort to convey something of his great
sanctity and humanity described him in many ways, one being "an economist
or harvester of souls." He had the insight and positive genius to help
people make the most of themselves. He saw what was best in them and with
gentle firmness enabled them to break away from the slavery of error, ignorance
and cowardice which hindered them from grasping the truth which would set
them free. His model, Christ the Perfect Teacher revealed the word of God
by preaching and by his life. His external healing of all kinds of sicknesses
symbolized liberation from bondage and restoration of spiritual light and
strength to be used to the full by the person healed.
It is this Christ-like respect for the dignity of the human person, capable of pursuing truth and free to act in accordance with it, which inspires the Dominican approach to teaching, and which expresses itself characteristically in the spirit of Eccles Street.
From its very beginning, the story of Eccles Street reflects the high standard and wide range of knowledge, the concern
for national and international culture, the deep spirit of practical religion and the sense of balance which are essential in an integrated education. It reflects also its conviction of what Pope John XXIII emphasized in 1962, when he urged the Congress of the Italian Catholic Teachers' Association to esteem the dignity of their vocation as a service of love undertaken in a supernatural spirit. The teacher's work is "not something trivial. . . . It must be numbered amongst the loftiest services that man offers his brethren." The super natural spirit referred to is the: ". . . mark of the believer, the man who wants to build not on crumbling sands but on the solid rock that defies storms and remains until life eternal. The supernatural spirit means trust in the means of grace; a constant recourse to prayer based on firm conviction; a steady effort to work, with out ostentation, in the name of Christ, who had a special love for children."
The community who set this standard, valued highly and practised in their lives one of the most essential elements in the Dominican way of life: study, i.e. reflective prayerful pondering on the Word of God as revealed in Scripture, in the world and in people around them, and in what Vatican Council II later termed, "the signs of the times." Long before the study of Scripture had become popular, the Bible was used in Eccles Street as a great source of spirituality; courses on Biblical themes were given by experts to both nuns and students. The community library was furnished with the latest books, and classics, in various languages, on spirituality, liturgy, and especially Dominican Spirituality and Life. Time was made for enjoyment of the fine arts; for travel talks, slides and films, music, song, dance and drama; as well as visits to Museums, the Botanic Gardens, and to see the Book of Kells and other treasures in Dublin. Feastdays, especially those of Dominican saints, were high-lighted by a Missa Cantata, anticipating Vatican II's Constitution on the Liturgy.
Successive issues of The Lanthorn from its first number in 1913 down to the present day, contain evidence of an educational policy and content far in advance of its time. The day-to-day activities recorded in the informal "Flashes by the Way" testify to a spirit of warm friendliness between teachers and pupils based, nevertheless on a healthy respect for and wholesome fear of those in authority. "Old Familiar Faces" is not only an annual account of the joys, sorrows and achievements of past-pupils scattered world-wide, but a proof that they still feel welcome in and part of Eccles Street.
From their experience, a goodly cross-section of Eccles Street pupils ranging from remote through mid-distant to immediate past, have given their impressions of its spirit. There is space here for only a few of these comments, but they sum up the common experience of all.
"A spirit of trust;" "magnanimity, practised rather than
preached, manifested in a breadth of vision which looked beyond the here
and now, and in an under standing approach to life which helped the pupils
to develop a sense of balance and true values."
"Practical religion examplified in the daily lives of the nuns who somehow conveyed a sense of God as THE reality."
"Knowledge was made interesting and exciting and over-competitiveness was frowned upon.""Enlightenment and kindness."
"There was a great feeling of unity and encouragement from the older girls and especially from the community and teaching-staff. ."One of the very first things that enters my head is the feeling that each one of us was an individual and treated as such."
Individual treatment however, did not exclude that most necessary and genuine form of care for the person's growth - correction and character-formation through self-discipline, as generations of Ecclonians can attest. There were rules to be observed for the welfare of all, and the unauthorized infringement of these rules was dealt with, not inflexibly, but justly and memorably. Those who lived and handed on the spirit of Eccles Street would, in the interest of their motto Veritas, justifiably recoil from a centenary tribute which might, however unwittingly, apotheosize them. As human beings with human faults they would, like Oliver Cromwell, wish to be portrayed as they really were, "warts and all."
Paradoxically, the very breadth of vision arnd cultural richness of some of these great women could, at times, prove their undoing. Confusing time with eternity in class, they would journey interestingly and enthusiastically into realms not immediately related to the matter in hand so that just as they came in sight of the subject time-tabled, the bell rang to end class. On the other hand, like any other normal school, Eccles Street had its quota of boring classes. The whole-hearted spirit of trust was so unfamiliar to some of the pupils that at times weak human beings found it beyond their power to reciprocate with the expected trustworthiness. Many ingenious excuses were devised, especially by the boarders, to account for absence from class, study and other duties - and accepted, frequently, unquestioned.
Many of the "warts" possibly originated in the high standard
of religious life lived by the nuns, and adapted, not too successfully on
occasion, for their less-dedicated pupils who did not see eye-to-eye with
the authorities regarding the asceticism of early rising, frugal living,
faithful observance of the spirit and the letter of the law governing their
lives. The results were the inevitable misunderstandings, rebukes, "rows",
school-girl miseries and resentments; and teacher frustration and disappointment.
Such lapses on the part of the authorities, strangely enough helped prepare
the pupils for the realities of life: to study on their own afterwards,
having had to make up by personal diligence what they had missed in meandering
classes; to use one's time well and exercise a sense of responsibility,
decision-making and freedom of choice in the wider impersonal world of university,
business and various other avocations in life. In this way the transition
from the mixed care-free, yet exacting school-days to a positive living
of adult life, was helped by the latitude which trained one in personal
responsibility and assessment of values.
In describing the spirit of Eccles Street, the present writer is merely keeping to the terms of reference implied in the title, and is not claiming that every single pupil who has passed through Eccles Street since 1883 when the first pupils were admitted, down to 1982 when this edition of The Lanthorn is published, absorbed and lived by that spirit fully, or at all - who knows? Neither does this writer claim that every nun and teacher excelled or was perfect in her life and profession. What she does claim is that the deep theological principle so simply stated by Saint Thomas Aquinas: "Grace builds on nature", inspired the life and work of those who lived, and taught others to live by the spirit of Eccles Street at its best.
The Next Hundred Years:
". . . to make an end is to make a begining.
"The end is where we start from."
(T.S. Eliot, "Little Gidding.")
And so, in completing its first memorable hundred years in the Dominican apostolate of education, Eccles Street begins its second century. It starts richly endowed with a heritage which, by the grace of God, it in turn will enrich even more.
Part of that heritage is what Leo XIII in his encyclical Aeterni Patris ("On the Restoration of Christian Philosophy in the Schools." 4. August, 1879), called "the golden widsom of Saint Thomas Aquinas."
In the Leonine Corpus of nine encyclicals containing the most outstanding
statements of his social teaching, he regarded this one as the most important
of all, insisting that it be placed at the very beginning of the collection.
The influence of Leo X teaching on the foundresses of Eccles Street is evident
in their enlightened approach to education.
"If the children and youth of a nation are afforded opportunity to develop their capacities to the fullest, if they are given the knowledge to understand the world and the wisdom to change it, then the prospects for the future are bright. In contrast, a society which neglects its children, however well it may function in other respects, risks eventual disorganisation and demise."
(Urie Bronfenbrenner, Two Worlds of Childhood.)
In 1979 Pope John Paul II commemorated the centenary of Aeterni Patris by paying a special visit to The Angelicum, or Dominican international University of Saint Thomas, in Rome, with the express purpose of reiterating emphatically the teaching of Leo XIII on the primacy and relevance of Saint Thomas's doctrine at all times, particularly in our days, and the special duty and privilege of Dominicans to treasure and spread it.
One of the tasks facing Eccles Street at the beginning of its second hundred
years is the difficult, but not insurmountable one of implementing in a
chaotic society the basic Thomistic principle that: "No one can develop
a well-trained mind or become a man of wisdom by proxy. The proper fruit
of the educational process is the steady ability of the disciplined mind
of the student to undertake its own rational explorations, make its own
assessment of the evidence, and thus secure a distinctive, wholly inalienable
hold on truth."
James Collins, Introduction, Thomas Aquinas, The Teacher, The Mind.)
Teaching is meant to liberate intelligence instead of burdening it. To
be a teacher of truth requires great faith, great courage, perseverance,
love and unselfishness, because the apostolate of teaching is a hidden apostolate.
It is like the small, unobtrusive and unostentatious beginnings of the Kingdom
of God described through out the pages of Saint Matthew's Gospel, which
almost invisibly, slowly but surely permeate and transform the whole world.
The teacher of truth may never see the extent of her influence in this life,
but that influence, too, permeates and transforms those whom it touches.
"This learned I from the shadow of a tree
That to and fro did sway upon a wall,
Our shadow-selves, our influence may fall
Where we can never be."
SISTER M. BEDE KEARNS O.P.