It would be difficult to exaggerate the contribution made by the Sisters of Saint Clare to the education and social welfare of the children of Newry’s working classes for the past one hundred and seventy three years.
Nor do I refer only to the girls, for many of our young boys (including the present author, and our contributor, Gerry Monaghan -[see Memories 1]) were privileged to avail of the Sisters’ talents and beneficence in their early years.
A small religious community was founded in 1212 in San Damiano in Italy (incidentally, not so long after Newry in far-off Ireland was founded by a charter  of High King, Maurice McLoughlin) by Saint Clare and Saint Francis of Assisi. The Order first arrived in Ireland in 1629 and it has worked and thrived here ever since. It was two more centuries (1830, to be precise) before, by invitation, the Order moved north to Newry. The Minutes of the Newry Mendicity Association in the late 1830s note that care of orphans was given over to the good Sisters. It had been Dr Kelly, Bishop of Dromore who had written to the Poor Clares in their Harold’s Cross, Dublin headquarters, requesting help to deal with the widespread poverty, misery, and lack of educational facilities of his people. Prior to this, it had been exclusively a contemplative order. To the great benefit of many generations of Northern Catholics, the Sisters agreed to take academic training and pass on their skills and knowledge to their young charges.
Mother Mary Tracey arrived with four sisters on 2 June 1830. A house was purchased on High Street and within two months the foundation stone of a new chapel and school had been laid. Within a year four hundred children were attending school, and by 1835 this number, augmented by many orphans, had risen to five hundred. Soon a workshop was added to teach older girls the skills of lace-making and embroidery, by which they might earn their living. By 1836 the Bishop was in a position to laud the Sisters on the examination successes of their young pupils. There was a very famous visitor to the school in 1839, in the shape of the Great Liberator, Daniel O’Connell. In the Visitor’s Book, he appended the following remarks, ‘noted is the neatness and cleanliness of the children, the superior style of their pronunciation and their thorough understanding of what they read..’.
By 1857 a further extension was undertaken in the form of a dispensary/infirmary and an Infants’ School. It was well into the twentieth century (1925) before the Sisters undertook to provide Secondary Education. When a separate building was provided, this was the start of the now-famous Sacred Heart School, the alma mater of so many of this and previous generations’ ladies of Newry and district.
It was little more than a decade ago that a state-of-the-art School and Convent was constructed in Ashgrove, Damolly, for the Poor Clares. The present writer’s children had their best education there, and I pray that so too will our grand-daughters. The facilities – not to mention the teaching staff – are of the highest calibre. There is not a Catholic home – nor indeed, any other, for any girl meeting the academic criteria will be admitted – in the whole district that is not indebted to the skills, the dedication, and most of all the charity of the Poor Clares of Newry.