Address by Bishop Jones at the blessing and official opening of the new college building at the College of the Immaculate Conception, Summerhill, Sligo
“There is a temptation today in contemporary Irish discourse to dismiss religious belief as somewhat inherently irrational and divisive and even anti-intellectual. The most important principle underpinning Catholic education is the value placed on this ongoing dialogue between faith and reason. It is this principle which helps to explain the unique value of Catholic schools and why they are so sought after throughout the world” – Bishop Christopher Jones
I welcome all of you to the blessing and official opening of our brand new Summerhill College building. I welcome the Minister of Education and Skills, Mr Ruairí Quinn. I welcome the chairman of the Board of Management, Dr Michael Duignan, the members of the Board of Management, the Principal Mr Tommy McManus, the Deputy Principal Ms Margaret Dowd, staff, students, parents and all invited guests. I welcome in a special way the members of the Building Sub-Committee and everyone who has helped us provide this state of the art educational facility for the boys of Sligo and beyond.
A Milestone in the Story of Summerhill College
This is a significant and indeed magnificent milestone in the long story of Summerhill College. It was founded in Athlone in 1857 which was just ten years after the Famine. At first it was a diocesan seminary to prepare seminarians for the priesthood but very soon opened its doors to all boys seeking secondary education. The Bishop who founded the College was Dr Gillooly who also built our beautiful Cathedral in 1875.
The College was transferred to Sligo in 1880. It found temporary accommodation in Quay Street until the beautiful cut-stone college building was completed in 1892. Extensions were added in the 1950’s and 60s to accommodate the increasing demand that came as a result of the introduction of free education.
Boarders and Dayboys
I was a boarder myself from 1950 to 1955. At the time, there were approximately one hundred day pupils and one hundred and twenty boarders. I will never forget my first week in the college. It was the loneliest week of my life. It was my first time away from parents and siblings and the classrooms, the halls and the corridors seemed massive. There was no open fire or welcoming sitting room in sight.
By the end of the 1980’s the College ceased to accept boarders and in many ways that changed the whole character of the college.
While my first weeks as a boarder were very difficult a community and a sense of belonging developed over a few weeks not only in our own class but with the college as a whole. Every morning we gathered in a dimly lit little chapel which had warmth and welcome about it which I think helped to deepen and strengthen our sense of being a faith community.
Gratitude of Inspirational Teachers
I genuinely thank God for the teachers we had during those years. We had approximately fifteen priests and two lay people on the staff. All of the teachers were experts in their own subjects. Fr Kerrigan gave us a great affection for the Irish language so also did Fr Kelleher who was then President of the College. Fr Foy instilled in us a great love for the English Language and literature. Fr John Feeney taught us Greek and gave a great love for the history and culture of ancient Greece. Fr Martin was a Latin scholar and a great teacher, in our view a kind of saint. He too gave us a love for the language, the history and the culture of ancient Rome. Every time I visit Rome I love to spend hours at places like the Forum or Coliseum. I still remember with great gratitude Fr Tom Moran. I came to Summerhill College with little knowledge of Irish. With his teaching I learned very quickly and Irish was no longer the crucifixion for us that it was in primary school.
I share all this with you today because I do believe I owe it to those great men who were not only men of learning and great teachers but who also good people who took a great interest in our wellbeing. I do believe that our education during those years could compare with the best available in Ireland or indeed across the world.
Success of Past Students
When I think of it so many classmates of mine, when on graduating from Summerhill, went on to do very well for themselves and became leaders in their own fields. I also think of students who were at the college when I was on the staff. I am delighted today to see Prof Jim Browne now President of the National University of Ireland, Galway among us along with Tommie Gorman, RTÉ Northern Editor, who has communicated so well, in these last years, the story of Northern Ireland; and, Walter Young who works in the President’s Office.
Although a large number of students got good results and went on to do well, I do believe that the joy of Summerhill College, every summer was not so much about those who acquired the highest points but about those students who had realised their true potential.
In that spirit, I am delighted that our college in recent years has extended its facilities to accommodate children with special educational needs. I genuinely believe that this development can enrich the education of all concerned.
As I look back on my years as a student in Summerhill, I am especially grateful for the Catholic ethos that enriched and enhanced our education generally. Here, I would like to quote from a document of the Irish Bishop’s Conference on Catholic Education in Ireland Vision 08.
Catholic Schools in Ireland are a living expression of a long and varied tradition of education. Inspired by the life of Christ such schools emphasise the dignity of the human person as a child of God called to work with other persons in creating an inclusive community in service of the common good: knowledge is sought and respected while faith is nurtured and challenged.
When Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI addressed representatives of British Society at Westminster Hall in 2010 he said:
I would suggest that the world of reason and the world of faith – the world of secular rationality and the world of religious belief need one another and should not be afraid to enter into a profound and ongoing dialogue for the good of our civilisation.
There is a temptation today in contemporary Irish discourse to dismiss religious belief as somewhat inherently irrational and divisive and even anti-intellectual. The most important principle underpinning Catholic education is the value placed on this ongoing dialogue between faith and reason. It is this principle which helps to explain the unique value of catholic schools and why they are so sought after throughout the world.
Many commentators of Catholic Education would say that the building of community where faith and reason are in constant dialogue is an essential distinctive characteristic of any catholic school. I truly believe it was this that I found in Summerhill and that has had such a lasting influence on me throughout my life.
My Catholic Education
As a consequence, I have carried in my heart a deep and abiding faith inspired respect and admiration for the dignity and beauty of every single individual human person. Tragically a person can be scarred by poverty or violence or alcohol or other drugs but we must always see underneath the poverty and the addiction the dignity and beauty of each human person made in the image and likeness of God and destined for glory. All of us are called to treasure that dignity and help it surface through our care and kindness.
I would love to see all of our schools at primary and secondary level find ways to bring home to students the inherent dignity of the human person. Perhaps a special week at the beginning of each school year – would help engender in our young people a great sense of respect for their own dignity and the dignity of every human being.
I would like to share with you how I gained my appreciation and understanding of human dignity as a student here in Summerhill and how it has been an abiding influence on my own life.
When teaching religion in Summerhill College as a young priest I always believed that if religious education was for life it should be in touch with the reality of life. For that reason I would bring the boys down to visit the old and the lonely, to refurbish and decorate houses of the poor and visit and sing for the residents of the home for the elderly or the psychiatric hospital. We also provided lessons in reading and writing for travelling children and organised travel for them to school.
In the early 1970’s my bishop asked me if I would go back to university to study social science. I did, and eventually returned, to help found Sligo Social Services Council where I worked full time. Thank God it is still flourishing today. I do believe that the Catholic education I received in Summerhill College has served me well in my life and ministry.
One wonders how we might best express our appreciation of the value of Catholic education – education rooted in the life of Christ who taught love of God and love of neighbour. An education where faith and reason walk hand in hand as enlightening friends rather than foes.
Today we hope and pray that the board of management, the principal and the staff will continue to reach a level of excellent rational endeavour in every subject and in every class room. We also hope and pray that they will honour their commitment to the faith dimension of life and the Catholic ethos of Summerhill College and strive always to ensure that, as long as parents make this their school of choice, all education in the college is inspired, enhanced and enriched by that ethos.
In this regard I thank Father Michael Drumm of the Catholic School’s Partnership, himself an alumnus of the college, who was our homilist at Mass this morning for all his work in promoting at a national level a greater understanding of and appreciation for our distinctive Catholic educational tradition.
Thanks and Gratitude
Today we thank the Government and the taxpayer through yourself Minister Quinn for funding this beautiful new college building. We believe after one hundred and fifty six years of sterling service that even in recessionary times we deserve this facility for the students of our time. We remember with gratitude the civil servants who researched our needs objectively and reported to Mary Hanafin who was then Minster for Education and Science. We were all so delighted when she published her decision to provide us with a new college building.
As recession dug in the process was stalled and some of us were even convinced that we would never live to see the new building. After much persuasion and help from our local politicians, Minister Batt O’Keeffe, gave us the go-ahead to go to planning and eventually to tender. It was exciting to see the various companies involved providing much needed employment for the town. We thank the architect and head of the design team Mr Frank Pastor and all concerned with the finished product.
I wish to thank the board and especially its chairperson Dr Michael Duignan and Sister Patricia for bringing the college through very difficult days even as the board began to manage the construction of this new college building. I wish to thank sincerely the Building Sub-Committee of the Board of Management which ensured that everything was carried out according to specifications and that the staff was consulted on all the plans from the beginning. I want to thank, in particular, Bartley Gavin for his liaison work with the Department of Education and Skills. There is not time to mention everybody involved by name but please check their names in the booklet you have received and make it your business to thank them sincerely.
There are so many others that we should thank today and especially the staff and students who experienced great inconvenience while the new college was being built. May everyone associated with this new building know that their contribution in whatever form is deeply appreciated and may we all remember the definition of education “Education is what remains when everything we have learned is forgotten.”
All past students present will remember that our diocese and our diocesan college are dedicated to Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception. Today we re-dedicate our college to Our Lady and pray that she continues to protect pupils, parents and staff in this new building into the future.
Our Lady Seat of Wisdom
Pray for us. Amen
Notes for Editors
- Bishop Christopher Jones is Bishop of Elphin. This address was delivered on 12 September 2013. Founded in 1857 by the then Bishop of Elphin, Dr Gillooly, the College of the Immaculate Conception, or Summerhill College Sligo as it is more widely known, is a Catholic Voluntary Secondary School for Boys under the patronage of the Diocese of Elphin.
- Press release from the Department of Education and Skills:
€12.5 million project funding provided by the Department
The Minister for Education and Skills, Ruairí Quinn TD, today opened a new school building for Summerhill College, Sligo. This new building, which replaces the existing school, received €12.5 million in capital funding from the Department.
It will cater for 900 students and includes state-of-the-art facilities including four science labs, two woodwork rooms, two metalwork rooms, computer rooms and a multimedia room, a full-sized gym and fitness suite, and an art room.
An autism unit within the school has two classes, and there are plans to expand this provision in the future.
Speaking at the launch, the Minister noted the school’s long history and role at the centre of life in Sligo since 1880.
“This school is an excellent example of how to respond to the needs of students of all abilities within a community” Minister Quinn said. “With this new, fit-for-purpose building, current and future students will be able to benefit even further from the dedication of the teaching and auxiliary staff here.
“Not only that, but the whole community will be able to make use of various elements of the new facilities, as the College continues to be vital part of the Sligo.”
The Minister thanked everyone who worked so hard to complete the project and wished them every success for the future
For media contact: Catholic Communications Office Maynooth: Martin Long 00353 (0) 86 172 7678