IF the walls of St Joseph’s Convent, Port of Spain, could talk, one can only imagine the stories they would tell.
The oldest secondary school in Trinidad and Tobago is celebrating its 185th anniversary this year. Its courtyard still bears traces of its early beginnings. Behind the goal post of the school’s netball court lies a stone which at first glance looks rather unremarkable, however, it is actually the foundation stone of the school’s first chapel which was laid in 1845.
The history of St Joseph’s Convent PoS, which first began as a boarding house for girls, is one that includes unlikely protagonists, intrigue, tragedy and ultimately—success. Over the course of its long existence, the school has borne witness to pandemics, polio outbreaks, two world wars, a deadly fire, economic and social upheavals, yet it excelled academically and is one of the top schools nationwide in national scholarships—a status quo which principal Anna Pounder envisions will continue into the future.
The story of SJC PoS began in the 19th century with the founder of the Congregation of the Sisters of St Joseph of Cluny, Anne Marie Javouhey. Long before the idea to create a school for girls came about, Javouhey received a vision in which she was surrounded by children of all races and colours. The meaning of that vision became clearer when the order of sisters was sent to Africa, India and the Caribbean. While Javouhey was actively working in French Guiana, six sisters from the congregation she founded travelled by boat from Martinique and arrived at the wharf in Port of Spain on January 29, 1836. They came at the invitation of the Prelate of the Catholic Church in Trinidad, Bishop McDonnell, for the purpose of “founding a house of education in which all classes and religions can receive a solid and adequate grounding”.
The six sisters were not to be underestimated. They got to work and began to transform Javouhey’s vision into reality. On April 5, 1836, they opened a boarding school for girls, then moved to the premises on Kent Street, which is now Pembroke Street. At that time the school fee was 52 pounds and the pupils who were all boarders were taught in French and English. Two years later the school outgrew its location, so the sisters purchased a property that was for sale which remains the location of the present school to this day. The exams, which were called “concours”, were nothing like what exists today. They were an exhibition of the literary, artistic and musical accomplishments of the pupils.
The decades that followed brought many changes—the bilingual system of instruction came to an end in 1894 and in 1895 external London exams were done for the first time.
Then tragedy struck in the middle of the night of May 23, 1944 when a fire broke out and destroyed the greater part of the school and the chapel. Four sisters were killed in the blaze. Two years later in 1946 the new school which exists today was opened. The sisters received donations to rebuild the chapel and as an expression of thanks they had a stone carved out of marble which they dedicated to their donors. The marble stone is located on the landing of the blue staircase which no pupil is allowed to step foot on, Pounder tells the Express. Only teachers and guests are allowed to do so.
Up until the early 60s, SJC was a fee-paying school which offered a limited number of “exhibitions” or scholarships annually. That all changed in 1962 when free secondary education was introduced for the first time in T&T. In 1966 the boarding house was officially closed.
When Pounder reflects on the school’s rich history, she believes that the original mission of the sisters who came to Trinidad in 1836 has been more than accomplished.
“Their idea was to educate all classes of people and look after their emotional, social and spiritual well-being so that everyone could have the opportunity to access the best education,” said Pounder who added that the ten core values which make up the backbone of SJC are ingrained in every aspect of life at the school.
The holistic development of its pupils is a tradition which the school continues to build on; SJC PoS has 43 clubs and organisations that were created to enhance the life of each pupil.
Outreach programmes are also built into the school curriculum, added Pounder.
Over the decades the school has produced alumnae who have gone on to be among T&T’s movers and shakers in the fields of education, science, medicine, politics, culture and sport. A few of the school’s past pupils include Justice Jean Permanand, economist and former first lady Patricia Robinson, activist Hazel Brown, consultant gastroenterologist Dr Maria Bartholemew, House Speaker Bridgid Annisette-George, chair of the Teaching Service Commission Elizabeth Crouch, clinical immunologist Dr Michelle Monteil, deep-sea biologist Dr Diva Amon and former Miss Universe Wendy Fitzwilliam.
Pounder herself is a past pupil of SJC and has been the school’s principal for the past ten years. Her mother was one of the founding members of the Past Pupils’ Association.
“Being the principal of a school with such a rich history is an awesome responsibility. But to work in education and with young people is a privilege; it’s a duty that you do out of love for the children. I had opportunities here that my grandparents didn’t have,” she said.
Vice-principal Maritza Ramphal, who is also a past SJC PoS pupil, agrees.
“I feel a measure of pride and responsibility. It’s important to make sure that the upcoming generations have the same opportunities that we benefited from. Shaping the lives of children is, in my opinion, the most important thing that I can do. Knowing the standards that the school has had from the beginning until now, both Mrs Pounder and I personally want to see this school continue to thrive and excel in the things that we have been doing during the past 185 years,” said Ramphal.
The sisters who founded the school did so in the midst of many challenges. Pounder says the school’s administration has taken a page from their book and continues to be guided by core values like creativity, compassion, integrity and solidarity which the school was built upon. Those cardinal qualities have steered the school through its most challenging periods, including the current global pandemic.
There is a lot more work ahead, said Pounder, who sees more changes and advancements in the school’s future. The administration is focused on restoring its buildings. Most of them were rebuilt after the fire in 1944 and are very old. The labs and the chapel are in need of renovations and the school grounds also need to be upgraded. Pounder thanks each of the school’s stakeholders who have given of their time, energy and resources throughout the years.
“We look back on 185 years with gratitude. We realise that we could have only gotten here with the work and collective efforts of past administrators, the support of past pupils and other stakeholders,” she said.
As SJC PoS looks ahead to the future, the school’s administration hopes to continue its legacy of excellence and help young women who enter their gates to realise their full potential.