In the late 1700’s when Dr James Butler was Archbishop of Cashel and Emly (1774-1791) he wanted a Catholic school for the Archdiocese. Though Penal Laws were still in force the Relief Act of 1782 stated that Catholics could conduct schools under certain conditions.
One such condition was that they procured a licence from the local Protestant Bishop. Immediately Dr Butler set about availing of this concession to bring teaching nuns to the Archdiocese, and so the Ursulines, or rather one Ursuline, came to Thurles in 1787.
This one intrepid nun was Anastasia Tobin, who, at Dr Butler’s request, had gone to Cork to train as a religious. She first went to the Presentation Convent, recently established by Nano Nagle where she remained for over two years. She found herself more drawn to the way of life of the Ursulines, an Order brought from France to Ireland in 1771, mainly through the vision and zeal of the same Nano Nagle. On September 27, 1787, she was professed in the Ursuline Convent, and she then returned to her native Thurles – alone. She lived in a cottage to the right of the present Cathedral which was then the site of the Mathew Chapel. One source describes this cottage as very poor indeed “so crazy that every blast of wind seemed likely to throw down its walls”. Alone she remained for nine years, helped by her sister, Mary, a lay person. Together they were engaged in teaching, though not yet officially authorised to do so! In 1796 two young women from Clerihan, Joanna and Mary Luby, who were also trained in the Ursuline Convent in Cork, came to join her, and thus a small community was established in Thurles.
The official licence to teach which eventually came in 1799 from Very Reverend Patrick Hare, Protestant Vicar General of the Archdiocese is referred to in state papers as a ‘Licence given to a Papist Schoolmistress at Thurles, Co Tipperary, A.D. 1799’. Thus this ‘papist schoolmistress’, Sister Clare Ursula Tobin, established the first Catholic school in the Archdiocese where teaching has gone on for 225 years.
There have been many ups and downs throughout these years – near starvation in Famine times, and near obliteration in the decade that followed due in no small measure to the failure of Sadleir’s Bank. However survival led to revival, growth in numbers and extension, and the First Centenary in 1887 was a joyous occasion the theme of the homily at the Mass of thanksgiving being ‘Not to us, Lord, not to us, but to your Name be the glory’.
From Thurles a foundation was made in Waterford in 1816. Later a school was established in Brecon, Wales, and many nuns from Thurles have worked there and in Kenya over the years. A unique work was undertaken in 1932 with the opening of Providence School to cater for the needs of the travelling community and to prepare their children and often adult members for the Sacraments. Its name was fitting, depending more as it did on Divine Providence for support and attendance than on human planning!
The Second Centenary in 1987 was another very happy occasion shared by many friends and past pupils. A few years before that (1983) a new secondary school was opened, and a big extension to that will be blessed and formally opened on October 5, another occasion which we hope will be shared again by friends and past pupils. Scoil Angela, our primary school built in 1956 has also been extended, and a Sports and Concert Complex built in 1997 and other facilities all help towards fulfilling our objective of providing a rounded Christian education where music, the arts and physical education go hand-in-hand with the academics. 2009 was an important year for the Community. We “moved house” to a new building across the garden where we quickly settled in to our new yet familiar surroundings.
‘The Past is Prologue’ we are told. So we of the present times look back on our past as prologue to a future which is in God’s hands.