Recounting the history of Alpha and the Sisters of Mercy


Monday, January 28, 2013

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THE history of Alpha and the Sisters of Mercy in Jamaica is captured in a book entitled You Did It Unto Me (Matthew 25-40) written by the legendary Sister Mary Bernadette Little, RSM. The book, consisting of just over 500 pages, is a comprehensive and factual account of the beginning and development of the two institutions in Jamaica. There is hardly anyone more qualified and fitting than Sister Bernadette to tell this story.

A graduate of Convent of Mercy Academy, head girl, teacher for 50 years including 35 years as principal of the Academy, 67 years in the Sisters of Mercy, and a former Superior of the Mercy Community, Sister Bernadette helped to create and shape the excellence of the two institutions in the 20th century.

The Alpha community consists of 10 organisations: Convent of Mercy Academy, boys' home, girls' home, boys' school, girls' school, convent, infant school, primary school, preparatory school, and band, which has produced many outstanding musicians. Then there was Alpha Business School, where enrolment reached more than 700 in the 1960s.

In an interview, Sister Bernadette told me that she had to write the book for posterity, because she did not want the rich history of Alpha and the Sisters of Mercy in Jamaica to be lost. What is significant about the book is the clever manner in which she weaved in a bit of Jamaica's history. Of course, Alpha is a part of the country's education history.

Many students who became distinguished professionals and Sisters of Mercy in a variety of fields in Jamaica, the United States of America, and Europe, passed through Sister Bernadette's hands at Alpha. Among them are:

* Sister Marie Chin, RSM, a member of the first leadership team of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, and later vice-president and president from 1991 to 2003. The institute is largely responsible for approximately 5,000 Sisters of Mercy in 11 countries, Jamaica being one of them.

* Sister Grace, who retired after 20 years, got married and is now principal of Campion College.

* Jean Lowie-Chin, managing director of PRO Communications Ltd and founder/chief executive officer of Caribbean Community of Retired Persons, and who wrote the foreword for the book.

* Angela Marie Chaplin, wealth management adviser and consultant on investment at TIAA/CREF, one of the largest investment companies in the USA. Angela says that she admired and respected Sister Bernadette so much that she wanted to follow in her footsteps and become a nun.

In the book's first chapter, 'Alpha — The Beginning', the author set the story in a deep historical perspective. She writes passionately on the poor social and economic conditions under which the majority of people in Jamaica lived.

As Sister Bernadette tells it, "poverty, unbalanced diet and extremely poor living conditions kept the masses chronically sick. Epidemics swept the island from time to time". This was the world that Jessie Ripoll (later Mother M Peter Claver) saw and which moved her in 1880 to establish a small orphanage in a cottage which she named 'Alpha'.

Sister Bernadette highlights the struggle to keep the orphanage going on a sound footing and the work of the Sisters of Mercy, including those from England, in this regard. Quite interesting was the enticement offered to these Sisters of Mercy to come to Jamaica to serve in the Convent of Mercy.

There was a significant development of the orphanage beginning in 1889. With the arrival in the island of the Rt Rev Charles Gordon from England, the expansion of Alpha began to gather pace. For example, industrial schools for boys and girls were opened.

Alpha Boys' School started in 1891 with 16 boys. She points out that, from a small beginning, the school grew into a giant institution whose fame and achievements were not confined to the length and breadth of this little island, but were experienced and acknowledged in the Caribbean, Great Britain, Europe, and the United States of America.

She refers to a fact that few people knew: it was Alpha Boys' School that gave birth to the private secondary schools' cricket, football and athletic competitions.

Many people will be pleased that Sister Bernadette has given ample recognition to the work of Sister Mary Benedict Chung, former principal of Holy Family School on Laws Street in Central Kingston, which was established in 1891.

She writes: "Perhaps of all the principals, Sister Chung has had the longest tenure and made the most dramatic changes in the school and in the surrounding community. Not only was she instrumental in upgrading and expanding the physical plant, but she also spearheaded the introduction of medical services for those in need, trade training in catering, baking, and sewing for the youth of the area, thereby providing opportunities for continuing education for those who were anxious to benefit from such services."

I know of the excellent work of Sister Chung in the tough community and the love that the people had for her.

Having regard to her long and distinguished service to the high school — Convent of Mercy Academy for Girls, which was opened in 1894 — it is not surprising that Sister Bernadette writes extensively on the school and concludes that today it continues the noble tradition that was part of the dream and mission of the early pioneers. This is true, and I am not just saying this because my daughter, Angela, is a graduate of Alpha Academy.

Many of us have heard the names of famous Sisters of Mercy in the early days of their mission, but we know very little about them or their work. The author throws the spotlight on them in the book.

They include the first three Creoles to join the Sisters of Mercy in Jamaica — Sister Jessie Ripoll, Sister Margaret Mary Ximines, and Sister Louise Dugiol. Of special interest is that, of the nearly 50 Sisters of Mercy, in 1936, there is only one surviving member — Sister Mary Pascal. When I visited her a couple of weeks ago she appeared to be in fine shape.

The book, which covers many other areas, will be launched today at the Mercy Memorial Library, Convent of Mercy Alpha, 26 South Camp Road, Kingston.

Sister Bernadette must be congratulated for this valuable contribution to the posterity of Alpha and the Sisters of Mercy in Jamaica.

Ken Chaplin is an inductee in the Press Association of Jamaica Journalism Hall of Fame for his long and distinguished service to the field of Journalism.




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