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Sr Helen Mary Langlands fcJ - 80 years on from when I first started school

18 Feb 2019

On Tuesday 14 February 1939, I commenced school at Genazzano Convent FCJ, Cotham Road Kew, E4 (East4.) It was the second Tuesday in February, which was the traditional day for starting school. This date was to be a fixture for many years before and many years to come.

As in any child's life, it was a momentous occasion, full of anticipation for what the future held for me (as a 5-yr-old), my parents, my teachers and colleagues as well as the future my life was to take.

When we arrived at the ‘Noah's Ark’ door in Mont Victor Road, we walked down six or eight steps to be greeted by Mother Columba Sullivan FCJ who helped us all to change our shoes from outdoor lace-ups to one-strap indoor shoes. I remember being affronted because I didn't need assistance in changing my shoes, I could do it myself. I wasn't a baby! These were put into a shoe bag and housed in a frame divided into shoe­-sized divisions. This custom prevailed for the whole of my school life, although it was relinquished in years to come, possibly because of lack of space for storing the change of shoes.

My uniform was the smallest size that could be purchased and a beautiful bemberg silk, which was grey with fine stripes of the school colours of Cardinal, Silver and Blue going down the length of the material. As the uniforms could be let out at the seams, shoulders, waist and hem, it lasted us for the first six years of our school life. Once the War started, the bemberg silk could no longer be bought so it was changed to a lystav of varying shades of grey, a very course and much hotter material. The navy blazers were far too big for us as were the grey straw hats, which fell over our eyes.

In the winter, we wore navy uniforms with white trobalco blouses with 'peter pan' collars. Trobalco blouses had a little pattern throughout the material, which was very smart. The winter hats were grey velour with navy bands showing the school crest. The gauntlet gloves made me feel so grown up.

From the cloakroom, we were taken to Bethlehem, a wooden building separate from the main building. It was a beautiful, light and airy room which was dominated by an altar and a blackboard.

The altar held a beautiful statue of the infant Jesus dressed in a pale pink gown, whom we looked towards when we said prayers at the beginning of each school period. It inspired me to talk to the infant Jesus long before Vatican II, when we learnt to have a personal relationship with God without having to reach God through the Saints and Our Lady who would take our supplications to God Himself for us. Wasn't I glad when we could go straight to God without the saints in between God and me, after Vatican II.

Our desks were a table and chair. In the drawer of the table was our slate, slate 'pencil' and slate cleaner (a piece of material). Our school bag held our play lunch, lunch and afternoon tea, which were eaten at appropriate breaks during the day.

My mother said she would pick me up after school, so when playtime came it felt like a full day had passed but mother was not there to meet me! Mary Donoghue saw my tears and asked what was wrong. It was not the end of the day as I thought but only morning playtime, 10.30am. I still had to have lunch and afternoon playtime! What a long day!

Mother Magdalene Clarke fcJ and Miss Mary Casey welcomed us into Bethlehem. Babies and Grades 1 and 2 were in this room so we weren't too numerous. We were made up of girls and boys at that stage.

Mother Magdalene and Miss Casey were two beautiful teachers and I soon decided I wanted to be like Mother Magdalene when I grew up. This was the beginning of my Vocation or calling from God to be his Faithful Companion of Jesus. I had never met anyone like her in the whole of my life, of five years.

It is strange how excited I am now, about starting school eighty years ago. I had a wonderful school-life, even with its ups and downs. I hope and pray that many others have an equally fulfilling time during their school days.

I discovered during my Postulancy, why I was so drawn to Mother Magdalene. In 1939, it was the custom for each member of the community to be given the name of a new student to pray for. My name was given to Mother Magdalene fcJ, the 'person I wanted to be like when I grew up!' The school was still only about 400 in number when I left school in 1951. Unfortunately, as the numbers increased to 1000+, it was not possible to keep up this custom.

In 1951, it was another momentous occasion, full of anticipation for what the future held for me when I entered the Society. The 'Little Boy Jesus' has given way to my wonderful companion who loves me so much and has guided me through various traumas throughout life but is always there for me. Sometimes we hear in life how we have influenced another person so I pray my life will draw other people to him, my Faithful Companion.

Sr Helen Mary Langlands fcJ
Genazzano Student: 1939 - 1951