School with a heart

By Zubeida Mustafa

IN March 1862, five nuns from the Daughters of the Cross — a Belgium-based congregation — travelled to India and set up a school in Karachi with 10 students on its rolls.

This is how the St Joseph’s Convent School (SJC), one of the finest educational institutions in the city, was founded. Today, 150 years on, the number of its students has grown to over 2,000. Hundreds of thousands have passed through its portals over the years.

Last week, the SJC opened its doors to 90 St Josephines, as the alumni are called, to honour them at its sesquicentennial celebrations. They were dubbed women of substance. One hundred and fifty had been selected but tracing their contacts and dispatching their invitations was quite a challenge. Nevertheless it became a ‘memorable occasion’, to quote Shahnaz Wazir Ali, special assistant to the prime minister and more importantly a product of SJC, who was the chief guest. Her eloquent tributes to her alma mater echoed the feelings of all those present on the occasion.

At a time when the country is faced with an ‘education emergency’ launched by Shahnaz Wazir Ali herself, the SJC experience has some lessons to offer. In an age of commercialisation of education, the SJC’s focus has continuously been on ‘Continuing Excellence in Education’ while remaining a not-for-profit institution.

This also has significant implications for society as its traditionally modest fees have enabled students from all economic strata to seek admission. What better strategy could there be to promote social integration than to allow a mix of such children to study and play together and thus understand and respect their fellow beings. As the forces of the marketplace gain momentum one hopes the SJC will retain its traditional values.

One is curious to learn the secret of this excellence. It is its faculty and the ability of the school to hold on to its teachers, motivate them and bring out the best in them. There are three teachers, namely, Sabra Siddiqi, Aileen Soares and Niceta Dias, who have been with the SJC for over 50 years. The iconic headmistress Shafiqa Fikree, remembered and loved by her students for years after they had graduated, would have been the fourth had she not passed on. Fifteen have completed a quarter of a century with three having crossed the fourth decade. These teachers are the stuff all teachers should be made of if Pakistan’s education is to make headway.

Their long stay at the wicket gives the school stability. They provide a sense of security to the students apart from being the means of transmitting values and knowledge to them. The good ones become mentors which every child needs. At the end of the day, what really counts is the character, knowledge and skills of the students who emerge from an institution.

The education of St Josephines has been shaped by the words of wisdom uttered 150 years ago by the founder of the order and the first superior general, Mother Marie Therese, “Education is not merely the imparting of knowledge….but the training of the judgment is its most important work for this will enable the growing girls to appreciate things at their true worth; to distinguish between the good and the bad, the true and the false.…”

But that doesn’t mean that the school is still stuck in the past and has not kept pace with the times. New technologies and pedagogies have been acquired and the computer lab so meticulously set up in the 1980s and managed by Naseema Kapadia, today the headmistress of the Cambridge section, testifies to the modernity that has been embraced so judiciously by the SJC. It is this blend of continuity and change that lies at the heart of SJC’s success story.

A few days after the overwhelming experience of the 150th anniversary celebrations I drop in at the convent to pay my respects to the nuns whose contribution to education has touched many lives. Sister Zinia Pinto, who was my contemporary at university (she has been a St Josephine since 1956 when she joined as a teacher), speaks of the pride and happiness she feels when she meets her former students. “We firmly stood for girls’ education and we believe we managed to achieve something,” she remarks happily.

But at times decisions had to be taken which she regrets but they couldn’t be helped. “We had to turn away many applicants seeking admission because we didn’t have the capacity. The swimming pool had to be shut down due to water shortage. The boarding house was closed down and we became only a day school because the space was needed for a training centre,” she reminisces wistfully.

Sister Dolores Anne, who was my favourite teacher when I was a teenager in school and she had not become a nun, reminds me that the Daughters of the Cross are ‘an active congregation’ and not a cloistered one. They step out of the convent to undertake ‘works of mercy’ for the uplift of the downtrodden. Sister Margaret, who was the headmistress of the junior section when my daughters were her students, tells me of the work they undertake in prison for female prisoners, the other schools they run in the rural areas of Sindh and the classes they organise for the street children of Karachi — over 200 of them — who clean cars in the morning and come to the SJC in the afternoon to study.

This is service to humanity at its best and demonstrates how the spirit of sharing with the disadvantaged can be translated into action. That is what Pakistan needs.

Source: Dawn

16 thoughts on “School with a heart

  1. Zubeida jee,
    I am impressed !!!

    I went to a similar Catholic educational institution, —-see : St. Vincent's High School – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia's_H
    St. Vincent's High School is an English Medium School founded in 1867, located
    in the Indian city of Pune and named after Vincent de Paul, a seventeenth …

    Why can not non-christians run schools with equal dedication ??


  2. very pleased to read your articles on st. joseph convent's celebrations and also your many articles on the burka and likewise coverings.

    i attended st. jo's from the time i was 8 years old and graduated with my senior cambridge in 1953 and again graduated with a b.a. in 1957 from st. josepth's college.

    my only very dear friend and closest contact is suraiya khan who teaches at a private school in karachi. i believe she was one of the women of substance and received an award.
    on another topic, i am very aware of the status of women worldwide and can't help but wonder why there is one law for the men and another for women. we are all equal in the sight of God.

    many blessings for your honest reporting.

    1. No madam, this is not strictly true. In all religion men have more rights than women. How many women popes can you name or how many women priests in the organized religions can you find. Muslims going by the most prominent loud organization do not think women should be educated! There is your equality.
      I taught for many years in a catholic school in England along side some very hard working nuns but could not stomach the inequality of genders in all religions. Lets call a spade a spade and stop eulogizing the undependable while recognizing the excellence.
      Why do people gravitate to good schools ? Because the government whose job it is to provide quality education to children does not do its job. The Woman/Lady who was the chief guest at the ceremony should have taken a message to the Prime Minister.
      While I am on my soap box I may as well say an other truth about exclusive schools they only teach the children of the well to do. If you do not believe me tell me how many of the children of the poor of Karachi were there in the celebration?
      It is not a criticism of the Nuns at all. It is telling the truth.
      Regards. Long may the noble at heart live and work.
      Shafiq Khan

      1. As to your question as to how many of the children of the poor of Karachi were there in the celebrations, my answer would be I cannot say. There are so many people coming from modest homes that it is difficult to say. Once educated a person has doors of opportunity open to him/her. By today's standards of wealth many of us who studied in SJC were not wealthy. Of course we didn't need financial support but that was because the fees have always been modest.

  3. your article today about St Joseph's convent reminded me how much the "upbringing" in that school shaped who i am today – especially the vision of Marie Therese. I live in Toronto now, but karachi at least once a year. Hope i can attend the alumni event next time.

  4. hanks; it is distressing though to read about the treatment minorities suffer;
    all power to your efforts.

  5. It will take time to find Josephines to get more Josephines but if all private schools would take some deserving children in their schools we could have a new community in a few years time. I enjoyed your article – only a Josephine could write about it with such feeling!

  6. Thanks for writing such a heart-warming piece on my school. I still have fond memories of my days spent there… the best ever… I am currently living in another country, but if one day my family and I move back, I would love to go back and teach in the same school that gave me so much .

    I also came across my second grade teacher here at a friend's place once and recognised her immediately… and it was amazing to see that she remembered me too after all those years… that's the kind of teachers we had and are still so proud of…

    Long live St. Joseph's

  7. My daughter read your article and she was much impressed. she intends to attend this college though she has lost the opportunity to study in the school. Is the college and the school under the same administration or are they different?

  8. All 150 years has been packed so nicely. Evolution – Achievements – Changes with the passage of time – Ambitions – Targets – Social and Educational Responsibilities have been arranged well in this pack.

    You have rightly said that "Their long stay at the wicket gives the school stability". In other words as "A rolling stone gathers no mass" so stationary stone can be used in a best possible manner.

  9. Your nostalgic article throws light on the values you have learnt from the SJC. Iindeed we were lucky to have been educated in such an institution which formed the strong foundation of its students which shines till now. That was another age and time compared to today and we will never get it back. But it is our duty to keep that spirit alive.

  10. Your article on SJC was beautifully written with a touch of fondness. I read it three times before I could feel satisfied. And it was so informative too. There are lots of things about the school that even I did not know c. My memories went back to 1946 when my sister and I were sent to Karachi to study in SJC as our parents awaited partition in Delhi. In those days there were many British girls in the school especially in the boarding house. Because those were still the days of the British Raj and many British officers were posted in cities where the schoos were not to their standard, they send their daughters to SJC. I remember going to the dormitory with a British girl from my class and seeing the long row of beds and lockers in the dormitory. The picture of the long room is still very vivid in my mind.. The front part of the building which has a portico and is built of yellow stone blocks must be very very old. May be you should do a bit of research to find out if it was built 150 years ago as part of the original school.

    It is amazing that a small country like Belgium could send such courageous nuns to Karachi to set up a girls school that has flourished so well a century and a half later. I had not known that the founders of the school were Belgian nuns. Anyway your article must have provided information to the thousands of readers who read it in the Dawn.

  11. Thanks for this informative article,Zubeda,especially in this day and age when many schools are purely business ventures.Having attended both the school and college from time to time,I will remember my time there for its excellence of the curriculum,the teachers,and the iconic buildings.The history of the institution was an important item of information,as was you comment about the stability provided by the long stay of some of the teachers .

  12. i am really impressed by the teachers and tribute which was being paid to the institution. i myself is a principal in a girls school. teachers being govenrment servant just try to pass the time. very few are dedicated one.they are highly qualified in terms of degrees but they have least knowledge. most of the time , being administrator i try to settel the problems of teachers.Parents are equally responsible for the downfall of education in the country.They are only interested in RACE for grades and marks. Then what one can expect from teachers. may Allah shower His blessings on the people of Pakistan. Ameen

  13. Missionary schools in Pakistan and elsewhere have a very fascinating history. These schools or Christian 'madrissas', to use the current lingo, have played an important role in imparting modern education to the local communities. The focus and committment to the school education springs from the compassion that christianity teaches its followers. But an imprtant thing to note is that christians who run and teach in these schools are very religious people and its their religion that imbibes them with the zeal to carry on with their mission.

    The history of christian madrissas, off course, started with Oxford and Cambride, which first transfomed themselves to progressive ideals and then became the beacon for the rest of the world. Infact, a lot of old educational institutions in the western world started out as 'madrissas'.

    Alas, our madrissas are still reeling in the medieval ages and though supporting the poorest of the poor in this country, have failed to bring about the change. Is there any hope there. Is our path to redemption lies through islamic madrissas as it happened in the west. Given the current state of affairs, what can be done to reform these madrissas to bring about this revolution.

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