Father Smyth (Parish Priest: 1884-1904) is quoted as saying “A parish without a Catholic School is only half a parish.” And so, in 1893 he started building the Convent and School, very much along the style of the Convent in Antigua. This meant the downstairs housed the school and upstairs was used as the Sisters’ dwelling. It is the same building we still have to the North of the Church – Parish Centre.
On 20th May 1896, four sisters arrived from England with Mother Ursula as their Superior. Unfortunately she died only a few weeks after her arrival, apparently from yellow fever. In July 1896 the Convent High School opened its door to the first forty pupils. In July 1897, two more Sisters came from County Clare in Ireland to help, but they left the same month for the United States. In August, Sister Mary de Sales left for Mobile, Alabama, and the Superiors in England had only young Sisters still in formation to send to St. Kitts. Thus the Convent High School had to be closed after only one year in operation.
In 1904 St. Joseph’s Parochial School, popularly known as “Roman School” was formed under the management of Rev. Stainforth. The main intention of Rev. Stainforth was to serve the community by providing free education to those who wished to avail the opportunity. There were 77 pupils on roll. The St. Joseph’s Parochial School later renamed St. Joseph’s Primary School and from the 1950’s it was the first and only school on the island that served free cooked lunch to its pupils. Many vocational skills were taught in that school: drawing, painting, carpentry, sewing, typing and cooking. Even as it was considered a school for less privileged children the educational and disciplinary standards were very high.
In 1906 Father Stainforth bought a large property behind the Presbytery. The spacious building was converted into a school and the garden became a playground, while the old school house behind the church was turned into a sacristy. Efforts were being made to start the Convent High School again and on 17th August 1911, the Order of “La Sainte Union” accepted to come and teach in Basseterre. We read in the December issue of the “Ecclesiastical Bulletin of Roseau” of that year:
“After long and unrelenting endeavours on the part of His Lordship the Bishop and of the Parish Priest, St. Kitts is to have a foundation of Nuns for the purpose of promoting elementary and higher education. The Sisters belong to the Congregation of “La Sainte Union des Sacres Coeur”, which has several establishments in England, Ireland, France, Belgium and the United States. The aim of the Nuns is to instill into the minds of their pupils the knowledge and love of Religion, to train them in habits of industry and virtue, and to impart to them a useful and accomplished education. The course of instruction comprises of the following subjects: Religious Knowledge, Arithmetic, History, English Grammar, Literature and Composition, Geography, Political Economy, Book-keeping, Shorthand, French, Drawing, Design, Plain and Fancy Needlework, Elocution, Theory of Music, Class Singing and Drill. ”
His Lordship the Bishop of Roseau inaugurated the High School conducted by the Religious of “La Sainte Union des Sacres Coeur” on Wednesday, January 10th 1912. The institution opened with 49 pupils. The primary school had 200 students. There was no tuition at the Primary level and the tuition at the High School level was insufficient due to the small number of pupils, but help came from some generous parishioners. The academic level was high. During the years 1914 –– 1916, a total of 25 pupils sat the Oxford Local Examinations, and all of them passed, several with honours. By 1920, there were 55 daily pupils and 30 private ones; boarders could not be taken due to limited space. In 1916, Father J. Hermans bought the property at Baker’s Corner adjacent to the Convent to the North and in 1920 Fr. O. Cuvelier built a parish hall on top of the old building.
In 1929, Superiors of the Congregation of Sisters decided to pull out of St. Kitts because they had sustained several loses due to an outbreak of yellow fever. In January 1930 the Belgian Sisters began their work in both the Convent High School and St. Joseph’s Primary School. The Convent High School became so popular that it was always over-crowded and needed continuous extensions. A shortage of classrooms became more and more acute around the year 1950. In 1953, Fr. Joseph Eelen was appointed in Basseterre and would play a major role in solving this problem. He quietly began buying property to the east of the church and begging people to remove their houses. Towards the end of 1954 he even bought the old Masonic Lodge and in return tried to sell the surrounding property in the square, which the Government bought in 1957. The old Lodge was now part of the school and yet more room was needed resulting in Fr. Joseph Stryckers building a new wing of four classrooms behind the church in 1967. But more rooms were still needed and in 1971 eight more classrooms were built by Fr. John Bergmans. These new wings surrounded a playground, which was paved in 1976 through the efforts of the pupils themselves. By that time, the old termite-eaten Lodge was broken down and Fr. John Bergmans built a new hall on that spot with financial help from the Belgian Government. Thus The School had now become a coherent unit and classes no longer had to be held at the Convent itself or at the Presbytery.
However, staffing of the school was becoming a problem. In 1965, the Superiors of the ICM Sisters informed Bishop Boghaert that due to lack of vocations, their schools in the Caribbean could no longer be staffed by the Sisters. Fr. Denis Hebert, a Canadian priest well acquainted with the “Filles de Jesus” in Canada,and requested those Sisters interested in the Caribbean. In 1966 our Bishop applied to those Sisters and they accepted to take over the school in St. Kitts gradually. Early in 1968 the Superiors visited St. Kitts and in May the decision was made. Thus, Sisters Therese Robichaud and Jeanette Peltier arrived in September and worked together with the ICM Sisters for one year. When that school year was over, the ICM Sisters were given a fine and thankful farewell on 28 June 1969 for their forty years of dedication to the people of St. Kitts.
In September 1969, seven “Filles de Jesus” took over, five (5) of whom taught at Convent High School. The following year disaster struck. On Saturday 1st August, whilst travelling to Nevis for their retreat, three (3) of the sisters were among the many who lost their lives when the Christina capsized. Despite this great loss the order sent more of its Sisters to replace those who were lost at sea. That same year the order signed a 5-year work contract, which they renewed for another for five years. In August 1979, their 10-year anniversary with the Convent High School was ended.
In preparation for their departure, Fr. John Bergmans, who set up a school board for both schools consisting of clergy, Sisters, teachers, and parents. Financial assistance was sought from the government and more lay involvement was desired. The year 1976 signalled that change with the appointment of the first lay Headmaster Mr. Calvin Farrier. The first school board was established around this time to assist the parish priest to run the schools.
For the lack of religious sisters, more lay teachers, Catholic and Non-Catholic, were employed in the schools. The preference for the trained and better teachers, however, was always given to the St. Theresa’s Convent School. Nevertheless, the involvement of teachers and parents as well as support of the parishioners of the Immaculate Conception parish in the St. Joseph’s Primary School was always very high, and it helped to keep the school running. In 1979 the students of St. Joseph’s School prepared a play “Joseph – Dreamer of Dreams.” The play was performed not just in St. Kitts but they also staged the play in Montserrat, Antigua and the USA.
In the early 1980’s both schools became diocesan schools –– Bishop Donald Reece and the Diocesan Catholic Education Commission had a direct influence in the appointment of principals and in administering the schools. It was then that the merger of the two schools was considered for the first time. However, the idea was strongly opposed by the majority of parishioners of the Immaculate Conception Church and the administration of the school. In the middle 1980’s the Divine Word Missionaries provided a manager for the schools; Br. Richard Morrill, SVD to revive and develop the schools which had begun to decline. Sometime after Br. Richard left, Bishop Reece sent Br. Paul Mc Niven, a Christian Brother who was the head of the Diocesan Catholic Education Commission, to provide leadership. However, after a few months in St. Kitts he discovered that some parishioners and senior staff of the school were opposed to the reforms that he wanted to bring. He left the island in utter frustration. In 1996 Bishop Reece appointed Sr. Mary Andrew of the newly arrived Franciscan Sisters from Jamaica to perform the function of Coordinating Principal for both schools with the intention that one day they would be merged. In 1999 Mrs. Vernice Rogers became the principal of St. Joseph’s School. Three sisters of that congregation successively performed the role of the Coordinating Principal until they left in 2005. Mrs. Lisa Pistana became the Principal of the St. Theresa’s Convent School and both principals worked together with the Board towards making the schools one Catholic school, Immaculate Conception Catholic School.
In 2003 a Catholic businessman and philanthropist from Syracuse, Mr. Daniel Mezzalingua and his family came to the rescue of the financially battered schools. Mr. Mezzalingua paid some of the some school debts and sponsored many small projects including: the Laurie Mezzalingua Resource Centre named after his daughter who was battling with cancer. In 2007 Mr. Mezzalingua expanded his help and came with a plan of total rebuilding of the campus and making out of two schools one excellent Catholic school. The idea of merging the two schools was in the pipeline for years but was always put aside because of the tradition of the two schools. However, the rebuilding of the campus presented a good opportunity to finally merge the two schools and name the new school after the parish to which it belongs: Immaculate Conception Catholic School. In 2010, the Catholic School Board hired Patricia Drake Hensley, Ph.D. to develop the vision of Immaculate Conception Catholic School. Her vision not only encompasses the complete rebuilding and extending the campus but also a complete remake of the school both academically and structurally so it will become a modern 21st century World Class learning institution.