The Sisters of St Clare have, since their establishment here in 1830, worked for the good of the parishioners of Newry. Originally based in High Street, they moved to a new convent at Ashgrove Avenue in February 2009. Many of the sisters are elderly but some are still involved in parish ministry through the management and provision of education, as Ministers of the Eucharist and the Word, as members of the Cathedral choir and through voluntary work with special needs pupils, in the Hospice and with the Samaritans.
They were originally invited to found a convent in Newry by the then Bishop of Dromore, Most Rev Dr Kelly to help alleviate the widespread poverty and misery around Newry and to meet the dire need for Catholic education. At this point, the Poor Clares, as they were called, were contemplative but due to the great need for the education of the poor in Ireland, they took up the challenge of teaching in deference to the wishes of the Church.
On 2 June 1830, Mother Michael Tracey and four other Sisters arrived by stage-coach to Newry. A house was purchased in High Street between an Orange Lodge and a Unitarian Conventicle and graveyard and, although they experienced some opposition at first, it was not long until they were fully accepted. On 12 August 1830, the foundation stone of the Chapel and school was laid. The first postulant, Miss Rice, entered the Convent on 4 October 1830.
By May 1831, there were 400 children attending the school and by 1835, this number had increased to 500, including a number of orphans. In 1832, The Newry Telegraph paid a glowing tribute to the Sisters “for their instruction of poor female children in the ways of virtue and for their rescuing the orphan”.
In 1840, a workroom was opened in which embroidery and lace-making were taught which provided a means of livelihood for the girls. “In the workroom, not only were the girls trained in an art which became for some a help, for many a means of livelihood for themselves and their families, but under the fostering care of the nuns, the girls were grounded in solid Christian piety and virtue”. When the Sisters of Mercy came to Newry in 1855, they took over the lace-making. In 1848, a kitchen was built in which 150 children were given a meal daily.
On 5 September 1857 a charity sermon “specially for the purpose of an Infirmary for dispensing medicines to poor children and for an infant school” realised £140. On the 19 July 1880, the first stone of the Lecture Room and Children’s Hall was laid. The Sisters taught in the original school until a larger one was built in 1866, when the former was converted into a Convent. By 2 June 1880, the Sisters had altered, built, improved and remodelled the earlier buildings.
At the request of parents, a school for boys was opened in 1891 and a lending library made books available for the people. A two-storey Boys’ Infant School was opened on the 23 October 1894.
A knitting industry was started in 1924 to help combat the widespread poverty in the area, caused by unemployment. A Secondary School followed in 1930 and this was followed in 1938 by a foundation in Porthcawl in South Wales.
In 1930 the Sacred Heart Grammar School was established in Castle Street before transferring to its present site in Ashgrove in 1985. St Mary’s High School was established in 1961 and both schools are prestigious centres of learning.