Dominicans celebrate Centenary Mass

Dominicans gather to celebrate Centenary Mass in Portstewart.

We have only begun…so much is in bud.

Dominican Sisters, staff, parents, parishioners, pupils and governors all congregated on the afternoon of Saturday 24th June 2017 to celebrate the fact that on this very date, the 24th June, one hundred years ago a Mass was held to mark the opening of St Mary’s Dominican Convent, Portstewart.

In 1917 Portstewart had a growing population of over 1600 people, yet there existed no provision for the secondary education of children in the town. This was to forever change in the summer of that year with the arrival of the Dominican Sisters who would go on to open St Mary’s Dominican Convent, Portstewart. The school would subsequently open its doors on 3rd September with the grand total of sixteen boarders and five day pupils.

The first prospectus described the site, with its commanding position a hundred feet above sea level as “a lofty eminence overlooking the Atlantic”, and so the Dominican centre for education in the north-west of Ireland was established one hundred years ago.

The first mass was celebrated on June 24th 1917 by a Vincentian Father and One hundred years to the day the school family gathered again as a Dominican community on Saturday June 24th 2017 for a special centenary Mass and Open Day.

In the introduction to the Mass Miss Rainey, our School’s Liturgical co-ordinator, welcomed the congregation to Star of The Sea church:

“On behalf of the present school community I extend a warm welcome to Bishop Noel Treanor and to our past chaplain Bishop Anthony Farquhar, who will preside at the Mass today.

Our celebrant and preacher today is Fr Stephen Cummins of the Dominican Fathers and we are immensely grateful to him for making the long journey from Cork to lead us in the liturgy.

Fr Stephen will be joined by our Parish Priest, Fr Austin McGirr, who will concelebrate the Mass. As a school community we thank him for the use of this beautiful setting of Star of The Sea Church in which we gather today.

We welcome especially the Dominican Sisters present with us this afternoon. Their vision, dedication and witness since 1917 embody the legacy that they have entrusted to us and that we continue to build on.

We also welcome members of the Board of Governors, current staff members and pupils, past staff and pupils, parents, parishioners and friends of the school.

For our centenary celebrations we have used the Jubilee logo of the flame with the Dominican Crest, and in our entrance procession today Sr Lucina will hand the flame, a symbol of the faith the Dominican Sisters left us, to the youngest member of our school community, Kitty Gray.”

The stunning music, as ever arranged by our Head of Music, Mr Terry Cloughley, complemented the service beautifully and powerfully. The link between past and present music was highlighted by the transition from the junior choir and their beautiful rendition of “10,000 Reasons (Bless The Lord) and the senior and chamber choirs which saw many past pupils to return to contribute to the centenary Mass music and singing.

Our Celebrant, Fr Stephen Cummins spoke on the theme of the challenge of continuing this legacy focusing on the centrality of conversation, risk taking and the importance of radical belief.

“We are here today as members of a wider family and we humbly stand before the wild energy of our Dominican Sisters and all who have continued this dream”

He spoke of the radical views of Dominic de Guzman and how the discussions in a French bar in the C13th changed his life and gave the Sisters their guiding vision of – the wildness of God’s beauty and of human beauty. Fr. Stephen spoke of how The risk taken by St Dominic gave the founding sisters “their radical desire to empower young people. These religious women, with a fire in their belly, believed in lifting people and helping them find a voice to continue that conversation from the C13th.

Conversation requires listening and mutual respect; this was the way of Jesus and the gospels evolved out of conversations. The Dominican sisters took the root of the word education literally; educare means to draw out, to liberate and to set free. Today we gather here to celebrate the vision of these radical women and to pay tribute to their vision of seeking out the very best in pupils and living this out through a Dominican education.”

Fr Stephen reminded the congregation that it was Dominican Sisters in Ireland who were first to set up a ministry for the deaf and for the third level education of women.

“Today we stand in humble gratitude but we cannot merely live in the past. Today I have a health warning- we must also ensure that we continue the conversation. The task of leading and empowering our Dominican young people continues. As teachers I suggest that you continue to help.

I also call on our young people to find your voice and to realise that you too are part of the conversation. I recognise it is not easy for you as you are beset by two key forces: unhealthy individualism and the “groupthink” concerning the conversation about faith. I urge you to stay awake. Consider joining a group that aims to lift others up. Let no one stifle your imagination; whatever is given can always be reimagined. It is your role to help people to think critically as you contribute to the formation of young minds, as you continue the example of those first sisters and the example of Dominic himself. The education you offer should afford freedom, dignity and liberation.”

In concluding his homily Fr Stephen added: “We do not leave here today with mere memories. Something new starts today, something radical and something subversive. Don’t apologise for the gospel values and do reflect today on friendships and memories. Be mindful of the words of Denise Levertov’s wonderful poem “Beginners”:


But we have only begun
to love the earth.
We have only begun
to imagine the fullness of life.
How could we tire of hope?
—so much is in bud.

The concluding reflection was provided by Sr Geraldine Marie Smyth, representing the Dominican sisters, Cabra.

Opened by proclaiming how good it was to be back in Portstewart. On behalf of the Dominican sisters she thanked our celebrants Bishops Tony and Noel, staff, governors, parents and the local community for their attendance remarking how “astonished” the founding sisters would have been at the steady growth of the school into “a stellar co-educational school”.

Reflecting on the parable of the mustard seed, Sr Geraldine Marie drew parallels between the “germ of hope”, the resulting tree and the growth of the school from that seed in 1917 explaining how, “We all found companionship and wisdom in those branches. We supported one another in suffering and loss while forging friendships. We came, we stayed and we flew away. Today we return as a dawn chorus, members of the diverse Dominican diaspora. We bear witness today to this city on a hill, this tree of knowledge. We are guardians of justice and midwives of peace, trusting the potential within and around us.”

We were delighted that our new School Oratory, St Catherine’s was also blessed on this day to help us both reflect on 100 Years of Dominican education and to look forward to the future of the school as a centre of excellence as we continue to build on the very proud legacy of the Dominican Sisters. Our oratory, with its views of the town and sea, will be a place of hope for those who are disillusioned, a place of healing for those broken and hurt and a place of vision and inspiration for all those who seek a new and better way.

Fr Bruno Cadore, Master of the Dominican Order, wrote to the school from Rome to extend his best wishes in the following words:
“I have not had the opportunity to visit Portstewart but I can see from the College website something of its beautiful and dramatic setting. “A city set on a hilltop cannot be hidden”, the Lord Jesus tells us, and the radiance of the Dominican College in Portstewart reaches now, through its past pupils and others, to the ends of the earth. Like all communities in NI, the college has lived through many dark days. But an essential part of its radiance all along has been its ecumenical and inclusive concern, a concern for justice, truthfulness and peace. By offering education in the Catholic and Dominican tradition, the College promotes an ethos for which those values, as well as compassion and mercy, are central… I pray, through the intercession of Saint Dominic, that God will bless each one of you and that the College will continue to flourish in the years ahead. Please pray also for me”.
Throughout the afternoon the school remained open as visitors conversed, reminisced and toured the school to relive memories.

The school would like to thank all those who attended our Centenary Mass and Open Day and for all those who worked so hard to make this such a special day at the centre of our Centenary celebrations.