Celebrating 150 years of Notre Dame in Birkdale

By Sister Susan Mary

Summer 2018 brought a special anniversary for the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur as they celebrated 150 years of residence in Birkdale, Southport.

It was on 31 July that the Sisters celebrated the anniversary with a Mass of thanksgiving presided by Archbishop Malcolm McMahon, together with the Mill Hill Fathers, who are chaplains to the convent, and Father Atli Jonsson, the parish priest. Many Sisters who had once lived in Birkdale travelled from near and far to join in the celebration.

The date remembered – 31 July 1868 – holds significance not only in Birkdale's history but as a milestone in the development of Notre Dame, as the Order's work and influence in the north of England grew from the 1850s onwards.

Notre Dame Catholic College in Liverpool (formerly Everton Valley) celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2019, and other schools and convents no longer in existence – in St Helens, Wigan and Blackburn – would also have celebrated 150 years from 2015.

Who did this? It was not the bishops and priests, who had invited the Sisters from Belgium to come to these towns to educate the poor, mostly girls; no, it was the Sisters themselves who employed architects and builders to build schools and convents, funded by the legacies of the Petre and Towneley families – all of it without today's rigorous planning laws! The buildings were austere and functional but imbued with the spirit of Saint Julie to educate children in good Christian living.

Birkdale was part of this growth, with the Sisters teaching in the elementary schools and later opening a day and boarding school. The secondary school flourished until the introduction of a national policy of comprehensive schools in the 1960s led to its closure – much to the regret of the local community.

However, the Notre Dame order continued to be active in education in Southport with Sisters teaching and undertaking chaplaincy work at Christ the King School for many years.

With the building of the present convent, completed in 1982, the Notre Dame presence is still strongly evidenced by the Sisters' efforts in many areas of apostolic life, such as in parishes and primary schools, and retreats and social outreach work. We venerate the memory of our pioneer Sisters from the 1860s and those who followed them to make Notre Dame, Birkdale a place where we still try to show forth the goodness of God.