I had occasion to call to the girls primary school Scoil Mhicil Naofa some weeks ago to meet the newly appointed Principal. In keeping with the tradition long associated with the Mercy Sisters I was brought to the Staff Room for a cup of tea and a bun and who should I meet there but somebody I remember when I was a nipper attending St. Joseph's Boys School at Rathstewart. It was Mrs. Florence Pender still hale and hearty and of indeterminate age. Woe betide anyone who would be so foolish as to ask the question which must inevitably spring to mind.
There are few memories we retain of our very young days but of those still cherished inevitably our early school days figure prominently. I have snatches of memories relating to my three year stay in St. Joseph's Boys School where I was before transferring at seven years of age to the Christian Brothers School. Sr. Brendan, Mrs. Lucy Alcock and Mrs. Pender are prominent in my recollections of St. Joseph's School. Mrs. Alcock was regarded by all the young boys as a surrogate mother and how kindly she reciprocated the trust and friendship lavished on her by the youngsters. Sr. Brendan was of course everyone's vision of the kindly nun. She prepared us all for our First Communion with dextrous use of the scissors which hung from her belt. The skilful art of receiving communion on the tongue in those pre Vatican Two days was rehearsed and rehearsed by Sr. Brendan passing up the line of boys, each obediently sticking out his tongue to be touched with the scissors held in the hands of the diminutive Kerry nun.
Mrs. Pender who is apt to describe herself as being as well known as a "beggars ass" worked occasionally in the Convent and was to replace Lucy Alcock when the latter retired. Her father, Denis Prendergast, who lived in Mount Hawkins also worked for the nuns and drove their horse carriage. This was a feature of transport in Athy up to the 1950's as the nuns were brought to the Railway Station or travelled with the carriage curtains drawn to St. Vincent's Hospital. Florrie Prendergast married William Pender and in so doing changed her name as she herself laughing describes by cutting the "gast" out.
After almost 45 years of service she is still to be found in the Staff Room of Scoil Mhichil Naofa catering for the needs of today's teachers.
St. Joseph's School no longer stands at the side of what was the main entrance gate to the Convent of Mercy off the Rathstewart Road. Demolished in 1964 to make way for St. Michael's new Parish Church the entire area has changed beyond recognition.
Also demolished at that time was the large finely carved Celtic Cross which once stood in the grounds of St. Michael's Church and which was clearly visible as one passed on the Monasterevin Road. Captured many times in photographs as far back as the Lawrence photographs of the 1890's the Cross was erected to commemorate Fr. Thomas Greene, former Parish Curate who played a major part in raising funds locally for the construction of the Convent for the Sisters of Mercy. I wonder where that memorial Cross put up with the contributions of the local people can now be found? It should be restored as a fitting tribute to Fr. Greene and to the people of Athy who before, during and after the Great Famine made many sacrifices so that the town could have a Convent of Mercy.
However I digress, but maybe not. The physical changes in the area around the Parish Church as we knew it in the 1950's mirror the changes which time has wrought on the people we knew at that time. The youngsters who played in the school yard of St. Joseph's School are now scattered far and wide. Of the teachers only Sr. Finbar is still with us while Florrie Pender continues her involvement with the Sisters of Mercy junior school. Times have changed but some things never change.