The Sisters of Christian Instruction, known as the Sisters of St. Gildas, were founded in Brittany by Fr Gabriel Deshayes after the French Revolution. The first Sisters made their Profession in 1820.
From the early years, the Sisters were meeting the greatest needs: the education of country children, the care of the sick and the poor, making the gospel available to all, especially the underprivileged. Communities were always situated in parishes and worked in collaboration with the clergy, with great apostolic zeal and openness as teachers, nurses and in other forms of service.
The presence of the Sisters of St. Gildas in England dates from 1903 – the founding of the first Community in Somerset was linked to the political events in France. However the Sisters envisaged their presence there as a missionary one, education being a priority.
In 1914, a Community was founded in the parish of St. Peter-in-Chains. Many Sisters taught in St. Gildas Independent School and in St. Peter’s Parish School. Gradually, the independent school was handed over to the Diocese but a few Sisters remained fully engaged in education and catechesis for many years.
The Sisters’ community is still very open to the parish, to its activities and to the people in their various needs. The Sisters are involved in R.C.I.A., Padre Pio Group, pastoral ministries to the housebound, the sick, the handicapped, the Ascent Group, the Parish Team, music, the Soup Run – and to other parish groups as needs arise. The Sisters’ house is always ready to welcome small groups requiring space and quiet for various meetings
Through all this, in the simplicity and spirit of faith which characterises their religious family, “the Sisters of St. Gildas endeavour to be in the Church and in the world, humble and joyful witnesses of the love of God.”
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How the Sisters came to the parish
This postcard, sent to the sisters of St Gildas’, in Somerset, was the first sign that their prayers had been answered. The sisters of St. Gildas’ had already established two schools in Somerset and wished to establish a third in London. In North London, Fr Regan, a Canon Regular and Parish Priest, prayed for a Catholic school in his own parish, Stroud Green, where there was none. When he discovered, through a third party, what the Sisters wanted, he saw that they were the answer to his prayers. And so the mysterious postcard was despatched.
On a hot June day in 1914, two Sisters, in their cumbersome habits, journeyed from Somerset to meet Fr Regan and view suitable premises for a school: a large private house called ‘Crouch Hill House’. A shock awaited them. Builders were in the process of demolishing Crouch Hill House, Fr Regan reacted quickly. At his instigation, the demolition was stopped; and later Crouch Hill House, instead of being demolished to make way for a lucrative development, passed into the hands of the Sisters of St Gildas’ with the damage made good.
On 19th April 1915, St Gildas’ opened its doors to its first six pupils: Miss Kathleen Normile was one of them. On the school’s Golden Jubilee in April 1965, she spoke to the ‘Hornsey Journal’ of the excitement of that first day. She was then aged five and lived on Inderwick Road. She went to school with Kenneth Smith (aged 6) who lived nearby. Their four companions were Dorothy Pond, Molly Costello, Katherine Moylan and Eva (whose surname she could not remember). She kept in touch with Katherine but lost sight of the other girls. However, she knew that Kenneth had joined the Royal Marines in the Second World War, and was captured by the Japanese in 1942. He worked on the Burma railway, of which is said that for every sleeper laid, a worker died. Kenneth Smith was one of those who died.
Through a century of social and political upheaval, St Gildas’ has continued to provide a Catholic education for thousands of children.
This historical information has been taken from a two-and-a-half page document (writer not identified) prepared, we think, for the Golden Jubilee in 1965. Where the information in this document contradicts Miss Kathleen Normile’s recollections, we have given preference to Miss Normile’s first-hand account. However, further and better information would be very welcome.
Who was St Gildas?
St.Gildas, patron saint of Vannes, was one of those dear Celtic saints who roamed all over the place. Son of a British chieftain, he studied under St. Illtyd in Merthyr Vale. He left Wales for Ireland and from Ireland went to preach the Gospel in the north of England. At the early age of 34 he packed it in and sailed to retirement in Brittany. His hermitage on the Isle of Houat was invaded by the curious who forced him to start a religious colony on the mainland. In his 44th year he wrote of the early phases of the Anglo-Saxon conquest of Britain which remains the only contemporary British version of the events of 450 – 550. He died in 570.
(Taken from a history of the parish written, we think, in the late 1960s)
Note that there are 2 biographies of the saint, written some centuries after his death, one by a breton monk and the other by a Welshman. The differences between them have led various commentators to argue that there were actually 2 Gildas, one British and one French. However, the Catholic Encyclopedia entry sides with a number of other writers who believe there was in fact only one St Gildas.
Fr Gabriel Deshayes
His works were many – organising a great Mission; teaching grown-ups the catechism; establishing a ‘map’ of the poor and unemployed then collecting and distributing gifts fairly. While charity, he thought, was essential, work made men better and he had a spinning factories built to provide paid work for prisoners. He employed men on civic works and helped shopkeepers and families by creating a money-lending office. He opened and supported numerous schools, among them one for would-be priests and another for disabled children as well as opening homes. He pioneered the education of blind and deaf children.
If this was not enough, in 1820 he founded the Sisters of Christian Instruction, known as the Sisters of St Gildas for the education of the rural poor and was instrumental in co-founding, reviving and advising numerous other male and female religious orders, being elected General Superior of 2 of them.
“Active, daring, earnest to the point of strictness, with a great sense of humour, such was Gabriel Deshayes. He was a man of action with a deep spiritual life and complete trust in God.”