Last pupils sit exams at Kylemore Abbey

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WHEN LEA Pecorari (17) sits down to her last Leaving Certificate exam in Connemara tomorrow, she will be making a little bit of history.

This is not just because she will be the sole pupil taking the Italian paper, but because she will be the last pupil to sit a State exam in Kylemore Abbey secondary school.

After 89 years, the prestigious girls’ school founded by the Benedictine Order is closing its doors due to falling vocations.

Lea and her classmate Olivia Joyce (17), both from Clifden, Co Galway, were among the final 10 pupils to be educated over the past year in the establishment, which has been described by writer Kate Thompson as the “fabulous Gothic edifice” that resembles JK Rowling’s “Hogwarts” – and one which has educated everyone from princesses to property developers.

The Benedictine nuns – known as the “Irish dames of Ypres” when they fled France at the outbreak of war in 1914 – announced the phased closure in February 2006. At that time, there were 137 students, including 49 boarders on the books.

The last boarders left two years ago, and the 10 pupils who continued to Leaving Certificate are from Clifden, Tullycross, Letterfrack, Moyard and Glinsk.

Some 11 full-time staff will be reassigned to posts under the secondary school teachers’ panel. One Benedictine among the 12 nuns in the abbey was on the teaching staff for the past year.

“We had our graduation on May 20th, and I think that was the last time all the teaching staff and pupils were together,“ Lea recalled yesterday. “About two weeks ago, it really hit us and we cried a lot. The friends I have made here I love to bits, and it was thanks to them that I made it through the last few years in school,” she said.

Olivia Joyce sits her music exam, also on her own, today in the school. “I feel very privileged, but also very sad,” she said. “It was heartbreaking to see the school getting smaller and smaller.”

Members of her family on both sides worked on the construction of the original complex, which was built in the early 1870s as a fairytale castle for his wife by Mitchell Henry, a Manchester- born surgeon and politician with Irish roots. When his wife died suddenly, he built the Gothic church in her memory.

Olivia has her sights set on studying music. “I’d love to be on London’s West End,” she says. Lea would like to study nursing at NUI Galway. Both are hoping to see their eight classmates and the school staff for the last time when the results come out in August.

Principal Mary Dempsey said the closing of a school “with a long tradition in education, is emotional for everyone who has worked in the school or attended as a student”.

“This school provided education since 1921 as a boarding and day school for girls and this work of Catholic education was very much the life work of the Benedictine community,” she said. “Sadly, in more recent times, with the decline in vocations to the monastery, the managing of the boarding school became too great a work load, and consequently the decision to close was taken,” she said.

“Both teaching staff and parents are grateful to the Benedictine community who worked so hard over the years in keeping a school here throughout sometimes difficult economic times and we now wish them the very best for the future.”

School historian Kathleen Villiers-Tuthill has recorded that the Benedictine nuns purchased the castle and estate for the sum of just over £45,000 in 1920.

The school’s early years were challenging for the nuns, due to the War of Independence and the Civil War. Also, in January 1959, a fire broke out in the sewing room, leading to an evacuation. Among the items saved were a portrait of King James II, a piece of lace made by Mary Queen of Scots and a broken altar stone from a monastery in Ypres which the nuns had to leave during the bombardment of the city by the German army in 1914.

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