Paving the way


A Glasgow academic explores how the work of religious orders paved the way for the success of the 1918 Education Act in Scotland.

By the 1830s the city of Glasgow could not cope with either the educational or the social needs of the people.  Glasgow had grown out of all recognition: the population in 1835 was nearly twelve times what it had been in 1775.  It suffered from all the evils associated with the industrial revolution – overcrowding, bad housing, insanitary slums and, very often, severe unemployment, poverty and lack of education.

Irish immigration, in addition to the Clearances, increased the number of Catholics in Glasgow during the 1840s and 1850s.  As the Catholic population grew, the Catholic authorities were concerned to provide an educational system for their own children.

The Rev. Peter Forbes of St. Mary’s Church, Abercromby St, had first applied to the Sisters of Mercy in Ireland, but they were unable, at that time, to free sisters for the Glasgow mission.  In 1846, Father Forbes was travelling through France seeking financial aid for the Scottish Mission and appealing also for Religious who were willing to care for the destitute Catholic children and young adults of his own parish in Glasgow.

By the end of 1847, two Franciscan Sisters, Adelaide and Veronica, were ready to embark on the apostolate which had drawn them to the Scottish Mission, the education of young Catholics.  The following year, on 17th February 1848, Sister Adelaide died of cholera and Sister Veronica was left alone in Glasgow to carry on the work.

As a direct consequence of the epidemics of typhoid and cholera which affected Glasgow in the 1830s and 1840s, one of the greatest needs of the period among the Catholic community was an orphanage, and the Sisters of Mercy, like the Franciscans, worked in the orphanage in Abercromby Street.  Like the Franciscans, they also taught in schools in Glasgow, initially in St. Mary’s, Abercromby St. and later, in 1877, they established their convent school in Hill St, Garnethill.

The Scottish Education Act of 1872 brought about great changes to the Catholic community in Scotland in general and in Glasgow in particular.  The pressure of pupil numbers particularly at the infant stage made schools even more dependent upon these first two female religious orders to come to work in Glasgow.

The Convent of Mercy school was recognised as a Higher Grade establishment in 1904.  Like the Franciscan Sisters, in a comparatively short time the Sisters of Mercy had made remarkable advances in the education of girls in the city of Glasgow in addition to their work with the marginalised in society.

The Marists and the Jesuits arrived in Glasgow in close succession in 1858 and 1859.  The Marists made a formidable contribution to the education of poorer children in the East end of Glasgow. There is ample evidence of this.  But the Marists, like the Jesuits, aimed also to develop a Catholic middle class in Glasgow.

Acceptance of smaller salaries as part of their vow of poverty is only one example of their dedication.  They also conducted night schools which provided an extra source of finance for the day schools, despite creating a heavier workload for the Marist brothers.  In the light of evidence submitted by the Schools Inspectorate, it becomes apparent that such schools served not only educational purposes, but were also social centres for immigrant Irish groups in the city.

The mission of the Marist Brothers in Glasgow therefore had a much wider impact than merely on education.  The work of Brother Walfrid in founding Celtic Football Club is an example of community building in the East End of Glasgow as well as an excellent financial source of free meals for poor school children.

When Brother Walfrid departed for London in 1892, the football club was turned into a business by its directors and its original function lapsed.  The penny dinner fund collapsed after 1892, but it had greatly helped the Catholic poor in its parishes for several years.

When the Jesuits founded St. Aloysius’ College in 1859, they had the very specific aim of educating poor and marginalised Catholics so that they could take their rightful places among the ranks of the professional classes of Scottish society.  This would not have been feasible in Glasgow until this point in history and it often involved considerable sacrifice from parents.

St Aloysius College focused on providing a classical, academic education for Catholic boys in Glasgow.

Like the Marist Brothers, the Jesuits were successful in providing aspirants to the clergy and religious orders.  Between 1878 and 1897 sixty-six boys went to Blairs seminary, three to the Franciscans and seven to the Society of Jesus.

Opportunities to enter the professions were restricted by the fact that the Catholic community in Glasgow was largely a poor community.  The Jesuits were looking for ways to create an educational community in which Jesuits and lay people could share a common sense of mission and the confidence they inspired helped to raise the demand for secondary education amongst the Catholics of Glasgow.

The 1870s proved to be a crucially important time for Catholic education.  The 1872 Act made education compulsory for all children between the age of 5 and 13 and Charles Eyre was appointed the first Archbishop of Glasgow after the Restoration of the Hierarchy in 1878.

It was in 1893 that Archbishop Eyre made an urgent plea to the Sisters of Notre Dame to help establish the first Roman Catholic Training College in Scotland.  Eyre was aware of the standard of work being done at Mount Pleasant Training College, Liverpool, founded as far back as 1855 and of the teachers from Mount Pleasant already at work in Scottish schools.  He therefore contacted Mount Pleasant and opened negotiations with Namur.

The Sisters of Notre Dame chose the location of Dowanhill (The Hill of the Doves) as this residential district was near the University and the Botanic gardens.  In addition, it was not far from three good schools which were essential for the students’ teaching practice.

The work of the Sisters of Notre Dame gave Catholic girls the opportunity to continue education past the elementary stage and to aspire to white-collar positions for the first time in Scotland’s history.  Several Sisters of the Notre Dame order demonstrated such formidable qualities in teaching, research, educational management and leadership that they could justifiably be cited as pioneers of equality of opportunity for women.

Through skillful negotiation with the State and the University, the order enabled the small and separate Catholic schools system to attain the standards of the country at large by training a well-qualified and competent corps of teachers.  In this way, they contributed significantly to a general raising of the educational and cultural standards of the Catholic community.

Each of the religious orders made their own unique and distinctive contribution to Catholic education and thus to the survival and development of Catholic education in Glasgow during the period 1847-1918.  This made it feasible for Catholic schools to remain outside the state system after the 1872 Education (Scotland) Act and paved the way for the considerable achievement for the Catholic community of the 1918 Education (Scotland) Act.

Frank O’Hagan is a musician and an Associate Tutor at the University of Glasgow.  He has recorded and released four CDs of his own music.


1918: A panacea for Catholic education in Scotland?

Mary Cullen.

The editor of Open House reports on a lecture given by Professor Sir Tom Devine exactly 100 years to the day after the Education (Scotland) Act of 1918 received royal assent.  Was it, he asked, a panacea for Catholic education in Scotland? Continue reading

Creating inclusive communities


The woman responsible for Special Religious Development in the Archdiocese of Glasgow explains the thinking behind it and the enrichment it offers to parish communities.

Inclusion is one of those words that is best understood in the negative.  We all have some experience of what it feels like not to be included, of feeling on the outside looking in.  Perhaps there was a time when we were not chosen for a team, not invited to a party, left out of a conversation, didn’t get a joke that had everyone else roaring with laughter, or when we were not being asked to do something that we longed to do.  We might recall too the gratitude we felt towards someone who noticed that we were left on the margins and took the trouble to draw us in and offered the extra help that we needed to take part.

One group of people who have more experience that most of what it is like not to be included are those who are affected by a learning or developmental disability.  Perhaps we might expect this to happen in secular society, but surely not in the church, not in our parish communities where we know ourselves to be brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ, beloved children of God?  Sadly it is often the case that our brothers and sisters with learning disabilities do not feel themselves to be included in the life of the church and if they are not included, neither are their families.

Why should this be so?  Mainly it is a question of lack of awareness.  Sometimes the issue is that people with learning disabilities are not very visible in our parishes.  Families may find it hard to bring children with learning disabilities to Mass.  They may be wary of their child disturbing others or of being hurt by others’ reactions to them.  They are likely to have experienced situations in other places where they were told to keep a child under control.  It may only take a glance from someone for families to feel that it is easier for them to withdraw their child.

Bear in mind too that many children with learning disabilities have their educational needs met in non denominational special schools and so do not benefit from the link between the Catholic school and parish.  Some people, particularly those with autism, find it hard to cross the threshold into a new environment and may find the people, sights and sounds just too much.  Adults who live independently with support or in a group home may rely on a paid worker to bring them to Mass and parish events.  If that worker does not have sufficient understanding of the importance of the person’s faith life then coming to Mass may well be replaced by other activities that seem more ‘fun’.  In so many ways people with learning disabilities can become invisible in our parishes.

Being physically present, however, does not equate to inclusion.  Families have spoken of being left alone at parish events.  People may smile and say hello but they don’t linger; they don’t invite them to come and sit with them.  They are there but they are not included.

Some aspects of our liturgy may also be perceived as barriers to inclusion.  Our liturgies are full of long words and complex sentences that require a level of intellectual functioning to follow.  Even a short and simple homily will be too much for many.  Yet in our liturgy we also have so much to offer those for whom words are the least effective way of hearing the Good News.  Our use of ritual, symbol, gesture and quiet are things to which many people with learning disabilities instinctively relate.  We can capitalise on all the beauty that we have to ensure that these little ones are included

We must include them.  They have a right to be included.  Inclusion is not something nice that we do for them, because in the church there should be no them and us, only us.  Their inclusion is a matter of right and justice and has been affirmed by successive Popes.  Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation Catechesi Tradendae (1979) clearly states that children who are, in the language of that time, ‘mentally handicapped’ have the right to know the mystery of faith. (#41)

The General Directory for Catechesis (1997) recognises that ‘every person, however limited is capable of growth in holiness’. (#189)

Pope Francis, speaking in October 2017 to delegates at a conference organised by the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelisation, called on them to develop new forms of catechesis to meet the needs of people with disabilities so that ‘no one should feel like a stranger in their own house’.

There is a further reason why inclusion of our brothers and sisters with learning disabilities is important.  If one part of the body is absent from our parish communities then the body is incomplete.  These brothers and sisters of ours have their own special gifts to bring to the community and if they are absent, for whatever reason, the community is the poorer.

How is inclusion to be achieved?  Well, in five of our Scottish dioceses there is SPRED.

The SPRED method, developed in Chicago in the 1960’s and now in use worldwide, exists precisely so that no one should feel like a stranger in their own house.  The SPRED method offers parishes the means to welcome their parishioners who have learning disabilities and to include them in the sacramental, pastoral and social life of the parish.  In SPRED, we call these brothers and sisters of ours ‘friends’ because that is what Jesus called his disciples.  In small communities of faith within the parish those who need extra help to participate are given the support and friendship they need and they give it in their turn.  In these SPRED groups they are offered the opportunity to learn about and grow in faith using a catechesis that is adapted to their needs and their gifts.

The SPRED group is not something apart from the parish and it is never to be seen as a convenient place where those who need extra help may be safely left.  Each SPRED group is owned by its parish community and its goal is full inclusion in parish life.  SPRED staff recruit and train volunteers, and provide the materials and continuing formation that volunteers require; but it is parishioners who have responded to an invitation to be part of this special ministry who deliver the programme.  Priests in parishes, with their already demanding schedules, play a key role and often visit the SPRED group more often than might be expected, finding in the peace and joy of the group, something that refreshes their own spirit.  The SPRED group is a great example of fruitful collaboration between ordained and lay ministry.

The inclusion promoted by SPRED is not only for the friends.  SPRED catechists often find themselves being more fully involved in parish life.  It is not only the friends whose faith grows in the SPRED group.  Time and again catechists testify to the growth in faith that they have experienced through belonging to SPRED.  For the parish community in which SPRED exists, there is often a growing awareness of all those on the margins and of the gifts that they have to bring to the community.  At a Mass at which the SPRED community participates, parishioners are moved by the depth of silence that is achieved and by the reverence with which the friends participate in the liturgy.

Unfortunately there are not yet enough SPRED groups to accommodate all those who could benefit from belonging to SPRED, but there are still things that we can do to make our parishes inclusive of parishioners with learning disabilities and their families.  We can seek them out and find out what their aspirations are with regard to parish life.  Do they need to complete their sacramental initiation?  Do they have gifts and talents they can offer to the parish?  Do not assume that it is all one way.  We can ask them what help they need.  We can offer simple friendship, sitting next to them or inviting them to come for coffee after Mass.  And yes, we can contact our diocesan SPRED centre to talk about setting up a SPRED group.

SPRED is always in need of volunteers to help with our special ministry.  If you think that you could help we would be grateful to hear from you.  The most important quality you need is to be able to be a friend to someone.  It’s that simple.  If you would like to find out more, or if you would like to tell us about someone who could benefit from being part of SPRED please call the Glasgow SPRED office on 0141 770 5055 or email  If you are a parishioner in the Archdiocese of Glasgow you are welcome to our information evening at the SPRED Centre, 20 Robroyston Road, Glasgow G33 1EQ on Monday, 17th September at 7 p.m.

Lisbeth Raeside is the Director of SPRED Glasgow.


A complex relationship


In the final article in his series on the 1918 Education (Scotland) Act and the events which led up to it, a Glasgow academic looks at the gradual integration of Catholic schools within the state funded sector and highlights challenges they face today. Continue reading


December 2018/January 2019


Open House held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.