Women behind Loreto school’s rich history

Students of Loreto Msongari School in Nairobi at their institution last week. PHOTO | COURTESY
Students of Loreto Msongari School in Nairobi at their institution last week. PHOTO | COURTESY 

The Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary is a Roman Catholic religious congregation of women dedicated to education. Its members are commonly known as Sisters of Loreto, a congregation founded in Saint-Omer, France, by an Englishwoman, Mary Ward (1585-1645) in 1609. The order derives its name from the Marian Shrine at Loreto, Italy, where Ward used to pray.

Mary Ward was inspired by the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola (known as Ignatian spirituality). She had a vision for a different, new and modern mode of religious life for women.

She saw women living a life in companionship and discernment inspired by the gospel, and engaging with the world without the constraints of the traditional cloister, nor an established “rule” placing them under the governance of the local bishop.

Of course, these ideas contradicted the norms established by the Council of Trent and presented great difficulty for the leadership of the church at the time.

To add insult to injury, Ward also believed that women were equal to men in intellect and should be educated accordingly. She travelled through Europe mainly on foot, establishing schools for girls in Belgium, Bavaria, Austria and Italy.

The circumstances of the time and the widespread suspicion of Jesuits did not allow her to succeed in the foundation of a religious institute according to her vision. Indeed, although the institute experienced significant success after its foundation in 1609, it was suppressed in 1631.

It was not until 1703, long after Mary’s death, that, what is termed as the second institute received papal approval for its rule from Pope Clement 1X and canonical recognition as a religious institute from Pope Pius 1X.

Today, the Sisters of Loreto operate 150 schools worldwide, educating more than 70,000 pupils. Mary Ward was declared Venerable on December 19, 2009.

Loreto Convent Msongari was established in 1921 as a school for European girls on grounds owned by St Austin’s Mission. The name Msongari was a Europeanised version of the Kikuyu word “Muthangari” by which the area was known.

The Loreto pioneers in Kenya, Mother Frances Borgia and Mother Raphael Gordon, built up Msongari and the original buildings comprising two offices, two parlours (now Loreto Education Secretary’s office) and two classrooms are still standing today.

In this simple building, 17 pupils reported on November 11, 1921. The first pupil to report was Eva Blowers, wearing a navy tunic and a white blouse, which were adopted immediately as the school uniform with the addition of a red blazer and jumper later.

Over time, new buildings were added as the student population expanded. In 1929, the tennis courts and concert hall were built. The hall was the first built in Kenya.

Further growth in the number of pupils and buildings was witnessed during the 1930s. The outbreak of World War 11 had an unexpected effect on the school.

The British Army advised Mother Raphael Gordon that it was likely that the buildings at Msongari would be required for the FANEYS (the women’s corps) and that Msongari should be prepared to evacuate.

Mother Raphael spent one year looking for alternative sites, finally settling on the estates of a German count in Lumbwa (today’s Kipkelion) on the way to Kisumu.

In 1940, the entire school moved up to the hills of Lumbwa, leaving behind only those Nairobi pupils whose parents felt they were too young to go far away.

Some of the nuns remained behind to run a small day school at Valley Road, the intention being to close it after the war ended and Msongari re-opened.

In the event, this was not to be and Loreto Valley Road grew to its present size, largely by default.

The great trek back to Nairobi took place in May 1946 after the war. Some of the Valley Road children returned to Msongari, but most stayed in Valley Road.

Once again Msongari continued to grow. The first African students were admitted in the late 1960s.

In 2003, the school introduced the British curriculum GCE and was approved as an examination centre in 2005.

It then changed to IGCSE in 2007 after GCE was phased out. In 2013, the school introduced boarding facilities for those who wished to take up the option.

Today, it offers kindergarten, primary and high school with the option of the 8-4-4 or the British systems of education.

Notable alumni of Msongari include Julie Gichuru, Gaye Fernandez, Sheila Mugambi-Ngatia and Karungari Mutu among others.