Presentation Convent — a witness to over a century of history

Published October 14, 2018
The Presentation Convent School is over 120 years old.
The Presentation Convent School is over 120 years old.

The Presentation Convent School in Lalkurti opened in 1895, the result of a movement started by Nano Nagle in Ireland in 1775.

Nagle’s Presentation Sisters and the Presentation congregation began in Cork and spread to towns and cities in Ireland before making its way to other parts of the world. In 1842, it reached the subcontinent and spread through the Presentation convent schools.

The Presentation Sisters came to Rawalpindi on Sept 8, 1895. The first nuns to come were Mother Ignatius McDermott, Sister Evangelist Coatsworth and Sister Xavier Lonergan. They opened the Presentation Convent School, and Mother Ignatius was its first headmistress.

The archives of the Presentation Convent contain old records and photos of former schoolteachers, as well as the dignitaries who have visited the school over the last 123 years.
The archives of the Presentation Convent contain old records and photos of former schoolteachers, as well as the dignitaries who have visited the school over the last 123 years.

The school opened with three pupils and three sisters, but today the Presentation Convent High School has more than 1,700 students from Year 1 to Year 10. Among the school’s students were former prime minister Benazir Bhutto who studied there for a few years, as well as Maj Gen Dr Shahida Malik and Dr Maleeha Lodhi.

When it first opened, the sisters taught children of British, Irish and Anglo-Indian army personnel. It was registered as a European school with a European code of rules.

On Feb 15, 1896, the school was added to the list of recognised schools. In September 1898, the sisters also built an orphanage on the convent grounds for 40 girls from Ajmer, India, who had left due to famine.

In the mean time, the number of students continued to grow and buses and horse-pulled carts were used to bring students who lived at a distance.

The founding sisters of the Presentation Convent School in Rawalpindi.
The founding sisters of the Presentation Convent School in Rawalpindi.

In 1938, the Presentation Sisters opened a post-matriculation college, the current principal Rehana Mehnga, told Dawn.

“It was called the St Ann’s College for Women and was built on the convent grounds. It was the first women’s college in Rawalpindi,” she said.

The school’s first brush with violence came in March 1947, when a communal riot broke out nearby.

“This time it was in Kahuta, a village about 25 miles southeast of Rawalpindi. For days, Hindus and Muslims were locked in a bloody battle. On the first day of the riots, the schoolchildren were playing together happily in the compound at recess when parents dashed in, grabbed their children and ran back out. In half an hour, the compound was empty. The school remained closed for several weeks, and then the children trailed back quietly,” Ms Mehnga said.

The chapel in the Sisters’ House. — Photos by Tanveer Shahzad
The chapel in the Sisters’ House. — Photos by Tanveer Shahzad

When the British left the country, she said the sisters remained and the school was filled with Pakistani students. The college, however, closed after partition.

She added: “1951 was a year of joy and a breath of fresh air, as four Punjabi girls joined the sisters to serve the people of their own country. They were Sister Clever Sharif, Sister Stephen Diwan, Sister Marie Rego and Sister Joan.”

Then, on Nov 21, 1979, the school was attacked. A mob set the building on fire in revenge for what the BBC reported to be “the desecration of holy places in Mecca by foreigners”.

The school’s Marian Block was the first to be attacked. Its louver windows were broken, its doors burnt and the furniture flung out of the top veranda into the flames. Another two-storey block attached to the sisters’ residence was so badly damaged that it had to be demolished.

“President Zia came to the school the following day. He promised to have the school repaired by the army. He was as good as his word. So many people came to help and to weep with the sisters over the tragedy. Letters of condolence poured in from friends all over the country,” Ms Mehnga said.

Published in Dawn, October 14th, 2018

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