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Cistercian College Faces Closure After A Century Of Education

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Cistercian College Faces Closure After A Century Of Education thumbnailDom Richard Purcell, Abbot of Mount St Joseph Abbey.

THE LANDMARK Roscrea boarding school, the Cistercian College at Mount St Joseph Abbey, is facing closure because of falling student numbers after 112 years of education.

Only recently it appeared the famous boarding-school, located near Roscrea on the Shinrone Road and only 250 yards inside the Offaly border with North Tipperary, was riding on the crest of a wave after securing a Leinster Rugby Senior Cup title in 2015.

However, an unexpected announcement last Friday from the school's Trustees, that the school faces almost imminent closure took many people by surprise and has galvanised parents and pastmen to try and prevent its closure.

Since 1905 thousands of students have received their education at the school, which is one of Ireland's best known boarding schools and boasts past pupils including former Taoiseach Brian Cowen, former Tanaiste Dick Spring, former Minister for Foreign Affairs David Andrews and famous journalist and writer, Conor Brady.

Following the 2008 financial crash in Ireland enrolments at the famous fee-paying school have plummeted and trustees of the College have subsidised the facility for several years in hope that numbers would grow as the economy recovered - but the expected resurgence in numbers never happened.

In the statement issued last Friday, Dom Purcell, Abbot of Mount St Joseph Abbey, said the school faces an unsustainable future - news which came as a great shock to many people and has prompted the creation of a parents group who intend to fight the closure.

The school's management said there had been a 45% fall in numbers enrolling in the last ten years, with just nine first-year students enrolled for coming September.

'Clearly this is unsustainable and the school is simply no longer financially viable,' Dom Purcell's statement said.

'This is a very sad day for the staff, the students and their families, the many thousands of past pupils and of course the monks of Mount St Joseph's Abbey. The decision to close was an extremely difficult one for the community to make.

'We were sadly left with no option but to conduct what we anticipate will be a phased closure of the school over the next 16 months,' the statement said.

A seven-day boarding school for boys, the school has 167 students who mostly come from all corners of Ireland and has been operated for the last 112 years by the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance.

Parents opposed to the closure of the school have planned a meeting for this Wednesday night (February 22nd) in Birr's County Arms Hotel to discuss what can be done to prevent the closure, while a Facebook page called 'Save CCR' has grown to over 2,000 likes in only 24-hours and hints that relations between the parents association and the school's management have broken down.

Last December a group of parents met with the school management and discussed problems posed by falling enrolment numbers and examined possible solutions such as increasing the number of foreign students at the school, five-day boarding and making the school co-educational.

However, in his statement Abbot Purcell said none of these options were considered feasible because of the College's 'geographical location and its current operating model.'

All staff, parents and students have been informed that from June the school will no longer continue its current first, third, fourth and sixth year classes and a plan is being put in place to minimise disruption.

Mid-cycle students facing the State examinations in 2018 may be permitted to continue their Junior and Leaving Certificate programmes for the second and fifth year students currently at the school, depending on the result of discussions with parents about the numbers who may opt to take that course.

A campaign to keep the school's doors open, being led by Parent's Association Chairwoman, Sinead Lawlor, said many parents did not find out about the decision to close the school until the arrived to pick up their sons last Friday.

Ms Lawlor said the pupils of the school see their friends and staff of the school as 'another family' and that many of the boys were 'heartbroken' about news of the school's closure.

The Chairwoman also said the parents plan to turn to the wider community of Roscrea for a potential solution and examine the feasibility of opening the school as a co-ed school which opens during the day only.

'I enjoyed my time there, made great friends and have very fond memories,' former pupil and Offaly/North Tipperary TD Barry Cowen told the Tribune this week.

A student at Cistercian College from 1980 to 1985, Deputy Cowen's older brother, former Taoiseach Brian Cowen was also educated there.

The Fianna Fail TD said his parents had made sacrifices to ensure he could attend the south Offaly boarding school and said it was now 'unfortunate that others would not have the same opportunity.'

During his time in Roscrea, Deputy Cowen could rely on the support of his late uncle, Fr Andrew who was a respected member of the Cistercian community at the neighbouring Mount St Joseph Abbey.

Fr Andrew entered the Cistercians in 1949, just after he lined out for Offaly in the minor football Leinster championships.

One of Fr Andrew's abiding memories, recalled Deputy Cowen, was the 100th anniversary of the school when a special Mass was celebrated at a local Mass rock and the ceremonies were attended by the then serving Taoiseach.

Deputy Cowen stressed that it was 'with great regret and sadness he had learned of the impending closure' of his alma mater.

'The school played a huge part in the community life of south Offaly and north Tipperary and this influence went far beyond the two counties as its students were drawn from all over Ireland.'

He added: 'It played a political, literary, cultural, educational and ecclesiastical role in the story of Ireland.'

Deputy Cowen noted that the closure of the school would deal an economic blow to the area and the nearby town of Roscrea.

The former Cistercian College pupil said the school's closure was a particularly hard blow for the staff and the existing students.

'I have not been speaking to the Abbot but I will do so in the coming days and will offer my help to whatever future role is envisaged for the school.'

He added that he would also be in touch with the Department of Education with a view to securing a future use for the facility which will be of benefit to the community.

Asked about the future of Mount St Joseph Abbey itself, Deputy Cowen stressed that this was a challenging time for all religious orders.

But he felt the monastery could rely on the support of its many daughter foundations established by monks from Roscrea around the world.

Former Laois/ Offaly Fine Gael TD, Tom Enright, told the Tribune that 'personally I feel very sad to hear of the closure of the Cistercian College in Roscrea.'

Mr Enright said he spent 'five great years' in the College, where he made lifelong friends with whom he remains in contact today.

'The Cistercian monks who have responsibility for the school placed great emphasis on the religious aspect of life, but in addition they also offered a broad base education which got great results in exams,' Mr Enright said.

The former TD and past pupil also paid tribute to the College's sporting prowess in all disciplines of sport, where students excelled in rugby, tennis, hurling, gaelic football and athletics; with many going on to become professional sports people and famous sport personalities.

'It is a pity to see the College closing. The Cistercians were a wonderful order of monks and people around the world know about the Cistercian College in Roscrea and always speak very highly of it,' Mr Enright said.

Cistercian College Roscrea is just one of the last two remaining boys only boarding schools in Ireland and currently there are just five religious-managed Catholic schools in the country, a dramatic fall from over 30 in 1990.

Bishop of Killaloe Fintan Monahan said it was with great sadness that he had heard of the imminent closure of the Cistercian College.

 'I wish to express my sincere gratitude to the Cistercian Monks (Trappists), and to the many other dedicated staff and students, who have carried out Trojan work in the school since its foundation in 1905. For over a century the contribution, and now the legacy, of the Cistercian College in the areas of Catholic education, in sport, in politics and public service, in business as well as in other key facets of Irish life, has been immense and is deeply appreciated throughout the Diocese of Killaloe and much further afield. 

 'The closure of Cistercian College will be deeply felt in our diocese. May I offer my best wishes, thoughts and prayers to Abbot Richard, College President and Principal, to Mr Brendan Feehan and to all the staff, students and school community in the difficult process of the gradual closure of the school,' he said.

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