St Thomas Aquinas School and its abundance of blessings

BY ANNETTE ANTUNES
This year, St Thomas Aquinas School, an independent Catholic school, celebrates both 95 years of quality education and a student cohort of 680 learners.

The school was founded in 1924 by the Congregation of Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena, which originated in King William’s Town, in the Eastern Cape.
The new school was to be in Witbank, in what was then the Transvaal province. The founding principal of the school, Mother Lucy, said, “God has brought us to Witbank. I believe it is His Will that we come here.” Today, the town has been renamed Emalahleni, in Mpumalanga province. On hearing that a convent was to be built, one of the other founding sisters enthusiastically proclaimed, “Please let it have a double storey building – and trees”; and so her prayers were answered and the convent had the second-ever double storey building to be erected in Witbank. Its opening was such a grand occasion that the then Governor-General, the Earl of Athlone and Princess Alice were present as the townspeople of Witbank vied with one another to attend.

1944: St Thomas girls excel in elocution

It is interesting to read excerpts from our internally produced newsletter, The Chronicles of St Thomas, from years gone by, as not only are they reflections of our special moments, but they also reflect the history of our country so well and the changes that have occurred in education. In 1944, our girls excelled at a talent contest for (note the italics for historical interest) elocution, dancing, singing and music, and on this occasion, carried off 21 prizes leaving only six to the other schools participating! The year 1945 witnessed the school passing the 200 mark for the number of learners and a wish to push the walls out to make room in the classrooms and in the boarding establishment. A greatly celebrated moment in this same year was when we won the knitting competition organised by the Navy League, and although we don’t enter any knitting competitions anymore, we continue to knit but now it is squares to make blankets for the less fortunate in our community.

1948-1950: The St Thomas swimming bath and the Silver Jubilee concert

In 1948 we won the Shield and the Cup at the local swimming gala, not at the local pool but at the local ‘Swimming baths’. It was only in 1963 when we built our own “Swimming bath”, which was opened in November of that year. The highlight of this opening was when members of the ballet troupe were floating motionless on the water in star formation and you could not hear a pin drop in the grandstand. Swimming remains important at St Thomas and our goal now is to ensure that every single learner in our school learns to swim. At our annual house swimming competition, every learner is encouraged to swim a length of our pool even if a pool noodle is needed.
The importance of performances by the
learners in our convent school was in the
news in 1950 when the headline in the Chronicles was “Silver Jubilee Concert”. Some of the items included in this concert were a Hungarian Dance performed by the senior girls, a piano composition that was actually composed by one of the girls, a ballroom tap dance and a performance of the Blue Danube ballet. While the performance of dance is not as popular today as it used to be, other performances on the stage remain an important part of our current school life. In this regard, we continue to use our stage to show off the talents of our young people; of particular popularity are our house plays, our Foundation Phase play and a bi-annual school production that is performed when the Grade 4s to Grade 12s take to the stage.

1955-1966: A decade of continuous improvement

Improvements to the school were what made the headlines in 1955 to 1957, when a triangular shaped lawn was planted in front of the main school building. This lawn continues to be enjoyed by everyone at the school today and is enhanced by the addition of a rose garden. However, the tea-house that was built in 1955 is no longer used as such, and the bicycle shed that was built in the same year is now a homework area for the high school learners.
The increase in the number of learners at the school over the years has necessitated the continuous improvement and the addition of buildings to the school. This has included the building of a school hall that was finalised in 1966, the development of sports fields, netball and tennis courts, and the building of a sports house. More recently, we have finalised the building of more classrooms, an auditorium and a music room. We are especially proud of our music at St Thomas. Not only are our primary school learners taught to play the ukulele, but drumming and the playing of the marimbas also commences at this young age. Furthermore, our senior marimba band performs at an international competition each year and has won awards at home and at other competitions.
Another extra mural activity in which we excel is chess. Our learners are taught to play in primary school and they compete and win awards during these early years. Furthermore, our chess teacher teaches the learners in such a way that they have
tremendous fun while learning and practising, and there are always young people looking for a game of chess at our school. In fact, our primary school learners often challenge adults to a chess match during events such as Open Day and our Carnival Day when they take great pleasure in beating their challengers who are so much older than they are.

The mid-1980s: Prevailing over apartheid

We have also seen times of trials and tribulations. One such time was in the mid- 1980s when, like other Catholic schools, St Thomas Aquinas opened its doors to black children at a time when the majority of schools in South Africa did not have multi- racial classes. This was not only a time for the sisters to be joyful, but it was also a time of hope, uncertainty, fear and pain as South Africa weathered a storm created by such changes and the mixed feelings towards this put huge pressure on the school. One of the principals, (Sister Margaret Schaffler) who was at the school during this time, reflects in our Chronicles on how, as coloured and black pupils entered the convent, it unfortunately created a dramatic reaction. She reflects on how she had to try and keep the school in her words “Steady, as some white parents removed their children and sent them elsewhere” and some schools in Witbank no longer wanted to play sport against us. However, she believed that the value of keeping the school’s academic standards high was a life raft and remembered how, year after year, as children of all races passed and passed well, the convent regained its confidence and numbers. Furthermore, we were able to travel to the bigger cities and find schools that were prepared to play sport against us.
Sister Aloysia Zellmann was also a principal at the school (1975-1985) during particularly stormy political years and witnessed the fine tradition, excellence in education and the contribution that the school has made to education in South Africa. She noted that Witbank was particularly blessed for having the Dominican legacy of truth (Veritas – our motto), joy and study on which to depend, and in particular, how the Dominicans were able to integrate a racially mixed school community and enrich the teaching experience for all who have passed through St Thomas Aquinas’s gates.

The dawn of a new century

Then again, big changes came about in 1999 when, for the first time, we had boys matriculating from the school and the picture of only girl matriculants became a thing of the past.
Our tradition of offering an excellent education at an affordable rate goes hand-in- hand with giving to our community, which is very special to us. Each year we go out of our way to help where we can financially, with gifts and with our time. We commence the year by giving to the Smile Foundation.2 Our learners are taught about the foundation and they are educated about cleft lips and palates as part of this initiative. Some of the other community projects that we assist include Blessings in a Box for new mums at the local government hospital; gifts for our local SPCA who also come onto our campus to encourage learners to love animals; and local charities such as Jabez, Hospice and Helping Hand to mention just a few. We are also members of a local branch of Business Networking International (BNI), the purpose of which is to learn about local businesses that we can use and support. Furthermore, we have an Interact group in the high school which is actively involved in our community and visits local homes and institutions and also collects funds to assist these communities.

Student teachers an integral part of community exchange

We also assist our community by developing education
in South Africa. The way in which we do this is by
employing many student teachers. We nurture them to
become the best teachers they can be while they are studying. Although this is an added responsibility for our educators, we love the ‘young vibe’ that the students bring to our school. We may lose student teachers once they become fully qualified because we may not have a full-time position for them, but we are proud of these young people and know that they go out into the greater community well prepared for their role as an educator thanks to the support that we have given to them.
We also educate our learners about the world and how we need to take good care of it. In this regard, not only do we recycle, but we are an Eco-School and year
after year receive a Platinum award for our
participation.

ISASA assistance invaluable

Since we are always looking for ways to improve our product and who we are, we have recently joined ISASA. We subscribe to the same code of ethics that is evident in ISASA. Furthermore, as a school in a city that is so much smaller than so many other South African cities, we are hoping that we will now have a much louder voice. We are also impressed by the large number of possible candidates that we are now able to reach out to, thanks to ISASA, when advertising a vacancy that may be available at our school and hope to draw new faces into our community. It is also comforting to know that we have the support of ISASA which is only a phone call away in all aspects of our school life. Therefore we trust that our relationship will see us improving in many areas as we go forward with ISASA and, in this way, will fulfil our obligation to our learners, parents and teachers to always be the best that we can be.

References:
1. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Princess_Alice,_Countess_of_Athlone
2. See: https://www.smilefoundationsa.org/
3. See: http://wessa.org.za/wessa-eco-schools/

Category: Winter 2019

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