St Bernard’s Convent of Mercy was founded by Mother Mary Bernard Garden on 4th October 1892. She was born in Aberdeen in 1824, entered the Convent of Mercy in Liverpool, when she was twenty-one, and on completion of her Novitiate was sent to Baggot Street where she was professed by Archbishop Murray.
Mother Bernard helped to establish a Convent in Pontypool, S. Wales and in 1870 went to Scotland where she founded convents in Elgin, Dornie, Keith and Tomintoul. On October 4th 1892, she left Scotland to open a Convent in Newcastle-under-Lyme, Staffordshire.
On October 10th 1892, Sr M Columba and three novices were sent to Newcastle from Elgin. By then, Fr Maguire had procured Brook House which was later to become the Presbytery and the first Community of Sisters of Mercy was established in Holy Trinity Parish. They were joined by Mother Agnes and four more novices in January 1893. The sisters were not self-supporting and as the Mother House had financial difficulties they were completely dependent on the generosity of the people of Newcastle.
The Sisters began their work by giving evening classes to young women who had little schooling; On Saturday afternoons they taught sewing to young women. Other works undertaken included visiting the Hospital, the homes of the poor, old and lonely, those suffering from sickness and bereavement. They also helped to instruct converts and did sacristy work. The Sisters were offered teaching costs in St Patrick’s School – Sr Joseph Mary became Head of the Senior School.
That same year, seven novices made their Religious Profession in the Holy Trinity Parish Church. Dr Ilsey, Bishop of Birmingham, officiated at the ceremony and was assisted by seventeen Priests. It was a marvellous day for the Parish. Mother Bernard’s death, three months alter was a great cross the young and struggling Community, but these courageous young Sisters carried on the work that she had begun … for three years the Community was governed from Elgin. Then a Chapter was held in 1896 and it was agreed that the Sisters in Newcastle, should become an independent community. Mother Agnes was the new Superior.
In September 1893, the Sisters had bought a house in London Road which later became St Bernard’s Convent. On land at the rear of the Convent, a three storey building was added; the lower part became St Joseph’s Convent School. The present Chapel was built in 1926. With a few additions and alterations, these same premises form the Convent as it is today.
In 1936, Lisieux, Ashley, was built through the generosity and kindness of Mrs Rose Howlcroft, as a holiday house for the Sisters. From 1920, the Sisters held Sunday School in Silverdale, Chesterton and Wolstanton. After repeated requests from Fr Wrighton, the Community opened a Convent in Wolstanton in 1937. four Sisters were assigned to this new Convent and a school was opened for those who had attended Sunday school. St Wulstan’s Parish School was built and opened in 1958 and a Sister was appointed Head. When the school closed in 1967, the children transferred to St Joseph’s Convent School in Newcastle. Sadly because of the lack of vocations and the retirement of the Sisters, this school was closed in July 1869.
Sisters served as Head teachers and as staff in St Mary’s, a new parish Junior and Infant School, opened in Stanier Street, Newcastle in 1938. At this time, Sr M Gertrude was Deputy Head in St Patrick’s Senior School. Other works of Mercy also undertaken were Instructions for converts; Children of Mary at Newcastle, Silverdale, Wolstanton and Cobridge. Catholic Cirls’ Club; Church Sacristy in Holy Trinity and St Mary’s; visitation of nearby Parishes and local Hospitals.
The year 1943 marked the joint celebration of the Golden Jubilee of the Convent and of the first Sisters’ Professions – six of them were still living and active members of the Community. Among the guests was Mr James Kelly, the first Catholic Mayor of Newcastle and a past pupil of the Sisters.
From 1940, the Sisters’ work extended to her Parishes, Birches Head, Cobridge, Wolstanton and Clayton. They held Headships in the latter three and Deputy Headship in Birches Head.
In October 1978, the Elizabeth Trust House, Sidmouth Avenue, Newcastle, for ladies in distress, was opened and a Sister was officially appointed Counsellor to Elizabeth House and also to Mary Bester House at Cobridge. However, in 1980, she relinquished her post as Counsellor and moved into Social Work (Adoption) in Fr Hudson’s Society, Cleshill, Birmingham. Since 1989, her office has been in the Convent here.
The National Garden Festival, April 1986, began in Etruria, Stoke on Trent, on a site about two miles from the Convent. The Churches of North Staffs took part in the Festival and had their own Church Centre which a Sister helped to staff, welcoming visitors, answering questions, attending the Book Stall and sharing prayer each day at noon. Many Parishes in the Diocese introduced RCIA courses for converts and the Sisters became very much involved, in Newcastle, Wolstanton and Clayton.
The Maryvale Institute of Religious Education, Birmingham, held an extension course in this northern part of the diocese, at Hanley, Stoke on Trent and a Sister was appointed as the Maryvale Facilitator for the course.
In 1990, the former Convent School classrooms were converted into meeting rooms for the pastoral activities in which the Sisters were involved: Vocation promoters, Instructions for Converts, Catechesis, Counselling, parents’ meetings, Training for Adoptive Parents, Justice & Peace.
Two Sisters joined a new group recently formed (1990) called North Staffs Justice & Peace Integrity of Creation (JPIC). Several practical steps were taken to alleviate problems arising from Homelessness – organising night refuges and setting up a fund, Homeless Community Chest (HGC) involving the local Parishes. Since the motto of the group is ‘act locally, think globally’ the committee are aware of the need to examine the issues of Justice & Peace worldwide.
At present, one Sister teaches in St John Fisher High School, one nurses in the General Hospital, Stoke on Trent and one is a Social Worker in Fr Hudson’s Society. The Sisters who have retired (!) carry on the works of Mercy in various forms of pastoral work – Eucharistic Ministry, visiting the sick, house bound and bereaved, RCIA, Catechesis, and ministering always to those in need.