Veritas Vincit: A 175 years milestone for St. Augustine Primary

The St. Augustine’s Primary School in Gqeberha (Port Elizabeth), turned 175 years in the year 2022 since it was founded by Father Corcoran in 1847, who served as parish priest and principal of the school. Back then it was a two-storey building where the McSherry Hall is now and was called St Augustine’s Boys’ School. The McSherry Hall then served as school, chapel, community hall and as presbytery.

Talking about the milestone of 175 years the current principal of the school Mr. Sydney Cairncross said they are extremely proud of the feat, “It’s a huge heritage, especially from the earlier years if you look at the history how we stood out in education for many years through the different nuns and priests that were involved in our school. We are trying to celebrate it extremely well this year.”

To mark the 175 years the school celebrated the Holy Mass on Friday the 26th August to celebrate the feast of St. Augustine since the 28th, the proper feast day, fell on a Sunday. On that day they had invited all the previous owners of the school to be part of the Mass. “We had some snacks afterwards and the children received cake and juice, the very next day, a Saturday, we had a family day at another field where we had carnival games and a whole lot of celebrations at this event,” said the School Principal.

The school will also have a gala dinner planned for the 29th of October where they will try to focus on all past learners and past school governing body members, and everybody who was involved with the school over the years. Talking about his principals predecessors Mr Cairncross said only his immediate predecessor is still alive. To say something of the former students the Principal said although they may not have former students who are nationally or internationally famous they have a lot of students who have done well from where they came, they have done greater that what the society thought they would. “There are some of our learners who excelled in high school that they become head-boys and head-girls at their high schools in the time that I am at school.”

St. Augustine’s Primary School’s motto is Veritas Vincit (Truth conquers), and of it Mr Cairncross said, “Our school’s song includes the words ‘We stand for God’. Being honest and speaking the truth at all times is what we encourage our children to do.” Adding that with the religious education that they still have and Masses they attend they instill that standing up for God. “I think in society today too few people are standing up for God,” lamented the principal Mr Cairncross.  

Moving on to how they manage to keep the school Catholic Mr Cairncross said he often asks himself what do people mean when they speak of Catholic ethos because it is phrase a lot of people throw around. “What makes us Catholic here is that our religious education is based on Catholicism, not just the doctrine but the believes of Catholicism. Here we attend Mass every Friday and we prepare our children for the sacraments of initiation, First Holy Communion and First Confession.” Mr Cairncross said they also do preparations for those kids who are not baptised when it is needed, but most of the children are already baptised when they come to school. “Preparing the children for sacraments is very important for us.”  

Regarding the ratio of Catholics to Non-Catholics at his school the Principal said sadly it is 95% non-Catholic, but people know they are registered at a Catholic School and so they still teach Catholicism in their religion lessons. “We are not trying to change anyone to Catholicism but help them build a stronger relationship with God. The essence of our religious education is to build a stronger relationship with God, since 95% are not Catholic,” noted the Principal. The staff at St. Augustine Primary is about 50% Catholic including the non-teaching staff.

Mr Cairncross noted that the big challenge for them as a public school on Catholic property is that they have a few Catholic learners, but looking at other Catholic Schools he feels they are still reasonably well given that they have about 50% Catholic staff. But according to him the biggest challenge in trying to keep Catholic ethos where a high number is of non-Catholic learners because you teach them something they to go home to not practice in families.

Regarding the memories of the school the school principal said as part of the plan for the near future they are busy developing something like a museum, there is one specific area they are clearing up that will be the museum of the school. “We have very old photos of when the nuns were still doing woodwork and hand work with the boys and we have photos of how the construction of the buildings took place,” pointed out Mr Cairncross adding that old equipment and the history of the school will form part of the display.

Every year round about the feast of St. Augustine the school has an assembly on the history of the school and sometimes of the saint himself and in their religious education they also do projects on St. Augustine and so the kids are aware of their patron saint.

Mr Cairncross also spoke about the level of education now as compared to the times of the religious brothers and sisters at the school. He feels that in general they have gone back a lot regarding discipline and celebrations in the schools, and to the level of education itself. “That has got to do with education in general rather than the school itself, given the rules and education that are placed upon us as public schools.” He says the government has dropped the standard of education as now the required pass mark is dropped extremely because of national rules and regulations.

Mr Cairncross noted that at St. Augustine they still try to encourage the children to at least aim for 50% even though the required pass mark is 40%. “We try to instill in children to aim way higher than that. We try to go beyond what the national government is setting for us.” He added that in general because of the regulations children don’t really work hard, they are not really motivated and don’t have the necessary support or resources to do well, so they get pushed through the system which brings down the standard of education in all schools. He insists that particularly regarding Catholics schools compared to the time when clergy and religious were involved in schools the standard has dropped over the years.

A concise history of St. Augustine’s Primary School

The school was founded by Father Corcoran in 1847, who served as parish priest and principal of the school. It was a two-storey building where the McSherry Hall is now and was called St Augustine’s Boys’ School. The McSherry Hall then served as school, chapel, community hall and as presbytery. In 1852, Rev Thomas Murphy was transferred from Grahamstown to Port Elizabeth and took over the duties of priest and supervision of the school.

Interesting to note: By 1860 the school had 30 pupils, in 1987 there were 120 learners and today there are 240. Research shows that about the time that the cathedral was completed, there existed a society called St Augustine’s Young Men’s Society and a Boys’ Night School. The night school catered for boys who had left school and were working; to provide them with an opportunity to continue their education.

In 1879 three Marist Brothers opened a fee-paying school called St Patrick’s Junior School in the Baakens Valley which became too small so they moved their school to the other side of the Cathedral and the two schools operated side-by-side. In 1911 the Marist brothers bought a property in Bird Str and moved St Patrick’s there but they continued to run St Augustine’s Primary as well.St Augustine’s Primary moved to where it is now. In 1914 the Assumption Sisters arrived in PE from Grahamstown and ran Miss Dalys School for Girls in North End. They bought No 8 Prospect Hill, where the school hall is now and turned it into a convent.

In 1918 the Marist Brothers were called back to France to go and fight in WW1, so Bishop MacSherry asked the Assumption Sisters to take over running the school. These nuns staffed the school until 1954 when a Marist Brother took over as principal and was helped by two Dominican Sister and a lay teacher. In 1960 the old school building was demolished and the new one was built. Girls were admitted into the school from 1983.

As the school expanded, the Assumption Sisters’ convent was incorporated into the existing school premises, making available additional facilities such as a needlework room, art room and tuck-shop. Eventually when the Assumption Sisters moved out of the premises, they donated the entire building to the school. Many alterations were done to meet the needs of the school as it is still currently being used. The school is now a Public School on Private Property belonging to the Diocese of Port Elizabeth under the leadership of Bishop Vincent Zungu.



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