On 19 December 1955, Sr. Alexia (superior) and Sr. Amarantha moved together with the new arrivals, Sisters Modoalda Stigler, Genetrudis Ober and Agathana Trinkl to Vryheid. Their new convent was formerly a maternity home, bought in July 1955 from a nurse, Sr. Christensen. Bishop Aurelian Bilgeri, who accompanied them to this home, asked, “Do you accept this house as your eternal home?” Mother Alexia replied, “No!” “Well then, as your temporary home?” asked the Bishop. “With God’s grace we will do it”, said the sisters. However, on seeing the unfinished condition inside the house (scaffolding, tools, and thick dust everywhere) they became full of doubt. The Bishop settled the doubts by saying, “We stay.” News went through the town: “Nonne”. The reaction of the townsfolk was one of skepticism. The presence of the Catholic sisters amongst the large number of Protestant people upset the townsfolk and threatened them. In their eyes, the “Roomse Gevaar” grew. The people were told to stay away from those “nonne” and they looked at the sisters suspiciously. Under these circumstances the beginnings of the Nardini Convent Nursery School in 1957 did not hold a promising outlook for the future. Nevertheless, the arrival of the sisters was a ray of light for the Catholic families. They were a shy flock in need of encouragement to embrace their Catholic identity publicly. The few Catholic families welcomed the sisters and helped them. The Fregona Family, Miss Power and Mr. and Mrs. Bacharach (a Jewish family) became close friends of the sisters.
From Small Beginning to a Successful Network
The nursery school began on 24 January 1956 with two children; the numbers grew and by the end of February there were eleven children enrolled. Sr. Amarantha and her little class were accommodated in one of the rooms of the convent. From the very beginning a school building was planned; a double story with small rooms upstairs and a big classroom downstairs. It was built behind the sister’s house by the Benedictine Brothers of Inkamana. In 1957 the new building was ready to be used as a school. Upstairs was Class 1 with five pupils. Sr. Modoalda was their teacher and principal. Downstairs was the Nursery School. Thirty five children had been enrolled. The only existing kindergarten in Vryheid closed down and Nardini Nursery School became Vryheid’s only Nursery School. Grade by grade, a class was added to the new school. In 1958 there were two classes and in 1959, three. The townsfolk slowly began to trust the sisters and to enroll their children in Nardini Convent School. They stated that the sisters taught well and didn’t mind putting exemplary effort into the care of the children.
Expansion of the Nardini Convent School
As the school grew in popularity, space became limited and a decision was made to build a new school. The old building would be used as a boarding establishment. In 1960, the beautiful new school building erected by Johnson and Keith of Dundee was blessed. By 1966, there were 122 pupils at the school and, at the end of every year, on Parents Day, Sr. Edith Hassler, the music teacher, put on an outstanding concert which involved children displaying their talents through singing, playing various musical instruments and acting. Over the years, from 1970 onwards, the building up of the school with extra classrooms, library staffroom, swimming pool, Parish/School hall and Sports field continued and Sr. Isentraud Rauscher, who took over as Principal in 1973, saw to the completion of all these projects. By 1976, there was enough space to accommodate the then 240 pupils.
The Apartheid Policy Leads to Serious Conflict
So far, because of Government policy, only white pupils of many different religious denominations attended Nardini Convent School. Some boarders, not “suiwer wit” came from Swaziland. The Catholic Church was never in agreement with the separate education of the Apartheid system. This became public when the sisters of various congregations, in collaboration with the Catholic Bishops decided to open their schools to all races in January 1978. Archbishop Denis Hurley, as chairman of the SACBC, worked with the government of the day. The response of the national minister of education was over-cautious and the clauses attached to the permission for admitting pupils of all races were so restricting that the whole issue became almost a farce.
Sr. Isentraud discussed the matter with the teachers and the PTA and on Parent’s Day, December 1976 announced to the parent body that the Nardini Convent School would become an “open school” as from January 1978. This would give parents enough time to discern the future schooling place for their child. The reaction of some people that night was an indication of things to come; stones were thrown on the roof of the convent and windows were smashed.
Nardini Convent School risked being an “Open School”
In December 1977 as part of the agreement reached with the national minister of education, a list with the names of eight “coloured” children and one Zulu child who had applied for admission to the school was submitted to the director of the Natal Education Department. The latter acknowledged the receipt of the list and indicated that the school would receive further communication. By the time that the new school year started, there had not been any further information from the department. The children for whom permission had been asked turned up on the first school day. This caused a great storm in Vryheid and the district. There were threats that the school would be closed down and to have Sr. Isentraud imprisoned. Because of the intervention of Archbishop Denis Hurley, the charges against Sr. Isentraud were dropped.
However, the Nardini Convent School was given the cold shoulder by the surrounding “white” government schools regarding sports and cultural activities as their constitutions allowed “net suiwer blank skole” to compete with one another. The exclusion clause was only dropped in 1991 after the release of Mr. Mandela.
A very positive experience during this rather turbulent period was the great loyalty and support of the Nardini parents. Only two families removed their children when the first pupils of colour were admitted. For this brave stand we hail and thank them today
Despite Hardships and Resistance, the School Grew
An important moment in the history of the school was that the first two South African sisters were employed as teachers in 1994/5, namely Sisters Conradine Mpume Nhleko and Immaculate Ndlovu. Who would have thought in 1978 that by 1995, all schools would be open to all races in a “New South Africa”?
The celebration of the school’s 40 years of existence in 1997 was especially joyful, with Bishop Biyase and priests leading past pupils, parents and sisters in a solemn Mass of thanksgiving. After 30 years of tireless and unstinting service to the parents and children of Nardini Convent School, Sr. Isentraud retired in 1999. Many were the lives she touched and inspired by her courage to face the difficulties that crossed Nardini Covent School’s path. It was under her watchful eye and with her care that the school was lead from strength to strength.
Sr. Catherine Brucker was given the challenging task of leading Nardini Convent School into the new millennium. The school reached its maximum capacity in 2001, running double classes from Grade 1 to Grade 7 with almost 400 children attending lessons. The demand for a place at the school is as great as ever.
The Development of the Boarding Establishment
The development of the boarding establishment and school went hand in hand. Although it had opened in 1961 with only one child, by 1966 Sr. Genetrudis Ober was mother to 26 little boys and girls. This ever increasing demand for boarding facilities necessitated the building of another section to the hostel and later exciting new play rooms were added. Parents expressed their appreciation for the sisters’ work and for their efforts in preparing a real home for the children.
Sr. Genetrudis remained the boarding mother for the girls until 1987, when she was joined by Sr. Diane Schraml. From 1969, the boys were looked after by Sr. Marlinde Zink until 1972, when Sr. Anna Eichenseher arrived and took full charge of the boy’s section. Because she took ill, Sr. Richlinde Schmid cared for the boys from 1983 and was joined in 1989 by Sr. Ancilla Capper. In 1998, Sr. Melinda Seiler took charge of the boys. The number of children in the boarding establishment in 1991 came close to 100.
In 2002, with the New South Africa, it was no longer necessary to continue a full permanent boarding facility as the children had access to other good schools nearer their homes. However, as from 2003, daycare is offered to approximately 100 children.
EXPANSION OF THE NURSERY SCHOOL
After Sr. Amarantha took over Class 1 in 1961, Sr. Hilbalda, newly arrived from Germany, was put in charge of the little ones. The number of children kept on increasing and it became necessary to build a new nursery school. This project was given to Mr. Focaraccio of Vryheid and nursery school was completed and blessed in 1965. Sr. Carmelina Zinkl became teacher and principal of the nursery school, a position she held with distinction until 1972 when Sr. Marlinde took over. Another classroom was added and, by 1976, there were 98 children attending our nursery school. To be affiliated to the Education Department, necessary alterations and additions had to be made. The school was then recognized by the Education Department as a Pre-Primary School and registered for 80 children. Numerous happy hours of learning through play were spent here on the grounds of our Nardini Nursery School. Sr. Marlinde left lasting memories with each of the children who passed through her hands. She will always be fondly remembered as “My first teacher”, by many of them. In 2003, Sr. Dolorosa took up the position of principal in the Pre-Primary School.
Expansion of the Convent
As more sisters joined the Vryheid Community, space became a problem and so the decision to build a new convent was made. The new convent was built around the old house, which was eventually demolished because it was undermined and eaten away with termites. In its place, a beautiful garden was established, cloistered by four walls of the convent and boarding facility. The new Nardini Convent and Hostel designed by architect G. M. Hussey and built by F. W. Engel and Mr. Froentjes became a landmark in Vryheid. The new buildings was blessed and officially opened in 1969 by the Apostolic Delegate J. Gordon and Bishop A. Bilgeri O.S.B.
In 1974 Mother Alexia Fischer, pioneer of the Vryheid Convent, moved as superior to Nkandla and Sr. Jakobalda Preinfalk became superior of the Nardini Convent. In 1979, Sr. Hilbalda Ferch was put at the helm and, in 1984; Sr. Isentraud Rauscher was appointed Regional Superior. In 1991 Sr. Isabell Fell was assigned the position of superior of the Nardini Convent in Vryheid.
The First South African Sisters
The first South Africans, Sr. Conradine Mpume Nhleko and Sr. Immaculate Ndlovu, joined the Vryheid Community in 1989. The pronouncing of their final vows in 1994 marked the beginning of a new era for the Franciscan Nardini Sisters in South Africa. They were also the cause of great excitement among the sisters in the Motherhouse in Germany, when they visited there for the first time in 2002.
From the beginning, the sisters were involved in the Parish: serving as sacristans and youth leaders – teaching Catechism – playing organ and guitars – directing and singing in the church choir – acting as readers, Communion helpers, Parish Councillors – giving workshops and retreats – visiting the aged and sick – providing for the poor and needy – animating the Secular Franciscans and Small Christian Communities.