FORMER pupils of St Anne’s Primary School have spoken of their devastation and sadness as they visited the school for the last time.

Past generations of students of the Millisle Road school mingled on Friday with parents now scrambling to find new school places, as St Anne’s saw its final day after more than 90 years of educating children in Donaghadee and the surrounding area. 

The closure brings to an end a campaign to create the town’s first integrated primary school.

It also brings a close to the area’s only faith school at primary level.

Principal John Hennessy, who has been at the helm for 22 years, gave a warm welcome to old classmates, many of whom had not seen each other in decades.

Men and women up to pension age walked through their former classrooms, mulled over ageing photographs, read old teachers’ reports and enjoyed a poignant trip down memory lane before bidding the school a final farewell.

Teachers, dressed in colourful St Anne’s hoodies, were delighted to see children just recently re-schooled elsewhere, back in the school, rekindling friendships with the few children who remained until the final day.

One teacher, who was too choked up to say much, said she had been so traumatised by the experience – learning the school was to close on social media in June – that she is taking early retirement. 

Sisters Gerri Maul and Irene Ryan, both in their sixties, had been among the first pupils to enter the school when it was opened in 1962, alongside four other siblings. 

They had moved to the Millisle Road school following its move from the town centre location where it began as a convent under principal, Sister Philomena. 

“We are really really devastated it’s closing,” said Gerri. “We’ve so many amazing memories here. We started at the convent so when we moved here we had a brand new building and all the community got very involved here. 

Irene added: “We have happy memories here and obviously there were bad days at school like everywhere but it was a very nice little community school. 

“It’s an absolute disgrace that it’s closing,” she said.

Gerri added: “It’s really a great loss to Donaghadee because we’ve got all this new housing being developed and there’ll be nowhere for the kids to go.

“While there’s no Catholic school now we really were supportive of the integrated school that they wanted it to be. Integrated education is what our society needs,” she said.

“When it gets knocked down and all the new houses are built, where will all the children go?” asked Irene. 

Perusing pictures in old photo albums dating back to 1969, the sisters were also critical of the local church authorities who they said had ‘abandoned’ the school during its recent fight for survival.

“I’m very disappointed that the church hasn’t been here to support them,” said Gerri. “I also feel for people who wanted a Roman Catholic education because there is none in the area now. They’ll have to travel to Bangor.

“I can’t emphasise enough, what a massive loss this is to the town.” 

Catherine Maizs, nee Falls, attended St Anne’s with her older sister Eimear and reflected very fondly on her old school days. 

“I started coming in the 1980s, to reception class, right up to P7 and have very many happy memories.

“I loved it here, every second,” she said. “There wasn’t anything we missed out on here, being a small school, apart from languages but our teacher, Rosemary Budding, was just great and she made every effort to try to teach us everything. Her daughter Nicola was a pupil here and her mother was the dinner lady too; it was one big happy family.”

Listing a number of old St Anne’s friends with whom she has kept in touch over the years, she said school life was ‘great fun’ back then, and remembers being despatched to the local shops to bring ice cream and crisps back for pupils on special events like sports day ‘or when Lent was over’. 

Catherine, who is now a teacher herself, fondly recalled being taught in St Anne’s composite – or mixed aged classrooms – overseen by other teachers like Sister Angela.

“Being in the mixed classes we helped each other and the ones who were flying ahead were nearly like classroom assistants to the other ones and in the smaller classrooms, you also learned to keep quiet and let everyone work.”

Commenting on the benefits of small classroom sizes offered by St Anne’s, she said: “Being here, you got so much one to one attention and it led me to send my own children to a school with smaller classroom sizes,” she said. “If a child is struggling they really pick up on it quickly.”

Another parent of a former pupil, Ross Kerr said it’s very sad the town has lost a great school, outstanding teachers and supportive staff.

Having collected signatories to a 3000-name petition opposing the school’s closure, he wanted to thank everyone who had supported the school’s campaign.

“We received support from almost all of the community,” he said. “We spoke to people of all walks of life, ages and backgrounds and it was simply amazing.

“Regardless of the closure, we know our children will continue to thrive in Donaghadee as it has three more excellent schools and Donaghadee has an outstanding community to raise a family.”