St Catherine High pays tribute to pioneer educator Sister Mary Paschal

Job Nelson 

May 15, 2020 11:41 AM ET

Sister Mary Paschal

Sister Mary Paschal

It has been 40 years since Sister Mary Paschal Figueroa left St Catherine High as principal, but her name still reverberates along the corridors and within the halls and classrooms of the institution, impacting effectively with positive vibrations, the current generation of students.

The school’s various communities were at the forefront of the giant educator’s farewell service on May 2 at Clavar Home, St Andrew, highlighting the many accolades she received for her life of service, especially at St Catherine High.

Sister Paschal, as she is more affectionately called, died at 2.04 pm April 19 at the Tony Thwaites Wing of the University Hospital of the West indies at 101 years. The service had a few selected individuals in attendance while being streamed virtually to thousands, because of the coronavirus (COVID-19) guidelines of the government of Jamaica.

The outstanding educator had a distinguished career which lasted from 1936 until retiring as Principal of the Catholic-managed St Catherine High School in 1980. She had taken up the position in 1962, for 18 years, to be the longest-serving principal of the institution.

Sister Paschal sowed the seeds of boys being admitted to St Catherine High School, with the first set attending in 1971, upon the request of the Ministry of Education, which was seeking to find a space in the secondary school system for boys in Spanish Town, where the school is situated.

Sister Mary Paschal with Prime Minister Andrew Holness (left), Archbishop of Kingston Kenneth Richards (second right) and president of St Catherine High Alumni Association, Hugh Douse.

Since then, Sister Paschal had watch male alumni elevated to two of the nation’s highest posts, as both Prime Minister Andrew Holness and Catholic Archbishop of Kingston Kenneth Richards are past students of the institution.

Holness in a tribute to Sister Paschal at her funeral service said Sister Paschal was a counsellor, with great influence, from which he benefitted tremendously. He described her as a disciplinarian, who did so with love, which the students always felt.

“Now strict disciplinarian has different meanings to different persons. Some people can be very strict and unpleasantly so, but it was clear that Sister Paschal was strict, but pleasantly strict, because no matter how you were disciplined, you understood, you felt the love in the discipline and you benefitted from it.

“She sets a standard, which is not an easy standard to maintain in today’s society. I certainly, in my own life, I am trying to live up to that standard of grace, of love and respect for all. Of living a dignified life, a life lived in the service of others, a selfless life and indeed, that was Sister Paschal’s life,” Holness said.

Richards, in an interview with Loop News, said, “her contribution to the (Catholic) church is a lifelong lasting legacy that she gave to education at (Convent of Mercy) Alpha and St Catherine High School in particular and how she insisted that the school should accommodate formation for the boys and how she sets up an environment for the total development of the person.

“One that was addressing the academic development, but also one that was infused with spirituality. So, I think that has been one of the things that has been an indelible and long-lasting feature of our time with Sister Paschal at St Catherine High School,” said Archbishop Richards, a member of the Class of 1976 and who was among the first set of boys.

While Sister Paschal’s teaching achievement has been associated with Alpha and St Catherine High School, she also did stints at Alpha Boys’ and Girls’ in St Andrew, Seaford Town Primary School in Westmoreland and Mt St Joseph Academy in Manchester, where she went as the principal.

Born Elise Figueroa in Panama to Jamaican parents, she relocated with her family to Jamaica at age 13, before returning to Panama during the construction of the canal, while her father worked at a fruit factory.

During her formative years, Sister Paschal was baptised at the Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Colon, Panama. After returning to Jamaica in 1936, she entered the Convent (Alpha Convent) of the Sisters of Mercy, where she remained until her death.

“She embodied the Catholic spirituality as a Sister of Mercy and so the hands of mercy, directed at realising the potential of persons so that they would become aware of their environment and make a contribution in the way how they live their lives, based on the foundation that was established in their formation,” Archbishop Richards said,

According to St Catherine principal Marlon Campbell, Sister Paschal set the bar for all other leaders of the institution to follow, despite not being among the founders of the school in 1948.

“I want to say indeed she is the matriarch of St Catherine High. She is the person who set the precedence for all persons to follow. The legacy that she left is unmatched and is living to this day, as students who are just entering the space know about Sister Paschal, even though she left in 1980.

“As a principal, I am in love with her because she is a fantastic facilitator and some of her tenets and the things she did for St Catherine High, I learnt from her as the school grew under her,” Campbell said.

Chairperson of the school board, Sharon Dale, agrees. She said, “she influenced the lives of many and dedicated her life guiding those who were lucky to have passed through her hands.

“She shared her love and wisdom with everyone and we celebrate her legacy with respect and appreciation for a noblewoman, who unselfishly dedicated her life to teaching and mentoring others. We give thanks for this small but mighty giant, whose beauty springs from her heart and soul,” said Dale, who like Archbishop Richards, is a member of the Class of 1976.

Sister Paschal, who holds a Bachelors Degree in Spanish and Biology from Our Lady of Saints, Cincinnati in the United States of America, continued her service to Jamaica after departing St Catherine High School, as she served as administrator of St Joseph’s Hospital, another Catholic institution.

“One thing that persons overlook is that in religious people like the Sisters of Mercy like Sister Mary Paschal, Mary is the mother of Jesus Christ and is her icon, who becomes the inspiration to the commitment that she made, in terms of serving the church and humanity.

“Just as how Mary cared for the development and formation of Jesus as his maternal mother, on the human level, our religious sisters like Sister Paschal embodied that kind of commitment of caring for the child in their formation and development to realise their potential,” Archbishop Richards said.

In 2007, Sister Paschal was awarded The Order Of Distinction (OD) by Governor-General Sir Patrick Allen at The National Honours and Awards Ceremony at King’s House, for outstanding public service in education and religion.

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