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How was Kolkata’s famous Loreto House born?

23 November, 2022 10:34:31
How was Kolkata’s famous Loreto House born?

Loreto House - a school that has catered to thousands of women from elite Bengali families over generations. A school that still stands in all glory and was founded in an era when women's education was almost unheard of in India. Mary Ward (1585-1645) founded the institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary and introduced a new way of life for religious women. By 1840, a Catholic School for girls was thought of. Dr. Bakhaus, the military chaplain of Hazaribagh was going to Rome. He was entrusted with the task of finding nuns of the Holy Order to start a school in Calcutta. He first approached the Ursulines. But they declined as they had used up their funds to establish a new convent in South Carolina. Next, he went to Loreto Abbey near Dublin, where he wanted to meet Mother Mary Teresa Ball. The Mother agreed. The Catholic Archbishop Carew procured the house in Middleton Row, describing it as a noble and spacious building. It was a splendid three-storeyed mansion, well adapted for the residence of the future nuns and a seminary or boarding school. Standing on 7 bighas of land, it had the choicest of trees and shrubberies.

The purchase money was Rs 40k. Twelve young nuns sailed for Calcutta in the vessel Scotia under the charge of Mother Mary Delphinehart who was only 23 years of age. After 4 months they arrived at Calcutta. The Hon’ble missus Eden, sisters of Governor General Lord Auckland were among the large number of people assembled at the landing ghat to welcome them. They were taken to the cathedral where Archbishop Carew led the formal reception. The cathedral was the Portuguese Church at Murgihatta. The young ladies finally arrived at Middleton Row and swept up the stairs of the grand old historic house.

The house had a great hall with massive pillars and garlanded arches. It was too large for a community room and much too grandly furnished in the lavish early Victorian style. Between the tall, grooved pillars curtain recesses were arranged as the nun cells. To the nuns, they looked more like boudoirs with their cushioned armchairs, embroidered counter pins, and strangest of all in each cell a demour little ladies’ maid, an ayah serving their mistresses. Preparations for the establishment of the school went ahead quickly. The syllabus was writing, arithmetic, grammar, geography, chronology, history, French, and plain and fancy needlework. The fee for borders was Rs 25 per month and for day scholars Rs 12 including tiffin. On 10th January 1842, Loreto House opened its doors to the first 60 young girls as pupils. The same morning classes began for the orphans at the cathedral. The college section began in 1912. From the very beginning, Loreto House became popular for all communities of aristocratic backgrounds. The young ladies of the Tagore family were also students including Rabindranath Tagore’s niece Indira Devi Choudhurani. Later his young wife was also admitted here for studies. 

Begum Shaista Ikramullah, daughter of Shri Hasan Suhrawardy claims in a book to be the first Muslim student of Loreto House. Her father decided to send her to Loreto House as it was one of the best English schools in Calcutta despite the protest of womenfolk of the house. This was way back in 1927. Born in an aristocratic Muslim family, she had to observe purdah in school with Mother Superior’s permission, and her car was allowed up to the entrance hall. She studied there for five years and expressed high praise for the teachers, particularly Mother Joseph Agatha. 

When the school needed more space, No 8 Middleton Row was purchased for an extension. Other schools of the Loreto order were opened in Calcutta, and the first Loreto Convent was in Darjeeling in 1847. A generation of sisters devoted to God and education have served the institution. Little girls joined the nursery section and under the loving care of the teachers left school as accomplished young ladies. The old school building was often described as one of the oldest houses of Calcutta where a Governor had once resided. But it had to be demolished in 1958 to make way for the new school building, modern, spacious, and with every facility in a large compound. 

Adjacent to the school is St Thomas Church. This Roman Catholic Church was erected after filling up a round tank in front of Sir Elijah Impey’s house. Construction started in 1841. The Church is very popular and its specialty is its Sunday service. Millions visited the church in 1997 when Mother Teresa’s mortal remains were kept there to enable people to pay their last respects. 

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