In 1888, recognising the need for the education of girls, Rev Darragh established St Mary’s School for Girls. It moved from the dusty goldfields of Jeppestown to the fine building in Belgravia. The ability to adapt and overcome obstacles has always been a defining feature of the School. In 1934, the School moved to the present, lovely site in Waverley where it has flourished. As Johannesburg has developed into a world city, so St Mary’s has become a school in a class of its own, inextricably linked to the changing world around us.
The first Headmistress of St Mary's was Miss Mary Ross. When she left to marry the Revd John Darragh, she was succeeded by Miss Kathleen Holmes-Orr.
St Mary's moved soon after this to Belgravia. From 1923 to 1928 the Diocese asked the Sisters of East Grinstead, England, to run the school. In 1928 Miss Darke became Headmistress.
The Senior School of St Mary's, Waverley, has had six Headmistresses, not counting the interlude of the Wantage Sisters from 1946 to 1963. Each Head has made a distinctive contribution to the life and ethos of the school. As predicted, the School has continued to grow and the facilities have become increasingly diverse yet the sense of spaciousness remains in the beautiful gardens and the quiet nooks.
The foundation stone of the school in Waverley was laid by the wife of the Governor-General in 1934. Lord Kitchener had apparently constructed a field office during the South African War of 1899-1902 on the grounds on which the School now began to rise. No less indomitable than Kitchener, but by all accounts far more humanitarian, Miss Darke oversaw the construction of the new School, sometimes helping with the building personally. She was, in the memory of those still alive to tell the tale, a warm and deeply kind person. The first wings of the School were cloister-like, with classrooms below and dormitories above. The passages, open to the elements, bred a hardy type of girl well able to swim and to play lacrosse, netball and tennis against keen competitors.
Before the Second World War, the girls were free to roam on the neighbouring pig farm which also had a zoo of lions and other animals - when they were not in class or playing sport!
New wings were added and the Close was designed with its Queen's Path bordered by jacaranda trees. Each year the entire school celebrates the Patronal Festival and Prizegiving in this lovely space. Today the main entrance to the School is once again through the Angel Doors, so beloved by Miss Darke, at the top end of the Close. Miss Darke introduced a House system with its friendly, competitive spirit, and encouraged an appreciation for ballet, music and drama. Music and drama have featured strongly in the School ever since. Miss Darke retired in 1942 to become a missionary, and she was succeeded by Mrs Bryn-Jones.
In 1942 the younger girls moved into their own building for lessons. The first Headmistress of the Junior School was Mrs Maisie Cartwright.
The Chapel stands at the heart of the School. Sister Janet carved the lovely statue of Mary and Jesus that is to be found in it. The latest additions to the chapel are the beautiful windows donated by the Old Girls and another that commemorates the untimely death of a young pupil, Kirsten Beck. Ringing the Angelus is a much-loved tradition. Father Trevor Huddlestone was a frequent visitor to St Mary's in the 1940s and 1950s and, like him, the School refused to bow to apartheid bullies. In these years St Mary's girls exchanged visits with young people from Sophiatown, and frequently visited the Church of Christ the King.
St Mary's was run by the Sisters of the Community of St Mary the Virgin (Wantage) from 1946 to 1963, led in turn by Sister Mary Isobel, Sister Janet, Sister Irene and Sister Irene Benedict. The Sisters were ambitious and a force to be reckoned with and were both loved and feared. Miss Nancy Wamsley (1963 - 1973) succeeded the Sisters and she exuded a quiet gentleness over the School. The independent thinking of the School was by this time well established and continued into the future. Mrs Dodo Pitt, who retired as Headmistress in the School's centenary year, employed the first black teacher for isiZulu in 1975 and admitted the first black pupil after the Soweto uprising, risking the closure of the School rather than be dictated to by racial prejudice. Of Mrs Pitt a former pupil says: ‘She encouraged us to be fearless and adventurous, and develop our self-confidence in our own identity ... Almost two decades before our country obtained democracy and liberation, Mrs Pitt had already started liberating the minds of many a South African.' Mrs Pitt provided the School with excellent leadership as a result of her empathy and humour. During her Headship, the dusty parking lot, gum trees and bicycle stand so typical of early St Mary's, gave way to squash courts and an audio-visual room. A year after her retirement, the Pitt Block provided more classrooms for the growing number of pupils.
Mrs Pitt's successor, Mrs Judith Brown, (1989 - 1999), introduced an Outreach programme, and the School's commitment to the less advantaged communities of the black townships grew. Jude Brown was a generous and democratic leader, loved by the pupils. The School purchased a property for her residence and today it is Little Saints - the creative and exciting Nursery School.
Mrs Meg Fargher became Headmistress in 1999. In keeping with the sentiment that young women should have equal access to good education in the sciences, Meg Fargher encouraged the building in 2004 of the Desmond Tutu Centre for Natural Sciences. This brought St Mary's into line with the best any School has to offer.
Developments were begun judiciously under Mrs Brown in information technology and a new library and computer centre, the Wantage Centre, was built under her guidance. Meg Fargher developed the IT commitment of the School by ensuring that St Mary’s had a fully wireless campus and introduced the invaluable teaching aids of interactive white boards in most classrooms. On her insistence, all St Mary’s girls were taught to use and embrace technological advancements.
By the 1990s, boarding had lost popularity and the boarding facilities were closed down. Meg initiated the re-opening of boarding, but this time with a ‘home-style’ ethos. Today the School has four boarding houses with excellent facilities.
The committed Board of Directors, with the vision of Meg Fargher, embarked on the expansion of the St Mary’s facilities. A world-class Aquatics Centre with a diving pool, waterpolo pools and Olympic-sized swimming pool was opened in 2009. On the site of the old pool, a dream of Meg’s became a reality and a magnificent Performing and Visual Arts centre was built. This facility has a 530 seat concert hall, natural light art studios, a dance studio, music practice rooms, dramatic art venues and language classrooms. Meg Fargher retired at the end of 2008 and was succeeded by Ms Deanne King, the present Headmistress.
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