The history of St Augustine's Priory is a long and venerable one...
The establishment has been located in Ealing for a hundred years, but the history of the school and the order of nuns which founded it stretches back much further than that, to 1634. Although the order of nuns dispersed from St Augustine's in the autumn of 1996, their spirit and faith lives on in the school which they nurtured for so long. All who attend this school can be proud that they belong to such a rich and varied community.
This thread of history begins in 1631 when an English woman, Lettice Mary Tredway, an English nun at the convent of Notre Dame de Beaulieu at Douai, together with Father Thomas Carre, a priest at the English College at Douai, conceived the idea of founding an order in France for those English women who wished to pursue their religious vocation. This was not possible in England at that time owing to religious persecution. The project was approved by the authorities and in 1634 the Augustinian convent of the Canonesses Regular of the Lateran opened in Paris. Six English women were selected to start this new community, among them a thirteen year old girl, Margaret Dormer. She was too young to become a nun and so the school began, with Margaret Dormer the first pupil. Every pupil who passes through the doors of St Augustine's Priory is in a direct line of succession from this first girl. Each one is a new Margaret Dormer.
Settled into premises on the rue des Fosses St Victor, the convent became one of the centres of English Catholics in exile and among many notable visitors were the exiled King James II, together with his consort, Queen Mary.
Over the next 250 years the community and school on the rue des Fosses St Victor found itself at the heart of European events. The French Revolution, when alone of all the English religious communities, the Canonesses of the Lateran remained in Paris, saw the nuns enduring the terror of those years, their convent even being used as a prison for women. In the following years under Napoleon the community often played host as the Emperor enjoyed walking in the quiet of the convent gardens. Following Napoleon's defeat, the Duke of Wellington visited the community. Revolution in 1848 saw the nuns remain at their posts, but in 1862 new premises had to be found when the property on the rue des Fosses St Victor was demolished, and the convent and school moved to Neuilly, on the outskirts of the city. During the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 the nuns temporarily moved to Brittany but returned to Paris as soon as it was safe to do so.
Apart from these vicissitudes of history, the nineteenth century saw the reputation of the school flourish until, in 1884 the nuns and pupils trimphantly celebrated the 250th anniversary of the foundation of the order and of the school. As one of the oldest English institutions in Paris, news of the anniversary spread around the world, with articles appearing in international publications, including The Times.
In 1911, after nearly three hundred years, the anti-clerical laws of France saw the community compelled to leave France for England, a country where nuns were now welcome, to practise their vocation and run their school. For four years the community occupied Castle Hill House which used to stand on Castlebar Road. During this time the present convent and school were constructed attached to a Victorian house on the Hillcrest Road site and in 1915 the nuns moved into their new home and here both community and school remained. Certainly, alterations and additions have taken place to the structure of the buildings over the years. For example, around 1930 the original Victorian house, which stood on the corner of Hanger Lane and Hillcrest Road, was demolished and additional cloakrooms and classrooms were built, but the essence of what was originally conceived in 1631 grows and thrives with each year that passes.
The past one hundred years in England have not been without incident. For example, during the Second World War the school remained in operation and when air raid sirens sounded nuns, staff and pupils would go down to the cellars and continue lessons there. Paper was in short supply and so after writing in pencil in their rough exercise books the pupils would erase all and re-use the books for their best work.
The nuns kept a small natural history museum in one of their rooms in the school and Victorian cabinets were packed in there stuffed full of small statues, geological specimens and strange and somewhat indescribable things in jars that had been collected and hoarded by the nuns over the years.
In the mid-1990s when the museum was cleared, in one of the cupboards an item was found and it was felt with this discovery the school should be immediately evacuated down to the end of the grounds. From Prep I to Upper VI the rumour soon spread-a dinosaur's egg had been found!
Alas, nothing so exciting. Merely a very small, very live First World War bomb. In case of any doubt or mis-diagnosis a label had been attached with the word 'Bomb' written on it in elegant italic writing. Simply another item of interest for the nuns' eclectic tastes. Needless to say, it was disposed of with alacrity by the bomb squad.
In various locations around St Augustine's Priory, you will see chairs and footstools that the nuns embroidered over the course of many years. Each stitch was made with care and love and more than a few drops of blood would have been shed in their creation. So, after the course of nearly 400 years can St Augustine's Priory be seen, an embroidery of thousands of tiny stitches, each stitch a pupil, a nun, a teacher, their families, all combining and interweaving to form the tapestry that is St Augustine's Priory today, uniting in the motto of St Augustine 'One mind and one heart intent upon God'.