Canossian Convent School for Girls - later Mater Dei School for Girls

Anne Woolmington, Bev Stewart, Midge Kell and Pat Whitney

Memories of the Canossian Convent Welwyn Garden City by Anne Woolmington

I remember being taken by my mother to the Convent in 1945 to be a day girl and I was there until 1955.

At the back of the school were the “huts” where many of the classes were taken until the school was extended.  There was also a large vegetable garden and the nuns kept hens. The huts were heated by round coal burning stoves surrounded by a fire guard , the nuns used to warm our milk on them for morning break. ( remember, at the age of 5 taking my own mug. I also remember my brother painting my name inside a napkin ring which we had to provide….and I still have it.

The school lunches were always tasty (or so they seemed when young and food was rationed).  We were introduced to minestrone soup. It was a tasty broth with what I think was penne pasta and vegetables.  We sat on benches at trestle tables.  The nuns could often be seen walking in the town and often small groups would walk to Sherrards wood…they would pass my house it was, I think, usually on a Sunday.

When the statue of Dawn was put up in Parkway, near the Convent we were instructed to close our eyes when walking  past it.  Our uniform was white Viyella blouse,navy gym slip, school tie and a girdle, white socks and shoes. In winter we wore navy gaberdine raincoats.  In summer we wore a navy blazer, blue moygashel summer dress and a panama hat……or we could still wear our berets.

In summer we played rounders and tennis and the tennis courts were used for netball in the winter. We also played hockey and I remember walking to the rugby club in all weathers and always being cold.   We, who were in the lower school, used to wait at the school gates so we could take the  seniors’ bikes to the bicycle sheds.

On Monday morning we would have school assembly when those who had come top of the class the previous week, would get “the medal”  and there was a prize giving at the end of term.

Our singing lessons were taken by Madam Burdett who always wore an academic gown.  We sang not only traditional English folk songs but also the songs of Ivor Novello.  We also had elocution lessons from Clare Saxon

The discipline was quite strict. Walking, not running in the corridors, standing up when a visitor or member of staff came into the room. If you were badly behaved you would have to sit with your hands on your head and when silence was required, put your finger on your lips.  We each had our own desks which had to be kept tidy and were checked regularly. Our lessons started in the morning with prayers.  We said the Angeleus at midday and ended the day with prayers.

I still have the drawn thread and embroidered table cloth and tray cloth made in needlework lessons.  I left the Convent in 1955 to go to the Further Education College (now Oaklands) which was then behind Applecroft School to take my school certificate.  I wanted to train as a Domestic Science teacher and I could include cookery in my subjects.


The Mater Dei School for Girls (writes Bev Stewart, nee Harries) had its antecedents in the very early years of the new town.  In 1922 three nuns from the order of the Sisters of St Magdalena of Canossa came to live in a house in Meadow Green to support the new catholic parish of St Bonaventure.  In 1926 the church with accommodation for two priests was built on the corner of Parkway and Birdcroft and in 1929 land adjacent was given to the nuns for their convent.  In 1934 the nuns opened a kindergarten for young girls and boys which eventually developed into the Canossian Convent School for Girls providing a catholic education for girls living in the new town and its environs (boys having to leave post-kindergarten).  This was a fee-paying school (altho’ waived for indigent catholic families) and by the 1950’s was offering education up to and including A-levels.  The school welcomed non-catholic pupils and was popular with families who wanted their girls to have a non-seculat education. Elocution, dancing and embroidery lessons were offered.

In 1959 the school was taken into mainstream under the auspices of the County Education Department and renamed the Mater Dei School for Girls, no longer fee-paying and open to all.  The site was quite constricted with little potential for development and the school eventually closed in 1978, the nuns returning to their mother house.  The original convent became the Focolare (Italian for “hearth”) Centre for Unity and remains so today while houses were built on what had been the tennis courts and the school hall was turned into flats, appropriately called The Cloisters.  The Centre was opened on 20 November 1986 in the presence of 30 Bishops representing five churches and around 400 members of the Focolare movement.

Midge Kell (nee O’Sullivan) recalls

I started at the Convent School, Parkway,(as it was then known) in 1946 and was there from the age of 4 to 11. My mother was a teacher there during my time at school.

My predominant memory is of the lovely food we had at lunchtime. My first experience of Italian food. We used to have lunch and then a rest afterwards. We would go back to the infants’ classroom, put our heads on our folded arms on the desk and have a rest. Sometimes we would go to the Pavilion overlooking the tennis courts, and have a class there.

The nuns in the infants and up o age 11 were lovely, kind and gentle, Mother Pierina in particular and also Mother Gemma. I have very little memory of being taught, but I do remember reciting the Catechism and changing tables.

We had a junior school orchestra, I was the conductor. We went upto the Festival of Britain and gave a performance, along with various other schools. It was very exciting just going up to London, going to the Festival Hall and seeing the Skylon.

We were taught dancing by Marjorie Bailey and onetime, gave a concert where I performed the dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy I think I was about 7. There were supposed to be two of us but my classmate was unwell. I never forgave her, and shudder at the thought of it now.

We were also given elocution lessons Mrs Claire Saxon. Speaking clearly, and ‘properly’ was thought to be of great importance.

My final year at school was in my mother’s class. It was rather strange as I felt different to the other girls. Probably strange for my mother as well.

One advantage of my mother being a teacher at the Convent, was that after school, I went with her to the staff room where the teachers had their tea. I think I was given a drink, but what really stayed with me was sitting by an electric fire on my own, and studying a collection of butterflies in a glass case that was there and being fascinated by them. There was an old lady, Mrs. Spence who lived at the convent and had her tea with the staff. She was very fierce looking and I remember being in awe of her, I don’t remember her speaking to me or joining in the general conversation round the tea table.

I went to do the 11 plus at Parkway School with a classmate, and then left to go to another convent school, losing touch with my Convent classmates.

Recollections of Mater Dei School by Pat Whitney, September 2018

I was a student at Mater Dei School for Girls from 1966 – 73 and still have clear memories of entering the school building each morning under the rose covered arches.  The school was adjacent to the convent where the sisters lived and the smell of their tasty Italian cooking used to pervade the corridor.

The beginnings of the school date back to November 1922 when three Canossian Sisters of Charity from northern Italy arrived in Welwyn Garden City.  Their coming had been encouraged by the Catholic bishop of the Westminster diocese who was happy to have their presence in the then developing Garden City. The sisters lived originally at 17 Meadow Green and Mass for the Catholic community was celebrated in their house until St. Bonaventure’s church on Parkway was opened.

In 1929, the sisters built a much larger convent on the land adjacent to the church and used it to accommodate sisters from abroad as they learned English.   In 1934 they began to educate kindergarten children in this building – the embryonic start to Mater Dei school which eventually went on to welcome girls aged 11 to 18.

The Canossians must have kept the Meadow Green house for some time because Servite sisters and students from Our Lady’s Convent School in Stamford Hill, north east London were evacuated there during World War II. The Londoners found Welwyn Garden City very quiet and said that the Canossians were so “spiritual” they hardly knew when the war ended! I know this because, in my adult life, I taught for many years with the evacuees.

Nonetheless, as Welwyn Garden City grew, so did the Canossian commitment to education in the area.  In 1952, Mater Dei school was extended and became a fee paying school open to boarders as well as day students.

By the time I began to attend in 1966, Mater Dei was a three form entry independent school for girls aged 11 to 18.  I have happy memories of school so maybe I see it through rose-coloured glasses: I recall it being strict but caring with a strong sense of community. When I was fourteen, I caught pneumonia and had a long absence:  the sisters came to see me at home bringing little presents.  There were lots of extra-curricular events long before they became fashionable in schools. Speech nights, Christmas bazaars, school trips and dramatic productions always created a sense of excitement and belonging. Mother Velia was the head teacher who was omnipresent and knew everything about every girl.  In the playground, there was a large statue of the Sacred Heart in front of which all students lined up in silence at the end of morning and lunchtime breaks.  She was always there at the foot of the statue: I cannot recall a single day she missed throughout the seven years of my school life.

Mater Dei’s independent status was one of the reasons that led to its closure in 1981.  As comprehensive education became the norm throughout the country, there was a need to adapt and this was difficult for a relatively small establishment with its own strong identity.  In the late 70’s, Westminster diocese made the decision to close the school. This was strongly contested by many parents in the area.  However, the decision held and Mother Velia’s example, in her own words, enabled the students and staff to conclude “with their heads held high.”

In 1981, the school and convent buildings were put on the market for sale.  At the same time, the Focolare Movement was beginning to look for premises to use as a residential conference centre.  The Focolare is an ecclesial movement that began in the Catholic church in Italy and works for unity in all areas of society:  it contributes to the fulfilment of Jesus’ prayer “Father may they all be one.” (Jn.17:21) When Focolare members in Britain first visited the Mater Dei building that year, although very attractive, it seemed too large and expensive. However, it eventually became possible to buy just one  part of the school and convent:  the remainder was purchased by Hunting Gate property developers.  The Focolare took possession of their part of the building in March 1983.  This has gradually been refurbished and its facilities are used not only by Focolare members but by national and international groups.

This page was added on 05/04/2018.

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  • I attended Mater Dei from 1953 – 1961
    Just wondered if anyone had any school group photos during that time

    By DIANA MORRISON nee Hall (02/11/2023)
  • I was at the school from 1954 to 1966. I then did my GSE and went on to the college in welwyn Garden City. I left there in 1970 and went to South Africa where i lived for 40 years and have now been in Ireland for 14 years. I was at school with Susan Aylott. Sonya Grove. Margaret Murphy. Yvonne Leete. Susan Goss. Laura Gillies and Veronica Barker. Often wonder what happened to them all. My name was Lynda Keith. Wonder if anyone who reads this remembers me.

    By Lynda Goss (12/10/2023)
  • Just sitting reminiscing with a my friend Mary (nee Patterson)/
    We were at the Mater Dei until 1974 – upper 6th

    We have a photo and a couple of names of our class are blank in our memories !!!

    Would be interesting to see if there are still a few of you out there

    Liz – nee Collin

    Sorry not able to upload photo at this time

    By Liz Broadhead-Coyne (06/10/2023)
  • Just sitting reminiscing with a my friend Mary (nee Patterson)/
    We were at the Mater Dei until 1974 – upper 6th

    We have a photo and a couple of names are blank in our memories

    Would be interesting to see if there are still a few of you out there

    Liz – nee Collin

    By Liz Broadhead-Coyne (06/10/2023)
  • Barbara Grosvenor, I remember you, and Susan Newman. My friends were Linda Hutchins, Valerie Denchfield, Anne Fitzharris, Paula Jackson, Bridget Toms, Susan Shaxon, Lesley Cochrane and Christine Sykes Wright.

    Favourite and most influential teacher, Mrs Meyrick who taught English and Miss James who taught art.

    At Mater Dei from 1958-63 as a boarder for some of the time, and I particularly remember my favourite nun, Mother Anne Murray, who died in? 1961

    By Tina Harris (Shaw) (26/03/2022)
  • I was at Mater Dei from 1959 to 1965. I have happy memories of my time there
    Mother Agnes was head teacher and I had piano lessons with an “eccentric” nun called Mother Rita. Our art teacher was Miss James and French teacher Madam Laubier who was, lets say,highly strung.
    The teacher who gave us all a love of literature was our English teacher Mrs. Merick. I have always been grateful to her for I have had a life long love of books and reading thanks to her.
    Another good memory is of school dinners. I was always hungry in those days and loved them. My good friend was Susan Newman. I sadly lost touch with her and would love to know where she us now and how her life has been.
    Susan if you see this I always remember happy times with you.

    By Barbara Grosvenor (26/04/2021)
  • I attended Mater Dei from 1964 to 1969
    I have mixed memories from really good ones to being scared witless when I found myself in Mother Veillias office, I think her title was Mother of discipline, before she took over from Mother Agnes, my crime was I swore (one word and not bad) at the library prefect…. I’m sorry Monica!
    I loved Mrs Williamson’s domestics science class, Mother Giselda’s sewing lessons, my art teacher whose name I cannot remember, I loved all games and PT lessons particularly netball, although not so fond of the showers. Mother Theresa, Mrs Beresford and Mr Rowland were lovely, Madam Lobeia was frightening, I always felt sorry for Mr Chakabarti he was the new maths teacher and I think we scared him rather than the other way round. I remember when you had finished your exercise book you had to queue at a little hatch to get a new one, they would count the pages and if you had ripped any out you got charged, I can’t remember how much but I do know it was cheaper if it was your rough book!
    I think it was in my third year on a Thursday I had double French, double Latin, double English and double Italian, never thought that was thought out too well.
    I travelled by train from Stevenage every day and always tried to get out of school quickly run to the station and try and catch the earlier train, hat on till I got on the train .

    By Jan Harraway nee Newman (19/04/2021)
  • Nothing ventured, nothing gained!
    My mother Camille Wai died age 19, I never knew her so if anyone is able to shed any light on her time at school, I’d be most grateful. Camille (Millie) would have arrived at the school around the end of 1948. She travelled from Hong Kong at the age of 10. Two Italian teachers travelled at the same time as my mother on the same ship, the Canton. The teachers were Josephine Rezzonico and Guglielmina Fontanari. If anyone has memories to share…. please reach out.

    By Nicholas Wai (28/01/2021)
  • I was at Mater Dei from 1976 to 1980. I loved my time there and remember it as a very friendly school. It was a tragedy that it was allowed to close. I was musical and loved the choir and singing with Joyce Loysen and piano with Yvonne White.

    By Melissa Wilkinson (24/01/2021)
  • Hi, my name is Celia Quinlivan, I attended Mater Dei from 1967 – 1972. I travelled on the train from Potters Bar and some more girls joinedme in that daily journey in 1968. Catherine Walsh RIP, Dolores Whelan and Margaret McQuade. Fond memories of Mr Chakabarti, Mrs Beresford, Mother Dorothy, Mrs Thom or Tom and really scary Mother Giselda, particularly if you jammed the sewing machine which I did regularly. Double needlework Wednesday afternoon, dreaded it !!! Nearly forgot, the lovely Mr Roland, music teacher who gave out slices of apple pie if you answered his questions correctly. Happy carefree days.

    By Celia Quinlivan (10/11/2020)
  • Toni Rock, I attended from 1968-1971. Best few years of my life. I had great respect for Mother Veila, I loved Mother Dorothy. I also remember Mothers Clare, Ilva and Mrs Griffiths. I remember Lorraine Harmon and Carole Duffy, Margaret Garrihy, Anna Howlett, Christine Cox, Celia O Connor, Christine Taylor, Margaret Dunne, Toni Doyle, Emily Dickenson, and of course all my Stevenage buddies, Beatrice Smith, Kay Pocock (RIP), Anne Kane, Angela Mitchell, Jackie Jakeway (RIP), Anne Flanagan, Margaret Redding, Caroline Humphries and many more.

    By Antoinette Rock (25/10/2020)
  • Hi,
    I attended Mater Dei from 66-72. I used to travel from Hertford. My two sisters followed me there too. I remember Deirdre O’Neill, Sandra Griffiths, Patricia Whitney,Jackie Burns and many more… I would love to hear from anyone that remembers me .

    By Helen Smith (09/10/2020)
  • Hello. I was at this School from 1974-1979. It was a good school and I was sad when it was demolished. One of the ladies names on comments rings a bell, Angela Duffy. I think she knew my sister Kirsten Eriksen? This is Sally Eriksen. Wonder if she could email? Anyway thanks to the people that put the photos on here and the other ladies. Very interesting.

    By Sally Eriksen (29/08/2020)
  • I was at the convent from 1963 until 1968, I loved it there and have many happy memories, Mother Velia took over from Mother Agnes as headmistress, I remember a lot of the girls but unfortunately haven’t kept in touch.

    By Denise Driver nee Aylott (31/07/2020)
  • I wonder still if any past pupil remembers my Aunt, Mother Anne Murray, who had spent 25 years in Hong Kong at the Sacred Heart Canossian Convent before returning to England and Welwyn Garden City.

    I think she was in charge of the school library and she also taught, but I have no idea what subject she taught.

    My mother was her sister – there were only two children in the family and their mother died two weeks after my mother was born. Mother Anne remained with her father who re-married and my mother was brought up by her paternal grandparents in Tullamore, Offaly.

    By Dr. Beatrice Doran (11/07/2020)
  • I recall my time at Mater Dei with very great memories. Mother Velia was in charge and our head girl was my best friend Philippa Price nee Cartmel who passed away sometime ago. I was Mary Lynch now Fowler. I remember bringing my pony to the fete one year to give rides.

    By Mary Fowler (29/06/2020)
  • My Aunt, Mother Anne Murray, was a Canossian nun who spent 25 years in Hong Kong teaching at the Sacred Heart Convent there. In the early 1950s she returned to England and was a teacher at Mater Dei in Welwyn Garden City until her death about 1955 or 1956. She was born in Ireland and unfortunately I know very little about her life in England. She was my mother’s only sister. She visited Dublin in the 1950s to see her father and I was a child of about 11 then. She was not permitted to stay with us, but stayed in a convent belonging to a religious order. I would love to find out more about Mother Anne. Does anyone remember her?

    [If you would like to contact Beatrice Doran, please email and we can pass on your message. Ed}

    By Dr Beatrice Doran (14/06/2020)
  • Lovely finding this page
    I want to the convent from1965/1972? If I remember correctly
    Looking back…. the best times

    By Susan (16/01/2020)
  • Hi my sister Bernadette and me attended Mater Dei in the 70s . Was so nice to see the pictures and recall happy memories. The shot of the hall reminded me of the 5th common room where my friend Caroline Lamb accidently cut my leg with a Stanley knife! Still have the scar.

    By Angela Duffy (22/10/2019)
  • Hello,
    I attended Mater Dei for about two years ’73 to ’75. I travelled from Hitchin by train with two other girls. I too have very fond memories of this school, including Mother Veilia, whom I found to be universal and well-rounded. In the short time I was there I learnt a lot and matured much. I remember Patricia Whitney, Carole Duffy, Margaret Garrihy and many others but, sadly, not their names. I would be thrilled to hear from anyone who remembers me.

    By Lorraine Blackburn nee Harmon (31/08/2019)
  • Does anyone remember me. Margaret Barrett.? My sister Catherine who died last year RIP was taught by Mrs o Sullivan. I was in sixth class with Beverly Harris,as also GeorgianMorter, Jennifer Startup, Anthea Sefton Anne Kitcher, Virginia ReeseRIP, Celine Fong, Gabrielle Weissenburger, and we had a French teacher Madame laubier and Sister Agnes was the headmistress before Sister Velia.

    By Margaret Barrett (06/08/2019)
  • I was a border at Mater dei in the 60s, I have many beautiful memories , i remember two lovely nuns Mother Clear and mother Giulia . I olso remember the Chinese borders and a beautiful dance event of which I still have their photograph . And a dear Irish girl called Ilean and olso Johanna sproll and Margaret And I still remember the painting on the wall going in to have lunch..I would love to know if someone remembers me!! Josephine

    By Josephine (23/02/2019)
  • I have many happy memories of my years at “The Convent” as we locals called. From 1937 to 1943 I was a student there and will always be grateful for the excellent grounding I received in the three Rs as well as botany, art, music etc. My fellow students in those years included Olive Holloway, Gabrielle Grace, Pauline Coyle, Ruth Steptoe, Beryl Sweeney, Mary Burke, Mary Derriman, among others. Mother Pia was the principle and was strict but fair and expected us to behave like little ladies. She really mentored me in preparation for Matric and offered to finance my going to London University on condition that I came back to the Convent as a teacher. I suspect she also hoped to hook me in as a novice. However, I had no desire to become a teacher (or a novice) so that came to naught. But we stayed in touch over the years and she was at the church when Doug and I were married. She told me once that she was a countess by birth and that her scarred hand was due to a burn while cooking during a nearby volcano eruption! Mother Rosetta was in charge of the kitchen and was renowned for her bread pudding. She would sneak us a piece through the window if we were being kept after school for misbehaving. Sister Mary, Sister Valentine an Sister Gemma were some of our teachers, and Miss Dumphey was a particular favourite of mine. Enough of this rambling. God Bless all of you, friends and teachers of those days.

    By Paula Sperring Turnbull (07/02/2019)
  • Such wonderful memories of Mater Dei, the nuns and the kind and wonderful people I met there.

    As a homeless person from what was then Rhodesia (and an Anglican!) I got my 8 A levels before having to move to Stanborough to do my A levels., because of the impending closure.

    So sad it could not survive.

    By Mary Pringle (29/12/2018)
  • I attended the school from 1963 until 1970.
    I have mixed memories not all happy but managed to scrape through enough exams to enter teaching training……I am still in contact with friends from those days and I was saddened that the school was sold for development……
    I remember Mass being timetabled on a Tuesday and Thursday…..
    I was part of the debating team and also took part in a production of Pygmalion, playing the part of the colonel! The write up in the Welwyn Times said it was hard to believe that there was a young girl underneath all that make up…..

    By Marie Spillett nee Hoare (24/09/2018)
  • Hi,
    I recall doing my ‘o’ levels in 1981 and was one of the last pupils -i think there were about 30 of us at the end.

    By Margaret Kelly (14/05/2018)