This year marks the 100th anniversary of the foundation of the Sacré-Coeur school for girls in Heliopolis, Cairo
”Let us respect childhood; let us honour the soul of that small creature of God who knows how to make the best choices, as long as we take the time to awaken her reason and her judgment. I am overwhelmed with love when I think that this is the mission of the Society” (St Madeleine Sophie Barat)
Amid the turmoil of the current political situation and the worries that concern every Egyptian, the centennial celebrations of the Sacré-Coeur of Heliopolis (SCH) gave the
students and the alumni a chance to revive the spirit of their school. On the first day of the celebrations, students presented a play telling the story of the foundation of La Société du Sacré-Coeur de Jésus (SSCJ). The festivities continued with a large festival that included dances and songs presented by students of all ages who recounted in their own way the history of their school. The celebration concluded with the alumni dinner which took place in the school garden and where all generations exchanged memories and stories that took them back to the good old days when they were students in this prestigious establishment.
A film which was projected during the festivities told the tale of a little French girl by the name of Madeleine Sophie Barat. We all know this story by heart, since we have heard it over and over again during the years we spent at our beloved school. This film does not only tell the story of Madeleine Sophie and her congregation, but it also recounts the history of thousands of nuns, students and alumni scattered in the four corners of the world, yet bound together by the spirit of the Sacred Heart.
“For the sake of one child, I would have founded the Society”
Madeleine Sophie Barat was born in France in 1779. Her elder brother, who was a teacher before becoming a priest, was responsible for giving her the best education possible. The French revolution took place during her childhood, establishing the principles of a secular State. As a consequence, it undermined
the role that religion played in society by abolishing many religious orders and congregations, many of which were dedicated to the education of women.
On reaching her teens, Madeleine Sophie had already felt God’s call to devote herself to the education of young girls while surrounding them with the love that only the Heart of Jesus could provide. Her brother introduced her to Father Varin, who planned to form an institute of women to teach girls, a female counterpart of the Jesuits. She was received with three companions into the religious life in 1800, thus founding the SSCJ. She believed that the aim of teaching was to form girls who would become solidly responsible women, committed to the society of their day. She saw education as the means to transform society and strengthen the social fabric.
Madeleine Sophie envisioned communities of learning stretching around the world, that would provide girls with a complete and well-rounded education. The society soon spread not only throughout France but also in Europe, and in 1818 pioneer nuns crossed the Atlantic to found the first school in North America.
The Sacred Heart schools quickly gained prestigious reputation, and to this day retain an image of prestigious private education. However, this was far from Madeleine Sophie’s original intent; she dreamed of educating children both with and without means. For almost every new school established, a corresponding “free” school was opened to provide poorer children with quality education. By the time of her death in 1865, she had opened more than 100 houses and schools in 12 countries. She was canonised in 1925 and is now known as St Madeleine Sophie.
“It is all very well to lay the foundations of solid virtue, but only the
union of virtue with learning will give our work its perfection”
The SSCJ came to Egypt at the beginning of the 20th century. At that time, Egypt was very much ‘in fashion’ following the increasing interest in Egyptian monuments and the opening of the Suez Canal, which gave the country a strategic location as a crossroads between the East and the West. Two nuns arrived in Alexandria in 1903 to study the possibility of founding a new school, but since many Catholic establishments were already active in that city the decision was made to found the new school in Cairo. In 1904, after many difficulties had been overcome, the foundations of the first school belonging to the SSCJ in Egypt, the Sacré-Coeur of Ghamra, were laid near Abbasiya on the outskirts of Cairo.
In no time the new school became the destination of the society’s elite seeking quality education, and it became clear that it would have to expand. The opportunity arose when Baron Edouard Empain began the construction of his new model suburb of Heliopolis. In 1911 it was decided to build the new school in this new neighbourhood, and in April 1912 construction began on one of the most beautiful buildings in Heliopolis. Combining Moorish and Islamic architectural styles, the Sacré-Coeur of Heliopolis (SCH) was the first Catholic school for girls to be built in this highly cosmopolitan neighbourhood and welcomed little girls of all faiths and nationalities.
Although the SCH was renowned for being the place for Cairo’s crème de la crème, it never alienated itself from ordinary society. The school held strongly to the principles of St Madeleine Sophie, and education and knowledge were only a part of a bigger plan. Social participation, discipline, a sense of responsibility, tolerance, endurance, hard work and self-giving were the basic values which were meant to be rooted in each student.
“Show by charity how to meet a crisis”
There is no better time to put all these principles to the test than times of trouble, and the SCH, in its 100 years of existence, not only passed the test, but acted outstandingly. From the events and turmoil related to WWI and WWII, the 1952 revolution, the Israeli-Arab wars of 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973, the 1992 earthquake, and finally the 25 January Revolution, the SCH did not stand idle but always played an active role in alleviating much of the suffering. It opened informal dispensaries to heal the wounded during wartime, participated with the Egyptian Red Crescent in sending food and medical aid to the soldiers on the front and to people affected by natural disasters, visited the war victims in hospital and even opened a sewing room to make uniforms for the nurses. Social service had always been an integral part of St Madeleine Sophie’s plan and was not only limited to times of crisis. From the late 1930s the SCH organised regular fund raising campaigns for the people of Upper Egypt, and in 1965, the first caravan of students left Heliopolis to spend a week in the impoverished villages of Beni Ebeid and Abou Korkas. The first house belonging to the SSCJ was established in 1966 in the village of Samalout, and several others followed. Meanwhile social assistance was provided in the poor neighbourhoods of Cairo such as Muski and Ezbet al-Nakhl. Tutoring was also provided in Heliopolis free of charge to children with no financial means who wanted to improve their academic standing. In 1989, the Ahbab Allah (God’s beloved) association was established in an abandoned building in the garden of the SCH to give training and education to children with special needs, thus adding a new social dimension to the mission of the SCH.
“Be humble, be simple, and bring joy to others”
The story of the SCH is also the story of the real people who carried the torch of St Madeleine Sophie, women of substance whom I often call the ‘Madeleine Sophies’ of modern times. Many nuns touched our lives with their extreme gentleness and care, their principles and values, and their dedication. Soeur Maria Teresa Joy, whose name reflects her personality, and Soeur Marie Cécile de Viviers who was an angel on earth; both had the gift of teaching and educating through love and care; Soeur Lopez’s weekly social visits outreached to the most needy and marginalised, and not only did she take her students to visit orphanages and hospitals but she also ventured in places like the Abbasiya Psychiatric Hospital. My respect goes to all the women of courage who chose not to work in the neat and elegant schools in Cairo but put their hearts into going directly to the schools of Upper Egypt, sharing the everyday life of the poorest, no matter how harsh the conditions. The stories they used to tell us still bring tears to my eyes when I recall them, like the story of the young bride who was one of the first girls to receive an education in her village. At her wedding, she dared to defy local custom by signing her wedding contract while her groom fingerprinted it; at this sight, all the local women ululated with joy. The event might seem insignificant to those of us living in the city, but to the poor women of Upper Egypt it was a symbol of hope and the utmost pride.
“Your example, more than words, will be an eloquent lesson to the world”
The person who touched me the most was Soeur Rosario Mendez, for she not only taught us the values and principles of St Madeleine Sophie but was a living example of discipline, love, endurance, self giving, and above all, of courage. Soeur Mendez, a young nun in her twenties and the holder of a master’s degree in physics, came to Egypt in the early sixties and was first appointed as a science teacher. After spending a few years in Heliopolis she was transferred to Upper Egypt to serve the poor and needy. One night in 1975, on her way back to Samalout with three other nuns, she was involved in a road accident which killed the three nuns and left her paraplegic. She was immediately flown home to Spain for medical treatment and with the intention of spending the rest of her days with her family. A few months later, however, despite everyone’s objections, Soeur Mendez decided to return to Egypt because she knew that her mission was not yet over. We soon became used to the sight of her in her wheelchair, first as a superintendent, then as the school principal, going from one end of the school to the other, giving instructions, organising daily activities, supervising classes, giving advice, reprimanding at times but usually loving and caring. All this was a source of inspiration to me. She didn’t have to talk, she didn’t have to preach, all she had to do was just be herself and do what she believed in. She was a living example and a role model; she was the incarnation of the principles of St Madeleine Sophie and a reflection of the love that only the Heart of Jesus can give. Soeur Mendez spent 38 years serving the people of Egypt, 24 of them from her wheelchair. She now resides in a home for retired nuns in Spain.
As I sat at my table, watching the fireworks that marked the closure of the centennial celebrations, tears rolled down my eyes, and as I looked around I noticed that I was not the only one. The same feelings of nostalgia could be seen on every face, regardless of graduation year, regardless of religion, regardless of social standard. We all felt that sweet nostalgia for the days we spent in this wonderful haven, which we do not refer to as ‘school’ but rather call ‘home’.
I realised that the Sacré-Coeur truly succeeded in giving us much more than an education. It rooted in us the real values of life: faith, discipline, tolerance, generosity, self-giving, integrity, social participation, and much more. No, it is not only education. It is a legacy, a legacy of values, a legacy of ideals, and a legacy of love.
And the legacy lives on.
Sherine Nader is a graduate of the 1989 class of the SCH. She is currently a member of the Watani International editorial staff
22 July 2012