By Francesca Ryan

AS pupils and teachers prepare for the summer break, a local head is clearing her desk for the final time after 37 years.
As St Louise’s Principal Carmel McCartan tidied up her office on Monday morning, packing away the many gifts she has received in recent weeks, I arrived for a chat about her career at the famous Falls Road school that she’s leaving on August 31.
Carmel got her first teaching job in St Louise’s in 1977 but quickly rose through the ranks to become Head of Geography, Vice Principal and then, in 2005, Principal. Her entire career has been dedicated to the school and, naturally, she’s feeling emotional about her departure.
“When I started in 1977,” she recalled, “I was only staying a few years and then going back to the country to County Down to teach. But something special happened and it happens every day in St Louise’s – the inspirational children captured my heart, and still do, and that’s why my heart is breaking at leaving St Louise’s.
“Over the past number of months, I have been overwhelmed and humbled by the outstanding generosity, goodwill and sheer goodness of students, staff, parents and our many partners from a variety of educational bodies.
“As I look back over 37 years I have so many deep emotions racing through my head and my heart. The dominant one is sadness that I am leaving something very special – St Louise’s, our inspirational school which has been my second family for 37 years.
“I say it often and I’ll say it again: there is no other school with such generous, decent, lovable young people with a great sense of humour and a determination to succeed if we surround them with love and high expectations.”
Looking back over her career, Carmel says she is privileged to have been given the opportunity in 2005 to carry on the with the spirit and ethos of the school as was envisaged by its founders and built upon by her predecessors.
“As Principal of St Louise’s,” she said, “I stood on the shoulders of the great leaders that preceded me: Sister Ita, Sister Genevieve and Sister Rosaleen. That spirit of hope and the opportunity to achieve success that they all nurtured has been enhanced over the past number of years.
“Since 1958 St Louise’s Comprehensive College has been a centre of excellence in which every young person is liberated to achieve her full potential in a Catholic, Vincentian, comprehensive ethos. Drawing inspiration from the values of our patron saints, St Louise de Marillac and St Vincent de Paul, our founders shared a dream that our young people will not be judged by the colour of their uniform, which can convey implicit messages of success and failure.
“Our founders had a dream that young people at the tender age of 11 will not feel the light of hope go out in their lives by being labelled a failure in a discredited examination. By bearing witness to our Vincentian values of excellence for all – service, inclusiveness, equality of opportunity, social justice and the pursuit of the common good – we, the current staff and former generations of dedicated staff, have created a college in which every young person’s talents are recognised and nurtured on a range of pathways which equip them with the skills and qualities for working and living in the 21st century.
“May St Louise’s continue to give its students two priceless gifts: roots and wings. Roots in the community, culture and faith, and wings to fly into a future of happiness, hope and achievement.”
Carmel went on to speak passionately about the pupils, her staff, their relationships with each other and the very tangible warmth of the school community.
“Our students’ talented performances, their passion, their loyalty, their emotional intelligence and goodness speak more powerfully than any words of mine can about the dynamic spirit of St Louise’s College,” she said.
“I have indeed been most privileged in partnership with staff, parents and outstanding governors to lead a school with such generous, gifted young people. I also thank from the bottom of my heart the dedicated, hard-working, inspirational staff who not only develop the talents of all children in a compassionate pastoral care system, but also nurture the spiritual and moral values essential to growth as a young Catholic in the 21st century.
“I hand over the rich inheritance that is St Louise’s to an inspirational new Principal, Miss Mary McHenry. Mary, grounded in our Vincentian value system, will lead with integrity, dedication, vision and commitment. I wish her every success and new heights of excellence in the years ahead.”
A Mass held for the retiring Principal last week was attended by pupils, staff, the Board of Governors, representatives from the Catholic Church, the Minister of Education, the General Teaching Council for NI, the Regional Training Unit and many more. It was a veritable Who’s Who of education in the north – testament to the hard work this principal has invested in the school and the huge respect she has earned in the process. But Carmel modestly credits others with the ongoing success of St Louise’s.
“I have been most blessed and honoured to lead a team of hard-working, dedicated, inspirational professionals who bear witness to our values every single day,” she said. “And, of course, it is essential that I acknowledge and thank the generations of families from West Belfast and beyond who have supported our school and shared our value system. They too are inspirational in their determination to ensure that, in partnership with the college, their children grow into well-rounded young people who will continue to make such a difference in our world today. Generations of successful past pupils bear witness to this in many different arenas across the world.
“I can say St Louise’s has certainly given me 37 years of love, purpose and inspiration.”
Carmel will be taking those qualities with her when she moves on to the next chapter of her life.
“The first thing I am doing after August is taking a six-week trip to Australia to see my son,” she said.
“That will start a lot of travelling in my life, I hope. Also a lot of reading, and I will also be taking up dance classes – that’s on my bucket list,” she laughed.
“But I will still be involved in education and I will, of course, continue to support St Louise’s in any way that I can in the future.”

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