Auckland Bishop Patrick Dunn couldn’t remember much of his days as a four-year-old pupil at the Cluny Kindergarten on Victoria Avenue, Remuera.
“[The late] Monsignor Brian Arahill, if he were alive, would be able to tell you that I cried all day,” Bishop Dunn laughingly recounted. “What I remember is, I’ve often mentioned to the Cluny sisters, I remember them as pretty much smiling, laughing religious sisters. They were very sweet.”
Bishop Dunn’s mother, June, and the Sisters of St Joseph of Cluny provincial leader Sr Marie O’Neill, were the force behind the opening of the kindergarten in 1954.
Bishop Dunn recalled his parents raising funds to help the sisters open the school.
“We used to host gambling evenings at home which were illegal, to raise money for the Cluny sisters,” he said.
“It’s funny about those gambling nights, because I’m sure we were told not to talk about them because they were illegal. We might have been watching police cars go past,” he recalled with much amusement.
Sadly, the kindergarten has closed down for good. On December 4, the kindy said goodbye to its last group of pupils.
“I think we all feel sad that the Cluny kindergarten is closing. The sisters had always been popular and much loved. There’s always been a very loyal band of supporters for the Cluny kindergarten. It did have a special spirit. It was very much a loving, caring environment,” Bishop Dunn said.
The last batch – 15 pupils – performed a Nativity play, during a Mass celebrated by Hamilton Bishop Emeritus Denis Browne on the site on December 4.
After the Mass, the children’s graduation was held, with Sr Frances Kelly handing them their “diploma”.
It was a bitter-sweet moment for the first lay Cluny Kindergarten supervisor Julie McClay, who thanked the children and their parents.
“I leave with love in my heart. That love and that Cluny spirit I would take wherever I go. And so will the staff. We’ve been very blessed,” she said.
Provincial Leader Sr Allison Macalister expressed sadness, too, but said it has become too much for an aging community to run a pre-school. She said that they are selling the properties in Remuera.
“We felt that the writing was on the wall, that we need to close it, because we no longer have the ability to manage a facility like that,” she said.
Sr Allison said that, In the 1950s, the religious order bought three pieces of property in Remuera, one of which became their provincial house. The other two were the novitiate and a hostel for young women.
Sr Francis, one of the few remaining sisters at the Remuera house, said that the kindergarten started off at the basement of the convent. She said it later moved on to a building that was previously a horses’ stable, but was changed to accommodate the children.
The sisters then opened a primary school which ran for 20 years. When it was closed, the kindergarten moved into the building.
Sr Allison said that they planned to gift the school to the diocese, but that fell through. Another plan to gift the building to another kindergarten also failed to materialise.
Instead, they donated all the educational materials to schools in South Auckland, and will be selling the property as is.
Sr Allison said that religious orders like theirs have young members who could possibly run it, but those sisters are in other countries.
“It’s very hard to get visas just to come in for apostolic work,” she said. “We are finding that really quite hard because there is a big space between the 1960s and the 1990s where there were no vocations. That leaves a big, big hole in religious communities to be able to continue the work.”
Sr Frances, who had joined the congregation in 1962, said that she can see that it is a necessary move.
“Realistically, we know that we are not able to sustain the governance of the kindergarten into the future, and the house that we currently live in is not really suitable for elderly people, and so we’ve decided to make this move,” she said. “The kindergarten has touched a lot of lives, not only the children but also their parents.”