Lives Remembered

Sr Christopher Hegarty: 'Humble and gentle' former head of Thornhill College, Derry

Sister Christopher Hegarty was the last Mercy nun to be principal of Thornhill College Catholic girls' grammar school.
Seamus McKinney

FRIENDS of Sister Christopher Hegarty remember her as someone who was “humble and gentle” and above all else deeply spiritual.

A Mercy nun, she was the last member of her order to take on the role of principal of Thornhill girls’ grammar school in Derry, completing a relationship with the college which lasted more than 30 years.

Born Veronica Hegarty in 1945, she was the third eldest of 13 children, with eight brothers and two sisters.

Following St Eugene’s primary school in Derry, she transferred to Thornhill where she developed a life-long love of Irish and music in particular.

It was following a school retreat at Thornhill in 1962 that she felt the call to serve God in the religious life.

Then, as was the practice of the time, she left school as a pupil at Christmas to return after the holidays as a postulant of the Sisters of Mercy, swapping her school uniform for the long black dress with white cuffs and a mantilla.

Her transformation included having her teachers address her as “Sister” on her return.

A friend at Thornhill recalled: “She was in the unusual position at this time of receiving instruction in her lessons from the Sisters of Mercy who were her teachers, whilst joining them as a fellow of the order in the convent for her lunch.”

After two years in the order’s novitiate, Sr Christopher took her first vows and headed off to Queen’s University, Belfast to study Celtic Studies and English, making her final profession in 1965.

On leaving Queen’s, she took a H/Dip and Diploma in Theology at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth before returning to her Alma Mater in 1969 as an Irish and RE teacher.

In 1986, she was appointed vice-principal and two years later, principal.

Sister Christopher served as principal of Thornhill Catholic girls' grammar school from 1988 to 2001

Her fellow sisters and staff at Thornhill recall her as a friend who had a great vision for Catholic education, focusing not just on academic achievement but on the development of all the young women who came through the school.

“Sister Christopher was humble, gentle, deeply spiritual and contributed greatly to the Order of Mercy,” a former colleague said.

Under her tenure, Thornhill continued to develop as a beacon of education shining throughout Ireland.

Her legacy was the development of a new purpose-built college, ensuring that thousands of young women would continue to benefit from the Mercy Sisters’ commitment to education.

Sister Christopher's legacy was the development of a new purpose-built college. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

After retiring as principal, Sr Christopher continued her work as a Mercy Sister and in education.

She was appointed chairwoman of the board of management of Scoil Mhuire in Buncrana, Co Donegal. She also served as a member of the newly created Education Authority for Northern Ireland as well as continuing her work with the St Vincent de Paul Society and the Conference of Religious of Ireland.

Despite her many achievements and great intellect, she remained true to the Thornhill motto and her own profession motto “Adveniat Regnum Tuum” (Thy Kingdom Come).

Sr Christopher died on May 9. Following a life devoted to God and her beloved girls, it was fitting that she was laid to rest in the small Sisters of Mercy graveyard in the grounds of Thornhill overlooking the River Foyle.

Seamus McKinney

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Lives Remembered