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June 27th, 2008 - Ad maiorem Dei gloriam
At the end of the nineteenth century there were many barriers to quality education for Catholics in Leeds many of whom had only just arrived from Ireland.
Two young Jesuit priests, Fr Bodkin and Fr Meyer, were despatched by the Bishop to meet that challenge. They split the city in two, North and South, using the River Aire as a dividing line to be sure of systematic coverage and they successfully mustered eighty five boys. Shortly afterwards, to accommodate ever increasing numbers, St John's Lodge was bought and St Michael's College, which was to provide that much needed quality education for the next century, was born.
The admission register shows that Peter Bates, born in April 1893, was the first boy to be enrolled on 17 September 1905. He moved from St Mary's Elementary School and lived close to the current Mount St Mary's in Richmond Hill. He was a day scholar and his father Robert, a labourer, paid the governors six pounds a year for his son's education.
The privilege of being the last to leave in July 2008 was given to sixteen-year-old Joe Scholey from Crossgates. As he walked through the door, Joe said:
"It feels a bit strange really. No one else will ever do what I have just done."
Acknowledged as one of the leading Catholic schools in the country, St Michael's received a Grant of Arms from the Royal College of Heralds. A copy of the charter with its three seals still hangs in the entrance hall.
The famous school badge originally with its naked sword of the Archangel was replaced by a flaming sword surrounded in a shield by drops of blood. The school and those within it were encompassed by the protection of Christ through his Passion but the harshness of the world must still be faced outside. The motto Quis ut Deus -"who is like to God," a Latin translation of the name Michael, remained.
After the 1944 Education Act the school was given Direct Grant status and continued to expand in size and reputation catering for boys not only from Leeds but from many Yorkshire towns including Bradford, Selby and Harrogate. The last York boy travelled in June 1984 bringing to an end that daily journey, no doubt much to the relief of local commuters who at one time shared the train with over fifty boys twice a day. This latter-day school bus introduced many a boy to bridge and rumour has it that one lad travelled as far as Darlington before he was able to extricate himself from the luggage rack where he had been left hanging by his big toe forsaken by his mates!
The present building rises on a low hill just to the west of the city centre and is a mirror image of the local prison which stands on the opposite side of the valley. The original three-storey brick building, designed by architect Benedict Williamson, himself a Jesuit, still forms the main artery of the school with its marble floors and iron stair rails. The frontage now boasts modern double-glazed windows to keep out the gales which sweep across the valley.
After the war, St Michael's embarked on a programme of building and development which was to continue till today. The exterior was cleaned and the library, gymnasium and science laboratories were added, together with the main hall and the chapel.
In 1970 the Jesuits left the school handing their traditions and renowned teaching skills to the first lay head teacher. Their legacy is still symbolised by a large sculpture of hands in prayer by Charles l'Anson, a gift to the Jesuits to represent the work of the school - prayer and knowledge.
With the introduction of middle schools and comprehensive education St Michael's evolved into a 13 to 18 high school and in 1990, as middle schools were phased out, into an 11 to 16 mixed school.
As part of the 1990 re-fit, a mezzanine floor was built in the chapel providing a dance/drama studio below and leaving the famous stained glass windows at floor level. Said to have been designed by John Piper they feature IHS, the first three letters of Jesus in Greek, the letter M formed as a crowned heart, the cross, the sword of St Michael and the letters SJ for the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits.
For many years the numbers of Catholic children in inner Leeds could only sustain three high schools and in 2005, the year of its centenary, St Michael's was the one to close becoming for the last three years the west site of Mount St Mary's. The transition which has seen older pupils leave the building and not be replaced by new recruits has finally been completed.
Caretaker, May Redmond turned the key on the last day to end a career which began over sixty years ago. In 1945, May sailed from Ireland to Leeds to join her three sisters, Lily, Peggy and Veronica, and all four worked at St Michael's.
"I started at 15 as cook for all the boys and looked after the priests as well but I've done all sorts of different jobs and worked for ten heads."
May has painted every single room in the school including the hall and her buffets for up to 500 are legendary.
Her favourite stories are of the boy who was mistakenly locked in the boxing ring, which still remains in the central tower of the school, and whose ghost wanders the corridors at night and of how she chased off a burglar armed only with a metal bar during one of her late-night checks.
May was presented with the Benemerenti Medal by the late Pope John Paul II for her long and exceptional service.
May had a go at retirement in Australia but came back to St Michael's "because it was too hot".
"People ask me if the children have changed. Perhaps they're a bit louder now, but they are always very respectful. They still say hello and ask me how I'm doing."
"It's very sad that the place is closing. I love it but what will be will be."
The statue of St Michael the Archangel still stands above the original main entrance to the school and has witnessed many changes. Today it looks down proudly on the final event in the history of St Michael's.
The future now lies at Mount St Mary's in Richmond Hill.
Head teacher, Bernadette King said:
"We have worked extremely hard to make sure the merger of the two schools was a success. The pupils have done many shared activities and as GCSE grades have steadily risen we feel we have delivered good teaching."
"In his address during Mass to mark the closure of St Michael's, Bishop Arthur spoke of the resolution and vision of the Jesuits who founded the college. Although the doors have finally closed, the heritage and traditions will be continued as we strive to follow in their footsteps and foster in our pupils Christian values and a passion for education."
"I am sure that many generations of previous staff, parents and pupils of both sites will be very proud of the final group of youngsters to receive their education in the old St Michael's buildings and now leave us to take their place in society as young people making the most of their God-given talents."Photographs
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