On Monday night St. Columba’s lost one of its own. Orla McCooey left in 2015, a young lady who had bravely battled her illness for many years and finally lost the battle. Or perhaps she won it because she died with great dignity, with her family around her and she is remembered here with great affection. Orla’s family asked for her funeral to be held at St. Columba’s, because this school meant so much to her and all her family, so tomorrow we will welcome her family and friends to our beautiful chapel, which will not be big enough by any means. It will be full of Old Columbans, staff who knew Orla and many others, who will be visiting the College for the first time.
I hope that these first time visitors will realise what I have already recognised, that St. Columba’s is not just a school but a community and a family, just as much as a place of education. When one person suffers, all suffer, just as we rejoice in the successes of our pupils and staff. It speaks volumes about the school that the family want the College to host what will be a deeply moving and sad occasion. We will do our best but I cannot guarantee that we will control our emotions.
Also on Monday I heard from another battler, Archbishop Desmond Tutu. I have not met him but I had some dealings with in South Africa, as his mother was an old girl of the school which I was running. I had emailed him on behalf of St. Columba’s to wish all the best in his struggle with his recurring cancer and he replied with a message for St. Columba’s:
‘I want to wish you and all your school the very best for the future, to know that you and your staff are being given the opportunity mould the lives of your charges. We hope they will look back on their time at St Columba’s as having contributed to who they have become, eager to serve their fellow human beings to the best of their ability.’
I like his emphasis on service, because it matches my passion. We can turn out highly successful and impressive young people, but what good is that if they do not have a heart to serve their communities and our world? Tutu is not just a talker but a shining example, a lifelong fighter for justice and the upliftment of his people. Service in schools can be about projects and work in the community, but in a very busy place it is hard to add more to the programme. Instead service can be about a spirit that imbues all that takes place, be it in the classroom, the games field, the music school or the boarding house. It is a spirit that is always looking out for the needs of others and wanting others to succeed. It is a spirit that embraces the weak and the vulnerable and makes them feel that they belong just as much as the brightest and the fastest and the loudest.
From what I am seeing so far there is plenty of that spirit here and the ground is fertile for it to continue to grow.