St Patrick’s School’s McKenna syndicate tidying at Archer St Cemetery in Masterton. PHOTOS/HAYLEY GASTMEIER

Hayley Gastmeier

The Catholic area of Archer St Cemetery in Masterton is spick-and-span thanks to the efforts of school children who, through their hard work, learned about respect and the history of their school.

Seventy-three pupils aged 7-9 from St Patrick’s School’s middle “McKenna” syndicate were on site with rakes, soapy water, and cloths last Thursday, polishing gravestones, pulling weeds, picking up rubbish, and tidying the grounds.

It was the school’s first working bee at the cemetery, which has a strong link to the school.

Teacher Kim Teahan told the pupils that the nuns and priests buried in the part of the cemetery that they would be tidying were responsible for opening St Patrick’s School in 1898.

The Brigidine Sisters from Ireland started and ran the Masterton school until 1986 when the last religious sister, Sister Jean-Marie, retired from her position as principal.

“So, without them, we wouldn’t have the school that we have now,” Kim said.

“These graves belong to some of those nuns … so this is part of our history.

“We want to make sure [this area] is looked after because, as you can see, many of these graves are very, very old.”

Kim said she had been wanting to launch the project with school pupils for some time, and she hoped the working bees became a regular fixture on St Patrick’s School’s calendar.

She said she hoped the pupils would “feel a real sense of pride” for the cemetery through the exercise.

Answering a pupil’s question, teacher Alyson Potter explained that the Catholic priests and nuns buried in the cemetery were married to God, and therefore did not have family or descendants to keep their gravesites tidy.

“That’s why we’re coming to clean up, because they don’t have any children to do it for them.”

Alyson said the exercise would teach the pupils about being respectful and would also help them understand that death was a natural part of life.

Deputy principal Chris Day said outdoor education was crucial and the work in the cemetery would push pupils outside their comfort zone while reconnecting them with their history.

Pupils piped up with ideas about how they could keep the area tidy – polish head stones, remove litter, bring fresh flowers, and touch up names with paint.

Former St Patrick’s School teacher, Brendan Connor turned up prepared with all the tools needed for the working bee.

He has been responsible for keeping the area tidy in recent years.

Before him, it was tidied by Sister Monica Landy, who is the only Brigidine nun left in Masterton.

Brendan said Father John McKenna, who was appointed parish priest of Masterton in January 1887, was responsible for bringing the Brigidine Sisters to Wairarapa.

Before the working bee, New Zealand Remembrance Army Wairarapa co-ordinator Jack Hayes met the teachers to share with them restoration techniques and on-site protocol.