Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all. (Mark10)
Five years ago this November, my mother, Ita Quinn, passed away after a long eighteen-year journey through the many stages of Alzheimer’s disease. I held her tiny body, ravaged by her illness, in my arms and in the company of my three siblings, prayed as we gently guided her to her eternal rest. Her passing was peaceful and in that moment we experienced the grace of God. We took great comfort from our belief that she was reunited, at last, with our father Mick who had died suddenly thirty-six years earlier, leaving our family bereft of a loving husband and father.
We were comforted too by her legacy and by all that we had learned from her lifetime of service. As a young widow, with four children to rear, Ita Quinn fully understood the message of Mark’s Gospel. She worked hard to provide for us and to make our home a warm, safe and welcoming place. I have no doubt that many times in those years when we were all at home, mummy did without in order to provide for her growing children.
She cooked and baked, sewed and knitted jumpers that we did not always delight in wearing!! She went back to school to enhance her qualifications and became a school cook, extending her vocation of service to the children in the local primary school, always ensuring those who needed an extra spoonful of dinner were not forgotten!
Mummy understood too that service is challenging. There were many difficult days when tough decisions had to be made. Tough decisions which were not popular with us children but were in our best interests and helped us, eventually, to understand the need for guidance informed by wisdom and strong Gospel values.
As we grew and made our way out into the world we carried with us her wisdom and values.
My vocation to serve called me to a lifetime in education. As a young teacher, I taught in the dining room of the school my mother was cook. She took great pride in my role but as she listened to my interactions with my class, was occasionally prompted to come out of her kitchen and remind me to be gentler with the poor primary six children! My tone, which I thought necessary, did not impress my mother! She knew that a focus on my own importance did not serve well the children in my care.
Of course she was right. To serve in education requires humility and love. I eventually moved from the dining room to my own classroom but took with me the message of my beloved school cook; the focus of all I do and say is to meet the needs of the children in my care.
My mother’s simple truth resonates so clearly with the vision of Catholic Education I have held throughout a lifetime working in and with schools. A willingness to serve humbly, inspired by the Gospels, is a gift for all called to work and lead our schools. It is not an easy vocation. Like the young widow, Ita, all who work and lead in schools will have challenging days and difficult decisions to make. Keeping God at the centre of those decisions and reflecting on the Gospel message of Jesus Christ, will mean the children and young people in our care are truly at the centre of our endeavours and this is the key to humble service.
May Ita and Mick rest in peace and may God hold them safely in the palm of His hand.
Gillian McGrath graduated from St. Mary’s College Belfast in 1984. She has worked as a teacher, a principal, a school inspector and as Director of Education for CCMS. Gillian is currently the CEO of the Catholic Education Partnership, Maynooth.