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NEWS > Births, Deaths and Marriages > RIP Francis Wood

RIP Francis Wood

We received the sad news earlier this week of the death of Francis Wood. As Sister Mary Francis CRSS, Francis was Headmistress of New Hall from 1963 to 1986. Francis had joined New Hall School as a child of five, completed her studies and then joined the Religious Community as a young woman. Appointed as Headmistress at the age of 32 and giving an extraordinary 23 years of dedicated service in this role, Sister Mary Francis was full of vision and ambition for the School. Under her leadership and care, New Hall continued to flourish. She threw herself with great energy into various projects, growing the numbers, welcoming day students, establishing a large riding school and encouraging the development of the performing arts. Old Fishes/New Hallians have written fond tributes that reflect her humour, kindness and reliability. Jack Magill, formerly Deputy Head at New Hall, has written a personal tribute below. As one of her ex students has put it, ‘RIP to an awesome lady’. Her funeral and burial takes place at Belmont Abbey on Foundation Day, 8 October. Mr Fardell and Mrs Swadling will be attending on behalf of the New Hall community.

Memories from Jack (William) Magill, former Deputy Head

I first met SM Francis when she interviewed me for the job of Head of the English Department in New Hall. I knew nothing of New Hall on arrival but quickly discovered that it was Catholic (I am not) and very female (ditto) I had never been in a room with an abbot and two nuns before. I was perfectly relaxed at the interview secure in the knowledge that a) they were not going to give the job to an Ulster Protestant and b) I didn't want to work in a Catholic girls' school.

But as the interview progressed I became more and more impressed with what the Headmistress was saying (Francis did most of the talking). I left with the distinct feeling that I wanted to work for this little lady.

The coming together of educational ideas was not a one off or a coincidence. SMF was actually away on sabbatical at the time having been Headmistress for nearly twenty years. She used the time to think about the kind of school New Hall could be and her new vision matched my own priorities. Her analysis of what New Hall was 1980 and how it needed to evolve was both accurate and achievable. It was also instinctive. As I was later to find Francis flew by the seat of her habit. She wanted both to serve the pupils in New Hall better and lead the school into a new strategy which gave it its best chance of a secure future. Her tactic to make this change was to recruit people who would not in the past have been on the New Hall Staff; Willie Glynn from a South Wales comp; Paula Crocker with a Primary school background; Moira O'Sullivan with a similar commitment to New Hall style pastoral care and Brian Harte from the theatre. This reflected the breadth of her religious vision, her courageous acknowledgement that New Hall, like lots of independent schools, had pupils with special needs both educational and social and that New Hall always had a penchant for The Performing Arts.

In 1981 the BBC descended on us making a programme for the Open university on types of school. The producer said at time that what they found in New Hall was not what they expected.They wanted to use New Hall as an example of a stuffy 350 year old traditional outfit. Instead they used it as a demonstration of the leadership of change and how people at all levels had bought into the Head's vision.

Francis between 1980 and 1984 laid the foundations for the New Hall of today. Sr Margaret Mary carried on this work with the appointments of people like Joy Hopkinson, Janet Wingfield and Colin Tye. Katherine Jeffrey has hugely expanded the scope of the school as well as its size, fearlessly using a similar radical agenda. I think Sr Mary Francis would have approved.

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