Teacher Jeanne O’Brien, a group of 15 students, and director and mentor filmmaker Mary Lewis created this documentary marking the 50th anniversary of Holy Heart of Mary High School—a school with a history rich with culture. It is slated for closure in the next few years.
Why make this film?
I was approached by this student committee to help them make this documentary …I was asked as a director/mentor. When you get asked to do something like that you can’t say no. (laugh)
You went to Holy Heart, didn’t you?
Yes, I went to that school and I live in the community.
It was kind of interesting doing this documentary because I’d never really thought about Holy Heart and what it had to offer as compared to other schools—that never entered my head while I was there. But then when I was doing this documentary I came to realize it does stand out in terms of what it is and what it’s offered over the years. So that was kind of interesting. I was able to appreciate my high school years in a whole new way. I never really did until I did this. I mean I certainly had a good time in high school but it never came to my mind wow, this was a special experience. I think that’s kind of normal. I think people don’t always realise what privileges they’ve been given until they’re brought to see it through other means. I think the years I was at Holy Heart, and probably still today, the students there do have certain privileges most others don’t.
First of all the school has this legacy of this huge, fantastic music program. That’s backed up by the building of the school itself with it’s band room, huge choral room, eight or ten private practice rooms for students to be taking lessons in during the day. At the other end of the building is the theatre. Not just any old school auditorium, it’s one of the best theatres in St. John’s and was at the time it was built the best theatre in Eastern Canada. When you have these great facilities the void gets filled by creative activity.
I doubt it was just having the space there, though…
No, it was the vision of the nuns who built the school too. Going way back they had this idea that the complete education of a person involved the arts. In particular music, but not just music. Also poetry, public speaking and elocution, and theatre. When they built the school they built it with this vision in mind. That is how in the early years of school education was approached then that carried through because you had a history and legacy in the school. Even though the school went through different kinds of government and management that got carried through. Now the education system has changed but that legacy keeps the focus on the arts.
What do you think about the plan to close the school?
I think it’s really a shame. I hope it’s not really a done deal. I know a motion has been passed, but I think there’s a lot of value in that school. Not just the facilities, but also its location in the heart of downtown—the historical district. It offers things to high school kids they’re not going to get in another school.
I really think it’s a shame and I hope that decision gets revoked.
What do you hope people take away from the film?
Partly some kind of more in depth look at how we approach education. What we look for in our schools. What we decide is important for our schools for education and how we back that up in the way we build our schools and where we decide to locate them. And I guess an appreciation of those elements for Holy Heart. What Holy Heart is and has been. From what I understand, the new school that will replace Holy Heart will have more parking and more green space. I think more parking seems like an odd priority to place on a school and what you want from it.
The new school that would be built, we know for a fact it wouldn’t have all these amenities Holy Heart has because you can’t choose one school to have all the amenities other schools don’t have. The new ones just don’t have these facilities. Where do you locate schools? Where is a more interesting place to have a high school? Somewhere in the suburbs or the heart of downtown.
Do you hope the film will influence that decision?
I don’t know if it will.
You never know. During the time of resettlement there was the Fogo Island Process… They shot video and film of the community to show people inside and outside the communities how the local culture was important. They ended up countering the decision to resettle Fogo. Film has a certain power, I think.
Yeah. It does. I guess it does. I guess it’s something to hope for, for sure.
You don’t sound too hopeful.
I don’t want to be too presumptuous. People who have seen the film so far find it moving in ways they weren’t expected to be moved. And that’s good. That says something. I do hope it moves people to think about it. I think this decision has been made without a lot of dialogue from the public. Maybe people are going to get geared up to be involved in how the decision gets made.
Rene Callahan-St. John
Holy Heart student / filmmaker
What did you do with the film?
My role kind of changed throughout. I started as a researcher, doing archives and doing interviews, gathering background information —anything I could find out about the school. Then it morphed into a job helping with directing, throwing around ideas, editing. I kind of got a taste of everything that was involved in what makes a documentary.
When did you first hear about the project?
June 2007 I caught wind of the initial stage of the project. I didn’t get involved until after we had funding. At first it was just trying to figure out whether it could be done or not. Once the project got underway that’s when I went with it.
Is there one fact in particular you learned that was really impressive to you?
Yeah. The biggest thing I found out is there wasn’t really a high school for teenaged girls, so both orders of the sisters—the Presentation and the Mercy—got together and had a meeting. They said “we want to buy this land and we want to make a place where women could be educated.” And they found the land, they got an estimate for how much it was going to cost to build, they went to the bank individually and each asked for a loan. They payed it back by working at the school. So both orders of sister had teachers working here for years and years and years and all of the money went straight back to the bank and they finally payed it off. When they started they had nothing. They built the school on their backs.
What do you think about the screening at the Women’s Film Fest?
I can’t wait for it to be seen. It’s kind of cool it’s at the Women’s Film Festival considering Holy Heart started as a girls only school. It’s going to be strange because I’d say half the female audience from St. John’s will have graduated from Holy Heart.
It’s probably going to be a bit emotional as well. In the end we address the issue of the school closing. Now, where I’ve gotten so attached to the school through this project… it gets kind of sad when you think about how this school has made such an impact in St. John’s for women (and men, because men came here in the 80s.) Closing it down or demolishing it, God forbid, would be erasing something of real importance. An icon in the city.
Heart and Soul will play at the Closing Night Gala screening at the Arts and Culture Centre. Saturday, October 18. 8pm.