Brother Cornelius John Sreenan (1928-2009)
Obituary by Br. Edward Egan
Cornelius Sreenan was born on the 16th of April 1928 at 3 St. Finbarr's Street, Cork. His mother, nee Norah O'Leary, had married Peter Sreenan a native of Aghabog, Co. Monaghan, the sixth of a family of eight, who had moved to Cork to work in a shoe-making business. Peter and Norah raised a family of six boys and one girl -- Patrick, Maureen, Michael, John, Peter, Cornelius and Thomas. (Angela, a twin of Maureen died not long after birth). Cornelius was educated at St. Marie of the Isle and the Christian Brothers, Sullivan's Quay Secondary School before responding to a vocation in 1942. Mutually unaware, his cousin, Pedear, had joined the Brothers in 1941 from Monaghan: they only knew of their entering the Congregation later and their first meeting was in 1953 at the Final Profession of Cornelius (now Br. John) in St. Mary’s, Marino, Dublin! (The writer is indebted to Br. Pedear Bosco O'Srianain for these genealogical details). Cornelius' niece, Carmel, daughter of his elder brother, John, has this to say which encapsulates the loving family relationships and the compassionate and charitable side of Br. John:
'I would like to say that my uncle was wonderful man and a great family man. He was extremely close to his family and in particular to his mother and sister Maureen. When they died, he became even closer to my father and mother and indeed to my own family here in Kenmare, Co. Kerry. When my father died in 1995, Uncle Con remained in weekly contact with my mother by phone and correspondence and he stayed with us in Cork for his summer and Christmas holidays. This was greatly appreciated by my mother who enjoyed those visits immensely as she and Uncle Con were of similar disposition and were very close. For myself, I found myself a single parent of three young girls in 1990 and I would have been lost without the support of Uncle Con. His guidance, generosity and kindness to me over the years when my children were small will never be forgotten.'
Mary Mullan, the daughter of Maureen, reinforces this loving family person in a very full and generous account of John's life which she worked on months before his death and included photos of the various stages of his life:
'My, mother, Maureen, died suddenly while John was staying with us on holiday in August, 1981. This shocked him deeply. He shared many a fond memory he had of Mum when he was a child with me. She looked after her younger brothers and used to dress them as fairies and play 'make believe' with them. He also had great memories of himself and his brothers and what they got up to as boys. He went away at fourteen years of age to be a Christian Brother with his family's blessing. He used to go swimming with the other boys when he was in Sutton, near Dublin. Br. Sreenan always wanted to go on the Missions, to Africa or India, but the Provincial Leader decided on England. John was upset at first but he went and never looked back and got to love England. John studied at St. Mary's, Marino and achieved a B.Sc. in 1949. In 1953 John made his Final Vows in Marino and the whole extended family attended the ceremony.'
As well as his love for his relatives, John was sensitive to the plight of the poor. In his own words: 'My grandfather, Patrick Sreenan died when my dad was only ten years of age. In those days there was no social welfare, or widow's pension, so any family faced with the death of its breadwinner, experienced great poverty. So it was not surprising that as the children grew up, they had to leave home in search of work, and it was incumbent on them to send money home to support the younger members of the family. This initial experience of poverty made my father aware all his life of those who suffered hardship.'
John's mother also suffered from poverty and hard work. She was nee Norah O'Leary who worked from the age of fourteen at Frost's Shoe Shop 'serving her time' (work experience for no pay). Eight years later, her father died suddenly and Norah and her mother were obliged to live with a spinster aunt, Nonnie (a great follower of Parnell). When Norah finished work at Frost's she had to clean the house and wash the shop in Barrack Street for her hard task-mistress, Nonnie. Peter Sreenan was Norah's supervisor at work and he felt compassion for the mother and daughter. He rented the house in Finbarr's Street for them for three years, although he lived in digs himself, until he eventually married Norah in 1914. Two years later Mary died of pneumonia at the age of 56. As John said:
'I can say that both my parents learnt from their early losses and poverty to be sensitive towards the needs of those bereaved and those who found it hard to live. They were both much sought after in times of stress by all families in the neighbourhood. Before you can dry another's tears, you must weep. They were two wonderful people who were very close to God.'
Con was called after an uncle of his maternal grandmother, Con Mulcahy, who was decorated posthumously for giving his life in the Boer War. Con and his brothers John and Peter attended Sullivan's Quay CBS while Patrick and Michael attended the North Monastery CBS and Maureen went to the South Presentation Convent. Con's father was a good businessman and pious Confraternity man who ensured his sons also joined once they were confirmed. The confraternity was not only pious it was a practical charity using a kind of insurance for health and funeral expenses. Norah went to daily Mass and there was an evening meal for the whole family, followed by the Rosary, 'trimmings' -- with all sorts of intentions, wash-up and homework. This close healthy and holy family life continued even despite the Depression of the 1930s when Peter was obliged to do travelling sales and working four allotments for selling cheap vegetables to poor neighbours. Patrick died of T. B. at the age of 24 and Maureen was sacked for taking a day off for his funeral. Peter had a heart attack at 63 and was told not to work again. The sons left school to work, Mick in the Irish Army, John in the RAF and Peter as a painter. Con joined the Brothers in 1942 and was only allowed home for the first time in 1948 for five nights before being sent on his first teaching post – St. Edward's College, Liverpool.
Br. Connie Horgan describes the transition from Sullivan's Quay:
'John and I were two of a group of five Sullivan's Quay boys who left Cork for Baldoyle on August 5th 1942. The other three were John Cotter, Liam Petit and Jim Condon. John, together with Liam Petit and John Cotter, went from Baldoyle in a matter of days to St. Catherine's, Sutton, a Juniorate for foreign missions, including England. There may have been a background of hurt or disagreement involving the Superior, Joachim Kelly, in John’s case.'
Did this early incident presage the strong character of John under his simple kindliness and urbanity -- 'the iron hand in the velvet glove'?
When John transferred from Sutton near Dublin to Ledsham in England, it must have been difficult for John and his fellow postulants from Ireland. The United Kingdom was nearing the end of the Second World War and the country had suffered much destruction from the Axis bombing. There were many shortages -- not least basic food and clothing which were rationed. However, Br. Gregory Dalton had a reputation for acquiring provisions for his postulants despite the constraints of wartime. No doubt, John was warned to guard his eyes if, on the prescribed walks in the country lanes of Cheshire they might come upon a soldier 'kissing his sister'! No doubt also John enjoyed the weekly visit to Eastham swimming pool. Whatever privations John and his fellow postulants had after leaving the Ireland of plentiful dairy produce and home-reared beef and pork, it did not impair his academic development. In 1944, John passed the exams run by the Northern Universities Exam Board, in English Language, English Literature, Scripture, Irish, Mathematics, Chemistry and Latin. It is significant that John scored credits in Maths, Chemistry, Scripture and Latin. He was to be a good Chemistry teacher and a fervent Religious Education teacher all his school life.
In 1945, John went to St. Mary’s, Marino, Dublin 9, to pursue his university studies at University College Dublin in Science. John stayed in St. Joseph's Missionary College in Marino. There are stories of strict discipline and austere living conditions in this place which shared its grounds with the ascetical General Council of Br. J.P. Noonan and colleagues. The General sent a circular letter that year in which he quoted the Bishop of Ossory, who conjured the Brothers in Formation to copy the virtues of Edmund Rice -- 'to put on his spirit of self-sacrifice and renunciation, of humility and prayerfulness and resolute faith in God'. However, St. Joseph's Missionary College was a little more relaxed than the other training residence -- even allowing sports clothes for games instead of swirling black habits!
In 1949, John passed his Bachelor of Science in Pure Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry. John was to make good use of his chosen subjects throughout his teaching life, inspiring his pupils to go onto illustrious careers. A consultant at the prestigious Alder Hey Hospital for children in Liverpool, Paul May says:
'Brother Sreenan was Headmaster at St. Boniface's in 1975-1976. His direction led me to St. Thomas' Hospital in London and the start of my fruitful career in Medicine'.
Professor Brian Halton, FRSNZ, Hon. FNZIC, Editor of Chemistry in New Zealand says:
'I was a pupil of Br. Sreenan in the Lower Sixth Form in 1957- 1958. Quite recently, I completed an autobiography and it included the following section:
'I then entered the Lower Sixth taking Chemistry, Physics and Maths for Advanced Level General Certificate of Education in the newly completed Science Block. The Chemistry programme was taught by Br. Cornelius Sreenan and I think it was his knowledge and ability to put across the great logic of Organic Chemistry from memory that directed me to a career in the subject. The precision of functional groups and their ability to provide logical derivatives was enough to convince me. Physics and Maths rounded things off but I had markedly less interest in them. I transferred to St. Joseph’s Academy at Blackheath, London, run by the De La Salle Brothers for my Upper Sixth and gained a State Scholarship in Chemistry. I moved through Southampton University, a position in Florida and then on to New Zealand where I have spent my professional career'.
Mr. Eddie Welch describes his experience of John's inspiring teaching:
'I attended St. Joseph’s from 1953 to 1960, travelling daily from Fleetwood. I followed in the footsteps of my brother, Tony, 1949 to 1956, and my cousin, Ted Parkinson, 1950 to 1957. Br. Sreenan taught me Chemistry for four years in L5, U5, L6 and U6. It was the first two years of O Level that I found unique and inspiring. Corny, as he was nicknamed, was a dedicated and inspiring teacher. He brought over to me a love for scientific thought, experimentation and the consequent development from scientific hypotheses, to theory, to law, which I have found invaluable since and throughout the whole of my scientific and engineering career.
The reason I pick out the O Level years, but continuing through A Level, was because he was well ahead of his time in chemical experimentation methods. Br. Sreenan completely modernised the chemical laboratories at St. Joseph's by installing 'micro equipment' in place of the normal standard sized equipment. Br. Sreenan went further by gaining permission from the Joint Matriculation Board to write his own O Level syllabus and his own Practical exam, consisting of qualitative and quantitative analysis techniques, supervised by a JMB inspector and the issuing of a separate certificate for successful candidates.
The enthusiasm inspired in us by Br. Sreenan was such that 'science was fun' and consequently I had my own little chemistry lab down in the cellar in Fleetwood. A classmate of mine, who went on to gain a PhD at UMIST made explosive devices which he tested by blowing up sandcastles in the dunes of Lytham beach -- well, it was a different world in those days! I must stress though that it was the experimentation, coupled to the development of scientific thought, which for me made the whole subject fascinating and provided the basics for logical thought in many subject areas.
It is a great privilege in any walk of life to meet a professional who loves what they are doing and can communicate that love and enthusiasm for the subject to an audience and furthermore is dedicated to the individuals in that audience. Br. Sreenan was such a person. Quite simply he was the best teacher I ever had and the one who has affected my life the most. When St. Joseph's was pulled down and my beloved chemistry labs disappeared, something inside me died. Br. Sreenan's memory, however, will always live on.'
One of Eddie’s friends in St. Joseph's, Tom Duddy, who tried his vocation in the Novitiate in 1954, reinforces Eddie's praises, although he was not a scientist:
'Br. Sreenan was one of my favourite teachers and I will always remember him. I remember when Br. John made his final profession of vows in 1953. My parents, sister and I were on holiday at my uncle's in Tipperary and I was delighted to point out to everybody the photo of Br. Sreenan in The Irish Independent of 16.8.1953.'
Tom was to have a honourable career as teacher and headmaster in Manchester until, in his retirement, he acts as organist in various churches of Salford Diocese -- his gift of music he attributes to Br. Pat Dolan who gave him his head in this sphere when he was Head of St. Joseph's.'
These are just examples of the 'high flyers' but knowing John's dedication and appreciation of the poor I am sure he did not neglect the less able pupils. John's deep religious commitment and rosy, kindly face would have put many pupils at ease and attracted them to John's love of 'Lady Chemistry'.
The writer was with John in Blackpool in 1960 and remembers a Parents' Evening organised by John and some other Heads of subjects in which he had a chemistry stall where he enlightened the parents about the chemical composition of various brands of soap-powder -- showing that they were basically the same; the brand being the sales incentive! How like so much of the contemporary neo-liberal market!
John spent his first teaching years in St. Edward's, Liverpool -- 1948 to 1950, St. Joseph’s, Blackpool -- 1950 to1951 and St. Aidan's, Sunderland -- 1951to 1955. The writer remembers John saying of the Sunderland boys of that period:
'The grammar school was new to that generation (only six years after the 1944 Education Act which had been passed by the war-time coalition government) and opened the way for the first time in history for children of ordinary working-class parents to gain Local Authority Scholarships that enabled them to go onto a university or other tertiary educational institutions such as Teacher Training Colleges (again supported by grants). The youngsters in the North East were the progeny of generations of coal-miners, ship-builders and other such manual occupations and their expectations did not aspire to the white-collar professions. So, it was an uphill task to inspire them to stay on at school instead of leaving at the age of fifteen for a job that added a modest addition to the family income.'
However, anyone who has spent time in the land of the Geordies knows of their warm-hearted character and pleasant ways of cooperative living. John certainly looked back with great fondness on his period there. It may also have had to do with the great characters he lived with in Community such as Brother Quintan Moran who shared his love of the disadvantaged and was later to work in a very poor part of Liverpool for sixteen years.
Br. Dominic Sassi was a pupil of John's in those years:
'John was my teacher in St. Aidan’s Grammar School in Sunderland. He taught me Religion and Chemistry. I was never a great chemist so I do not have particularly happy memories of those lessons. (Br. Sassi was a humanities man with a penchant for modern languages). But I do vividly remember his Religious Education lessons -- his explanation of the sacraments and the sex instruction, which for us 12-year olds
was always going to be interesting. The other thing I recall from those lessons was John's reading the life of Fr. Willie Doyle, a chaplain from World War I who promoted among the soldiers the frequent saying of aspirations. John, of course, tried to inculcate the same practice among us; from what I recall after lessons, I think he succeeded'. (Br. Sassi was later to enter the Brothers and become Provincial Leader and later spent twelve years in Rome on the General Leadership team -- was this fruit largely owing to John's saintly influence?).
John was keen to use Games as part of the holistic development of his charges.
His niece Mary says:
'In 1955 when he was in St. Aidan's School, he was the Sports Master. They won the Swan Cup in the Schools Football League Championship for four successive years. They also won the Cricket Championship for the same period.'
In 1955, John was transferred to St. Joseph’s, Blackpool. The writer first met John here in 1960. He was a very hard-working Brother in academic teaching, in sports and support for the Boarding Section. His religious devotion was not only personal -- regular prayers and sacraments but his ardent promotion of the Legion of Mary. He was a bit disappointed when one of his groups, entrusted to the writer, diminished gradually. He was also distressed when a foundling baby sparrow failed to survive -- apparently not yet ready for soft breadcrumbs and milk! John also cooperated with Br. Colmán Ó'Briain in training a Gaelic dancing troupe, dressed in Scottish kilts, who performed annually at the Tower Ballroom on St. Patrick's Day and at various ceilis in the North West of England. John also gave full support in erecting rugby posts in preparation for the season's games.
In 1957, John's father died aged 80. John had a premonition as he had awoken in the night with an awful feeling and then got the telegram to tell him of his father's death.
John was on the Staff in 1961 when two boys were expelled for requesting a record from Radio Luxembourg for 'Joe’s Jailhouse'. This attracted national media interest but the underlying issue was the nefarious influence of the swinging sixties pop music which the miscreants were playing and promoting in the Boarding Section. The Sixties were a watershed epoch which led to 'sex, drugs and rock and roll' -- 'the permissive society'. Although many idealistic movements for freedom and justice occurred at this same time, it was not appreciated by the more conservative Brothers who only saw the shadow side of the movement. John would have been in this latter tradition.
In 1965, John was posted to Prior Park College, Bath, where he was to teach and provide pastoral care for the boys of this boarding Public School. Although, it might seem surprising for the Brothers who were founded to teach the poor to be into managing a Public School (usually associated with Upper Class society) the Brothers had always responded to invitations from bishops to take on such private schools as well as schools for ordinary pupils. As in Blackpool, John had scope for exercising his loving pastoral care and engagement with extra-mural activities such as games and societies. On the pastoral side, there were boys from separated or estranged parents who must have needed special pastoral and spiritual care. John was in Bath for six years until he was posted to St. Mary's, Crosby near Liverpool.
After one year in school, John was asked to take on the role of Postulator for the English Province. As his niece, Mary, describes:
'He travelled the country, from college to college, in an estate car, living out of a suitcase, showing slides and giving lectures on the Religious Life. He had learned to drive and passed his test. We were a bit anxious going in the car with him at first but he turned out to be a very careful and good driver and he brought us to places when he was on holiday in Cork. He also came over to find boys from the countryside around Cork to join the Brothers. I went with him to show him how to get to the various places. He worked very hard and worried quite a lot trying to get vocations. (John had expressed a great interest in doing vocation work in his first year in Crosby and his Provincial Leader assumed here was a Brother of great zeal for 'finding labourers for the Vineyard'). It was getting harder to get boys interested with all the worldly temptations that were around for them. It began to tell on Br. Sreenan's health. Also, his mother, Norah, died on the 13th June, 1971, which saddened him terribly. Eventually, John developed a duodenal ulcer which necessitated an operation in July, 1972. John went into a nursing home to convalesce but unfortunately contracted salmonella poisoning and was unconscious for three weeks. He only came out of the coma through the persistent attentions of a nurse, a former pupil at John's primary school who was the sister of a priest, who managed to save him. John came home for six months to recuperate and was visited by many Brothers from England and Ireland. He returned to England in January, 1973 and was appointed Superior and Headmaster at St. Boniface's College, Plymouth'.
John really loved Plymouth. He was to spend fifteen years here. He strove to increase the numbers in the boarding section and day school. He lobbied with M. P. s, the bishop, parish priests, parents, Board of Governors and the Provincial Leader to preserve the college when it was being threatened with being sidelined in the Comprehensive System re-organisation. John showed his love of the boarding element by buying a large nursing home sold by the Little Sisters of the Poor in Torr Lane, thereby preventing Plymouth City Council acquiring it for an abortion home, next-door to Bishop Restieux's house and garden. John did a fine job in refurbishing the house making comfortable dormitories and dining facilities for the boarders. John kept up his love for Lourdes pilgrimages by organising one on which a boy got appendicitis. Brother had him rushed to Bon Secours Hospital in Cork for an operation and stayed caring for him until he was able to return to Plymouth. Visiting the sick and caring for them was a normal trait with John throughout his life. In May, 1982, John brought a large contingent from St. Boniface's to meet Pope John Paul II at Wembley on his official visit to the United Kingdom.
The writer was in Plymouth from 1984 to 1987 helping John’s best friend Br. William Xavier Ryan (known as Liam or Bill to the Brothers and Xerses to the boarders at Prior Park!) to look after the boarders. John did his willing share of supervising homeworks and coaching rugby even though a busy headmaster and superior. Indeed, for a few months when Liam was in Brompton Hospital, London for a by-pass operation and later convalescence he took Liam's place. As boarding education became less popular (this was a generation before the Harry Potter novels!) John, Liam and the writer strove to keep boarding a viable option. Unfortunately, the boarding section was soon to close and, indeed, eventually the Brothers were forced to leave Plymouth altogether because of lack of vocations.
John, although keen on academic work, was pastoral enough to introduce GNVQs, (General National Vocational Qualifications) to the less academic students in St. Boniface’s. John and Liam were sensitive enough to perceive the pastoral needs of the Community. They were very supportive of Br. Hubert Carton when he had diabetic fits. They were aware that three of the younger Brothers were irked by a lot of what they perceived as institutional burdens and sought to be freer to do more charismatic ministries. They pointed the writer to a therapy course which was most beneficial in his life’s pilgrimage. They were also very supportive of Br. Ray Parker who had come from Australia to seek his mother who had allowed him to emigrate in the 1950s for a better chance in life. Ray succeeded in this task -- so important for his identity and self-esteem.
John came to the end of his fifteen years' labours in Plymouth in 1987. He was rewarded with a well-earned sabbatical year by studying with Liam at the Jesuit College in Boston in the USA. He benefited from the religious and self-development course on offer and also managed to visit New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington, Niagara Falls, and Florida (including Disneyland!)
It was while he was in America that he was awarded the OBE (the Order of the British Empire) for all the good work he had done in Plymouth. He was the only Christian Brother to achieve this honour in Britain. (Br. De Sales Foley had gained an OBE for his work in Gibraltar in the 1950s and Brothers Cyprian Blake and Matt Fogarty had gained MBE s). John thoughtfully invited his beloved niece, Mary, to be at the conferment ceremony, along with his close friend, Br. Liam Ryan, on the 29th November, 1988. Because of fog and traffic problems they only just managed to get to Buckingham Palace on time. There were celebrations and publicity after the honour but, typically, John had kept it all quiet before the big day.
In September 1988, John was appointed as Headmaster of St. Anselm's College. The writer is indebted to Mrs. Eileen Howlett, J. P., Chair of the Governors at that time, for the following worthy account:
'In 1974 there was a re-organisation of Local Government and the education system. This resulted in a 'nightmare situation' where, although St. Anselm's at that stage, was Independent, there were more pupils receiving free or assisted places than those paying full fees. This was the scenario that confronted John in 1988.
He set about his task with great energy and enthusiasm. Determined to cut unnecessary expenses, he did things which were not necessarily popular. Historic customs such as personal phone calls created huge phone bills. John had a pay-phone put in the Staff Room. Free lunches for Staff were limited to those who did lunch-time supervision. The Staff withdrew their services at lunch-time so John employed lunchtime assistants. School meals were heavily subsidised and were run at a big loss.
John engaged outside caterers which proved very cost effective. He also employed a Bursar in charge of finance and investment. This was a wise move.
In November 1988, John set about the upgrading of the school. He started with a plan for a new staff room area and administration centre, which was officially opened in November 1989 by Bishop Gray. In the summer of 1991, the school was refurbished, the dining-room upgraded, the lower school library extended and upgraded, six new class-rooms were built, the playground resurfaced and new tennis-courts laid – all ready by September 1991.
At the same time, improvements were made at Redcourt, the Preparatory School for St. Anselm's. The Nursery block and toilet block were completed at Easter 1991.
The school was now able to admit a 3+ age group, girls as well as boys in September 1991. The school hall was upgraded and also infant toilets. A rest-room was created for girls and a large area re-carpeted. So much was accomplished in such a short time.
The political situation was a constant worry. We had many meetings with Sr. Loretta at Upton Convent as we needed to present a united front to the Education Committee of Wirral Council. There was a persistent threat of funding being withdrawn. We had numerous meetings and consultations with the Education Committee and officials. John was very able in his dealings with them. He always put our case forcibly. On one occasion, when the whole Council voted to withdraw our funding, we consulted a lawyer, an expert in Education Law, and asked him to look into the possibility of having a judicial review on the grounds of religious discrimination and parental choice. The Council backed down temporarily.
In 1991 there was a change in the balance of power in the Council and it became Labour controlled. We knew then that we were in trouble since they were totally opposed to selective education. We were given notice that they were not going to pay our full fee for any pupil that they were supporting. Again a series of meetings followed and we were told that it would be illegal to ask parents to make up the difference. The meetings were long, wearisome and sometimes quite offensive. John always stood his ground and would not deviate from the matter in hand. Again he played the religious discrimination card and threatened legal action, so again, things were put on hold. We were very involved in consultations with councillors who were on our side and lawyers and accountants. Although numbers were not falling too badly we were forced into admitting less able pupils and the Staff found it challenging to keep up academic standards. On the 23rd July 1991, at a meeting between Br. Sreenan and Sr. Loretta and Wirral Education Authority formal notice was served of the ending of free places at both schools from September 1996. This was a bad moment and looked like the end for St. Anselm's College.
However, John was not to be outdone. He spent hours, sometimes from 5 am, poring over law papers, etc. Then he had a brainwave. Could we apply to the Government for Grant Maintained status? This is where Lynda Chalker MP, the only Conservative MP in the locality was most helpful. After much consultation she offered her support and arranged for a meeting with Kenneth Clark, the Minister of Education at that time. This meeting took place on the 11th December, 1991 and he was sympathetic and supportive. He suggested the matter be put to the House of Lords first. John got support from some friends in the Lords including Baroness Cox. This was successful and it went back to the House of Commons. A quango was set up that inspected the school and grounds with very stringent criteria. The only problem was the fifteen teachers with Grade D salaries and, as a Group 5 school, we were only entitled to five teachers with that grade. John devised the plan of dividing the school into five faculties with a Grade D post and all teachers had to apply for the posts. This meant that ten teachers would lose their Grade D, so there were disputes with the Unions and Staff morale was low. One anonymous and vitriolic letter drove John to tears but John, realising that it was the only way to save St. Anselm's, fought on and succeeded. So, although John left St. Anselm's in July 1993, the Grant Maintained status was on its way to being granted in 1995 when Mr. Chris Cleugh was Head. St. Anselm's and Upton Convent were the first Independent Schools to be granted Grant Maintained status and this set a precedent for St. Ambrose, Altrincham, St. Edward's, Liverpool and St. Joseph's, Stoke to follow in succeeding years.
Eileen was able to give a glowing vote of thanks to John at his last Speech Day in which she summarised his many brilliant achievements in both the material development of the College and its restructuring as a college 'where Christianity is paramount and academic excellence achievable'. Eileen concludes her account of John's devoted stewardship with the following:
'Personally, I don't feel that Br. Sreenan was ever given the credit, acknowledgement and gratitude due to him for saving St. Anselm's. He was the most politically aware Brother that I have ever met. He was very able to hold his own in the company of politicians both at local and government level. Both sets respected him.
He was faced with so many difficulties and incredibly hard decisions to make. He was a man of such strength, determination, tireless energy, far-sightedness and a man devoted to his prayers and life as a Christian Brother. I felt very privileged to be his Chair of Governors and to have worked with him. I have nothing but respect and admiration at the way in which he would not let anything stand in his way and the huge amount of work he did to accomplish what he did under such opposition.
He was invited to the Queen's Garden party in the summer of 1993 and I was honoured that he asked me to accompany him. The Catholics of the Wirral owe him a great debt of gratitude in saving St. Anselm's for future generations. Rest in peace, Brother.'
Fr. Tony Coglioli mentions that John was a nice man and a man of integrity. He did his best for St. Anselm’s but there was friction with Staff and Governors. Policy differences arose over the status of St. Anselm's and its relationship to Upton Convent School. There were strained relations with the Diocese.
Later when John retired from schoolwork in 1993 and became leader of the Brothers' community in St. Clare, Liverpool, he was a Governor of St. Ambrose College, Hale Barns. Here, John was in friction with some Governors who had hidden agendas. About this time, John showed signs of dementia and eventually retired from the Governing Body. John was a simple man, obedient to his Provincial Leaders, a great chemistry teacher, loved his rugby coaching, a man of prayer and strong leadership abilities. He was not aware that he might be manipulated by others.
During his time at St. Clare, the Brothers' house in Sandfield Park, John showed his keen spirituality by writing a booklet of prayers in the spirit of Blessed Edmund Rice who was beatified on the 6th October 1996 in Rome, where John entered whole-heartedly in the joyous historic event.
One virtue John shared with his fellow Science teacher, Br. Ned Ryan, was the way he lent himself to the writing of Brothers' necrologies and contributing to those written by others. It is wonderful that men of a scientific bent can also have the God-given talent for using good English to write very pleasing biographies and to have the generosity to go to the considerable trouble that such work entails. John wrote the necrologies of Quintan Moran, Bob Liddane, Feargal O'Brien and --'a labour of love' -- that of Liam Ryan.
In 1998, with the closure of St. Clare, which was given over to St. Edward's College, John retired to Woodeaves, Hale Barns. Here he tried to find chaplaincy work in hospitals but it did not turn out so easily. However, John managed to raise £1,300 for the West Africa missions and was a Reader and Eucharistic minister in Holy Angels church. One holiday he went on holiday to County Down with his beloved niece, Mary, and her son Barry. John loved young children and Barry reciprocated this love especially. However, at the end of one holiday as John drove out from their home, a car hit his car at high speed injuring him and writing off the car. After some treatment and convalescence he went back to England where after deteriorating eyesight and a couple of falls and showing signs of dementia, he was eventually persuaded to go to St. Patrick's Nursing Home, Baldoyle, Dublin for specialist care. John's cousin, Peter Bosco, a Christian Brother living in Naas, says:
'Having met him on a number of occasions during his stay in St. Patrick's, I found him a most pleasant conversationalist. He enjoyed very much relating to me about his years in schools and communities in England. He had absorbed himself tirelessly in his school duties. He was kind and gentle in manner and disposition -- never an unkind word about anyone in my presence. I formed the impression that he was disappointed to have to leave England but he took the move in his stride. By nature, he was neat and tidy. His room was beautifully kept and he knew where everything was located. His penmanship was absolutely beautiful -- no such thing as scribbling or carelessness involved. I admired his zest for life and his ability to adapt to new initiatives. Having retired in 1993, he seemed not to rest on his laurels but met new challenges in life. I refer especially to his booklet Prayers in the tradition of Br. Edmund Rice. I admire the thought and reason behind such a compilation.'
John declined gradually in Baldoyle. It was sad for those who had known and loved him in his earlier life. John seemed to lose his powers of communication. He would smile and make a gesture with his hand, which showed he recognised one and was appreciative of one's visit. His nephew Paul corroborates this:
'I would say that Br. Con’s defining characteristics were serenity and gratitude. In later years when he lost his best friend, Br. Ryan, and retired to Baldoyle, these qualities came to the fore. His memory and awareness of his surroundings deteriorated. However, despite what must have been a very frustrating illness that lasted many years, he never appeared to get angry or cause any difficulty for the nursing staff. Any time anybody did anything for him he always said "thank you". He gently appreciated every little thing that was done for him. Above all, he was proud of being a Christian Brother, took his vows seriously and devoted his life to the work of God'.
John's niece often came down from County Down to visit her beloved uncle and took him out to places of interest in Dublin. He would smile and console people in need that he met. One year, John almost died. Mary had caught his hand and said she was not leaving him and prayed. At 10-00 PM John sat up and smiled and said to Barry and his mother, "You belong to me and I belong to you". Mary and Barry cried with happiness and were convinced it was a miracle wrought by her mother, John's favourite sibling, Maureen, whom they had stormed with prayers. Mary and Barry were present when John actually did die peacefully on the 16th of August 2009, the day after the feast of the Assumption of Our Lady to whom John had shown great devotion throughout his life.
The funeral Mass was celebrated by Fr. John Early, a former Brother in England. There was a large congregation with many of the relatives John had loved so warmly all his life. Also relatives of Br. Liam Ryan had come from Tipperary. The homily was given by Br. Liguori Gillespie whose love and appreciation for John speaks for itself:
'Daughters and sons of God, brothers and sisters in Christ. The readings today challenge our faith. Do I believe that my life is in God's hands, that God's love has been lavished upon me, that I am a daughter or son of God, that I can trust God with the process of my life, that Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life? Do I really believe these things?
One thing I am sure of -- Cornelius John Sreenan really believed these things. He was a man of deep faith, coming from a culture and a family of faith. He came from this family of faith to England and for 50 years he tried to share that faith with great dedication within the school situation especially. Faith and dedication are two words which apply to John. Those who only knew him here in Baldoyle in his feeble state of the last 6 years can have no idea of the energy and enthusiasm of this Brother of ours during his 40 years in English schools -- 20 as assistant teacher and 20 as headmaster of two large schools.
His dedication was such that he was awarded the OBE for services to education in England -- the only brother in the history of the English Province to receive such an award for services to mainline education in England. He represents a whole generation of great Irish Brothers who came to England and poured out their energies within Christian Brother schools. To such an extent were they swept up into the great work that perhaps they sometimes missed out on their own personal lives.
John's enthusiasm for the mission of the Brothers was such that he was appointed as vocation promoter for 4 years. It is good that Michael Halligan has come over for this funeral from England to represent those young men invited to join the congregation to which he was so devoted. Faith, Dedication and Enthusiasm for the mission of the Brothers – these were the driving forces of his life.
Sometimes I pray to Brothers who have died. I did so this morning. And on Monday last, after hearing of John’s death, I did so to him. I thanked him for his dedication and for his efforts to promote the spiritual growth of pupils and said I was sorry that he seemed to experience some loneliness in his own life. He seemed to reply to me with these words and I quote them with his consent:
'Life was wonderful. It was a wonderful life. God worked it all out perfectly. I know that now. I have no regrets. No regrets at all. I am now finally enfolded in the peace and love of God whose face I never saw in life. Somehow, I did miss out on the joy of God’s presence within me. In fact, I never realised that God was living and breathing in me. I can see it now and am experiencing it now. Just let people know that God is living and breathing in them so that they may have more joy in their spiritual lives than I had in the course of my earthly life. But it’s OK, I have no regrets. God has used my life to promote the growth of his Kingdom despite the flaws in my life. I can rejoice in the gift of my life and continue to thank and praise God for his goodness to me in the joy and peace I feel now, one with God, enfolded in love. Death is nothing to fear. All is well. Just trust the process of your life. Let it unfold graciously and enjoy the gift of God.'
'I thanked John for this sharing with me and I do now. Thank you, John. And, thank you, Lord for your goodness to John.'
After thanking John's family, especially Mary Mullan and her family, the Staff of Baldoyle, Fr. John Early, and all the Brothers of the English mission, Liguori prayed:
'May you rest in peace, John, and be enfolded in Love, Amen.'
There was a homely repast in St. Patrick's during which time much friendly repartee was exchanged with fond memories of John and the life he so generously shared with so many.
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