The historic step is the culmination of a decade’s work by the Daughters of Charity, Presentation Sisters, Sisters of the Christian Retreat, the Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy and the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart.
While the day-to-day running of the 112 Catholic voluntary secondary schools will remain with their individual boards of management, their trusteeship is now being exercised by a new charitable company.
Catholic Education — an Irish Schools Trust (CEIST) has legal responsibility for overseeing the founding intentions of the orders.
The schools concerned have more than 54,000 students, or around one-in-six of all those attending second level, the largest numbers being in schools previously under the trusteeship of the Presentation and Mercy orders.
While the school properties are still in the ownership of the religious congregations, CEIST chief executive Anne Kelleher said work is underway to transfer them to the trust company.
Although falling numbers of nuns and brothers is a significant factor, the move is also being taken to allow orders move their attention to other ministries, such as helping the poor and involvement in healthcare.
Sr. Elizabeth Maxwell, Presentation Sisters, Northern Province, said: “Our founders, both lay and religious, were driven by their faith and the needs of their time to provide education, based on Gospel values. Today we live in different times and education is available to all. Our faith-based education mission will continue through CEIST with the growing support of our lay colleagues,” she said.
A lay trust has also been set up to take over the trusteeship role of the Christian Brothers in Irish schools, while the Loreto order is also planning a similar move in conjunction with others.
Speaking on behalf of the Education Commission of the Irish Bishops’ Conference, Bishop Leo O’Reilly warmly welcomed the latest development.
“The Conference supports this move and looks forward to working closely with CEIST in promoting a vibrant Catholic sector in Irish education,” he said.
Ms Kelleher said that CEIST is taking over more than three centuries of heritage but they will continue to draw from the benefits of the past.
“Over the past number of years, values and certain ways of thinking may have been on the margins of society but we will be working to promote inclusion and compassion in learning, and a people-centred focus,” she said.
The trust company will provide professional supports to schools and will eventually have a staff of around 30 people, with main office based in Maynooth, Co Kildare.