Mary Johnson died on Holy Saturday after a long illness. Mary had a significant impact on education in the Hallam Diocese. She spent her career in Primary education. She was totally committed to the children in her care. She was also deeply committed to Catholic education. Her firm belief that every child was a gift from God and God wanted every child to be happy was evidenced each day in everything she did.
In the early Seventies she was part of a group of young teachers working with Fr Donal O’Leary on developing Religious Education, in a move away from the more traditionally harsh, judgemental God that was sometimes presented to children, and indeed adults, to a God of infinite love and care. Fr O’Leary said of her, “Mary Farnell (as we then knew her) played such a huge role in the work of the St Marie’s Religious Education and Catechetical Centre in Sheffield in the early Seventies. Mary and myself formed a team that ran the Centre during those exciting years after the Second Vatican Council. There were many wonderful young teachers who gathered round as we spread the theory and practice of the new approaches in South Yorkshire. We travelled to Conferences, we gave many courses ourselves in schools and the well stocked Centre was kept extremely busy, especially at weekends. We enjoyed every minute of it. Those years were amongst the happiest of my life. Mary was a delightful and wise colleague, generous and creative, at the heart of it all.”
When in 1970 she was appointed as headteacher to lead the new St Joseph’s Catholic Primary School in Retford, she used her deeply held faith, her philosophy and immense kindness to establish a school where Christ was central to everything the school did and Gospel values were lived out every day.
Mary’s warmth, love and generosity were experienced not just by the children in her care but also by all the adults with whom she came into contact. Her example of Christian leadership impacted on many teachers who went on to follow her model in various roles in Catholic education in Hallam. John Cape was her deputy for a number of years before going on to be headteacher at the Holy Family School in Worksop and then Hallam’s Diocesan Director with Responsibility for Primary Education. John said of her, “Six of the happiest years of my career were as deputy headteacher working with Mary Johnson at St Joseph’s in Retford. Mary had a heart of gold, adored children and was gifted with a lovely sense of humour. She was a wonderful teacher and fully committed to Catholic education grounded in her personal faith and love of Christ. Mary would be the first to say that the school is a family and that everyone is valued in the role that they play. The ethos and values flowed from her leadership and enthusiasm.
“She passed on invaluable instruction and wisdom and created many pleasurable moments associated with learning that will remain very special memories for both teachers and pupils. Mary always listened, supported and empowered children and staff as they learned to form their own ideas and develop themselves as individuals.
“She was an exemplary role model who cared deeply for all in the school community. Her depth of personal knowledge and knowing what was important in learning, enabled many young children to work towards developing their full and unique potential. She continually showed acceptance, approval and appreciation through words of encouragement, respect and simple gestures of kindness.
“And Mary’s attitude translated into a spirit of friendliness and good will towards each other in an atmosphere of creative freedom, where teachers felt empowered and children interested and eager to learn.”
Mary’s concern for people, her ability to listen and to care and her generosity were legend. Mary greeted everyone with an all embracing hug. Her generosity was such that she wanted everyone, especially the children, to have all they needed. In the days before Local Management of Schools Mary spent as much as possible to ensure the children were deprived of nothing. Such was her spending that the Local Authority sent out Patrick Johnson, their Deputy Director of Education, to warn her to curb her spending. The outcome of that meeting was that she and Patrick married. They had thirty one years of very happily married life.
Mary was an excellent cook and her home was a welcome haven of food and love to all her staff and so many others too. She regularly baked cakes for Nazareth House, Nottingham, who cared for her mother towards the end of her life.
Mary retired in December, 1996. She was awarded the Benemerenti for her exceptional service to Catholic Education. She left behind a well established, high achieving, warm and welcoming Catholic school. The tradition of that school continues under the leadership of the current headteacher, Richard Hilton. Opposite is a celebration of the work of St Joseph’s during the current academic year.
Mary’s funeral Mass in her parish church saw the church full to capacity and beyond. Mary is buried in the cemetery next to her beloved St Joseph Catholic Primary School, Retford.
On Wednesday, 9 July at 10am a Memorial Service to Mary will be held at St Joseph’s Church, Retford. Everyone is invited to celebrate her life. Afterwards tea and coffee will be available in the church hall to enable people to share their own stories about this special lady.
May she rest in peace in the company of God to whom she devoted her life.