A short History of the St. Joseph Convent
In the year 1888 the Roman Catholic Priest Father Stephanus J.J. Nieuwenhuis passed away and in his last will and testament he left two houses, a plot of land and Ten thousand guilders to the Dominican Nuns in The Netherlands. The money and buildings were intended to lure the Dominican Nuns to St. Maarten to start a school there. He had been a priest on St. Martin for 35 years and saw where there was a great need for a school.
One of the buildings was the stately mansion which had belonged to Dr. George Illidge van Romondt who died in 1854 and which building was acquired after his death by Father Nieuwenhuis.
On a Saturday morning May 3rd 1890 at 8am the first Nuns of the Dominican Order arrived on St. Maarten.
After a Mass of Thanksgiving for their safe arrival in the afternoon they went to the future convent where everything was nicely prepared by Father Jordanus Onderwater O.P. and Miss Catherine Mildrum the former house keeper of the late Father Niewenhuys. The convent was dedicated to St. Joseph. The Reverend Sister Egelie was the first principal of the new school and the first prioress of the St. Joseph Convent.
On June 2nd 1890 the doors of the convent were opened to children to attend school there. 132 children came to go to the new school, Catholics and non-Catholics and 62 toddlers. The latter posed the biggest problem. Losing their freedom and not accustomed to the Nuns and the strange way they were dressed there was a screaming and crying and a number of children jumped through the windows and ran out the doors. The lessons were given in the English language. A couple of the Nuns had a problem with the language, but in time as locals were trained to become teachers the language problem was solved.
In 1891 Miss Catharina Mildrum died and left her possessions to the convent. With this money a Gothic Chapel and a classroom were added to the existing building. It was designed by Mr. R. Terlaag while Mr. G. Stephens was the builder.
A few years later in the night of February 17th and 18th 1893 the Convent was threatened by fire when the house of Mrs. A van Romondt on the opposite side of the street was consumed by fire. Because of the high winds and in order to prevent the Convent from burning down the roof had to be kept wet and thus saved.
Over the years many locals served as teachers in the convent.
Many well-known people in the community also went to school there. I myself got my typing degree from lessons which I attended there.
For some years in the nineteen twenties there was also a boarding school in the Convent for young ladies from St. Barth’s but there were also some from St. Martin as well.
On March 12th, 1954 the official opening of the new Convent took place and was presided over by Mgr. A. van der Veen Zeppenfeldt assisted by Father Barbanson and Father Maessen.
After 1990 the Convent went over into private hands. Hurricane Irma a category five hurricane which devastated St. Maarten on September 6th, 2017 destroyed the roof of the former Convent. A new cement roof replaced the old roof while the owners the Goia family taking into consideration the historic nature of the building will replace the former roof so that the building will look the same as before the hurricane.
The office of the Dutch representative is located upstairs and downstairs there are a number of stores. Other improvement are being carried out to the former St. Joseph School and the property in general. This property will now be upgraded and better secured and will continue to enjoy its historic place in Philipsburg.
Much thanks to Mr. Mathis S. Voges for allowing me to use text and photos of his history of the Dominican Nuns which will soon be published in the English Language.