Margaret Wright retires from Bishop Challoner school she joined as pupil 54 years ago

One of the oldest faith communities in London’s East End gathers tomorrow for a celebration mass for a teacher retiring after 40 years of caring for generations of children—at the school where she started as a pupil more than half-a-century ago.

Hundreds of wellwishers including many former pupils down the years are expected at the mass for Margaret Wright, a woman who found her faith after a near-death experience.

The former head of religious studies at Shadwell’s Bishop Challoner School was, in fact, the first-ever non-Catholic pupil to be taken on by the Sisters of Mercy who were running the school in 1958.

She was allowed to convert to Catholicism after much heart searching by her staunch Anglican family, following the traumatic experience that changed her life.

Margaret was almost killed when she was 15 by a hit-and-run driver in the Commercial Road, outside the school—but was saved by a prayer book.

“The car knocked me clean out,” she recalls. “But I had white Mother-of-Pearl prayer book in my school satchel that took the impact. The cover was bent and broken, but it saved my life.

“My parents said it was a miracle I wasn’t killed.”

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Margaret was brought up in a strict Anglican household in Poplar, but had long wanted to be Catholic.

Just six months later, Margaret was received into the Faith on October 31, 1961. Her first Holy Communion was the next day at St Mary and St Michael’s, the very church in Commercial Road where tomorrow evening’s celebration mass for her retirement is held at 5pm.

Margaret returned to her old school in 1972 as a qualified religious teacher, after a brief career in Whitehall in the Civil Service.

But the East End’s population has changed, in the four decades she has taught at the school, with enormous challenges for a church school. A lot of pupils today are Muslim.

“I teach them about Roman Catholic Christianity with respect to Islam and Hinduism,” Margaret tells you.

“I’m not here to convert them. I’m glad they have a faith.

“But I worry more about those who don’t have faith—they’re vulnerable, with nothing to hold them together, no values.”

She accepts, however, that faith has a tough time on the streets of a deprived inner city area like the East End.

“There are families without jobs, no money, in impossible situations,” she observes. “Some parents are on drugs, some drink, some are violent.”

Margaret has seen much tragedy and felt much heartache as a teacher, with death constantly at the door.

“In my first year I taught a girl of 15 in a wheelchair who had cancer of the spine,” she remembers. “She came to prize-giving to receive an award for English in November that year—by the following February were at her mass.

“Another had Lukemia at 13. Her death had a profound effect on the school. We knew it was going to happen, but just hoped for a miracle.”

Margaret has the daunting task of explaining death to youngsters when they lose a classmate.

“It has to be shown that God is taking them home, that they’re in no more pain—children understand that.”

Once every pupil at Bishop Challoner’s was Catholic. Today, many are not, a trend ironically started by Margaret herself when the Sisters of Mercy admitted her in 1958, as the school’s first-ever non-Catholic pupil.