#ThrowbackThursday: Pioneering Female Education in Ghana


In today’s world we have the Lonely Planet, Trip Advisor, Google Maps and unrivalled knowledge on tropical diseases. Such information simply did not exist in 1883 when the first OLA Sisters arrived in Ghana. West Africa’s harsh climate allied to yellow fever and malaria would mean very few Europeans could expect to live for any more than five or ten years. The first Sisters knew this but they still went. Educating women was and still is an OLA priority. In those early years, many fearless Sisters literally gave their lives to achieve this quest.  What is their legacy today? Also, when Sisters Augustina Quaye and Benigna Consolata Archer were professed as OLA Sisters in 1933, they became the first Ghanaian women religious. What was it that made them take this momentous step? Today, we will tell the inspiring story which answers to these questions.

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Sr Thais, Sr Nicanor and Sr Salsa with the first boarders at Keta Convent, October 1911. Image courtesy of the OLA Provincial Archive.

In December of 1883, two newly professed OLA Sisters – one Swiss and one Irish - arrived into bustling port town of Elmina. Like Ireland, Ghana, then known as ‘Gold Coast’, was under British control. Such was the hold that yellow fever had on those who settled there, it became known as ‘fever coast’. Undeterred, Sr. Ignatius Howard from Bruree, Co. Limerick and Sr. Potamienne set about their work and opened the first school for girls in 1884.

Since the 14th century, successive colonial powers were attracted to Gold Coast given the large deposits of gold and a bustling slave trade. The people had suffered greatly from the struggles between the colonialists to retain power of Elmina and the Ashanti Kings of the interior trying to repel the colonialists’ attempts to encroach on their trade. The early Sisters saw hope for the future among the youth.

More OLA Sisters arrived in October 1890. The newly arrived Sisters gave their cause an extra impetus and allowed for an expansion of the mission. A second convent and school was established eight miles away in Cape Coast. There were four pupils in March 1891 when the school opened. By that December the number had swelled to over 100.

What caused the big rise, had word spread about the school? No. It was largely due to the untiring efforts of the Sisters who went around the town daily seeking pupils. They were teachers by day. In the evenings they were catechists, medical and social workers. The homes of the pupils were visited too, as the Sisters wanted to win the confidence of the parents and help them understand why the girls should attend school.

Sr. Ignatius died in 1892. Her younger sister was by this time an OLA in Benin. On hearing of her sister’s death, Sr. Jean Howard asked to replace her older sibling. Though not long after, Sr. Jean died of yellow fever. While many Sisters died at a young age, it was not before a solid education foundation was laid. The seed had been already sown and began to take a firm root.



Even though the seed of education had firmly taken root with the girl’s schools flourishing, the Sisters encountered two stumbling blocks which were preventing further expansion.

Firstly, the expected role of the girl after completing primary school was to do house work and thus few, if any, went to secondary school. This meant many were unskilled.

Secondly, with the limited supply of Sisters due to the short life expectancy, there were never going to be enough Sisters to staff the schools. There were cases when a Sister would die and the school she was in charge of would lose momentum as there was no one to ‘take up the baton’ and continue the work.

Thankfully both of these challenges were about to tackled.  


The redoubtable Sr. Aquiline Tobin from Waterford arrived in Ghana in 1911. Like many in Ireland at the time, she herself had only a primary education. Incredibly, this did not cloud her vision on the value of education. Sr. Aquiline felt education was the way of the future and to expand locals were needed. Put simply: Ghanaian teachers were needed to continue the work of the Sisters now and into the future.

Up until now there was just one teacher training school in Ghana and this was for exclusively for men. In 1924, Sr. Aquiline saw an opportunity and grasped it. She arranged two small rooms at St. Mary’s Convent and began teacher training for young women. She followed a similar curriculum similar to what their male counterparts would cover. Sr. Aquiline received permission from the Ministry of Education so that the women could sit the same exams as the men. The aspiring young women sat the exams and passed them to become teachers. New ground had been broken. It became the first teacher training college in West Africa for women and in 1928 would be formally organized to train pupil-teachers. Unfortunately, these years a great progress were marked by an event of great sorrow. Yellow fever would strike again.

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The Elmina and Cape Coast Communities pictured in 1928. Back row: Sr Attracta, Sr Salsa, Sr Acquiline, Sr Salve, Sr Immaculata. Front: Sr Edward, Sr Maria, Sr Thiais, a Swiss sister and Sr Jean Jacques. Image courtesy of the OLA Provincial Archive.

St. Mary’s suffered a crushing blow in 1926-1927 with a bad outbreak of yellow fever. Three of the four Irish Sisters in Cape Coast died with another Sister succumbing to the tropical disease in Elmina. However, in the midst of this great desolation came a great ray of light which would nurture the seeds of education long into the future.

Three newly graduated teachers offered themselves to replace the recently deceased Sisters in their alma mater - St. Mary’s Teaching Training College. And not only did they wish to teach, the trio wanted to become Sisters – something unheard of for young women in the area.

Speaking of their decision, Sr. Mary Rita O’Mahony, a native of Montenotte in Cork City and who has been on mission in Ghana since 1959, felt the ‘holy spirit inspired them’. This was something ‘new and unusual’.

"Having children would have been everything. This took great courage and determination to go away from their culture to have children. The people of Cape Coast would have been now used of foreign Sisters but not Sisters from their home area."

As the OLA Sisters had no novitiate in West Africa at the time, the three would have to travel to France to become Sisters. Sr. Mary Rita recalled the parents of one of the three young ladies would not let her go to France.

Sr. Augustina Quaye and Sr. Benigna Consolata Archer returned from France in 1933 and were now trained teachers and Sisters.  Sr. Augustina went as a missionary to Togo where she lived and thought in various schools. She went to her eternal reward in 1972 at the age of 65.  Sr. Benigna worked across southern Ghana and went to her eternal reward in 1982 at the age of 77. Sr. Mary Rita recalled Sr. Benigna as an ‘intelligent woman who loved nature and translated many texts into Fante – the local language.’

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Srs. Benigna Consolata Archer and Augustina Quaye following their First Profession in 1933. Image courtesy of the OLA Provincial Archive.


What is the legacy of the early missionaries?

An African proverb wisely says 'when you educate a woman you educate a nation'. This rings true here in Ghana today, according to Sr. Mary Rita:

One Sister would have educated a few thousand girls and young women in her lifetime as a teacher. The first Sisters helped raise the role of the woman in life and show that the girl had a bigger contribution to make to society outside of the home. By educating a woman, the living standards of a family would rise. What would that educated woman do? She would ensure her daughter would be educated and then her daughter would educate the next generation. In fact, there would have been some young girls in class and I would have taught their grannies many years ago. It is not possible to truly measure the enormous impact that these early missionaries had.”

And the work in Lord’s vineyard continues. Today there are 11 OLA communities in the Province of Ghana, which includes many schools and thousands of pupils. Ghana is sometimes referred to as the ‘Jewel of Africa’. The seeds of education planted all those years ago coupled with the droplets of inspiration from the holy spirit to guide first Ghanaian Sisters and the fertile soils in the form of the many women eager to learn have borne great fruit and helped make Ghana the great country it is today. The early missionaries who left footprints on the sandy shores of Cape Coast could never have dreamt of such an impact. Their efforts have truly left a lasting imprint in the hearts of many Ghanaian women.


Map of Ghana courtesy of www.mapsof.net.


- Links

  • Click here to visit the website of the OLA Province of Ghana.
  • Click here to read the first article in the Throwback Thursday series.