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Vol. LXIII, No. 21
Wednesday, May 27, 2009
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Forever Plaid: The Earl, Who Spells It “Stewart,” Helps Stuart Country Day School Celebrate 45 Years

Ellen Gilbert

After a lovingly prepared and delivered slide show and narrative describing his great aunt Janet Erskine Stuart’s journey from mid-19th century rural England to international distinction as a religious and educational leader, The Right Honorable Earl Castle Stewart was asked by a young Stuart school student about the significance of the Stuart clan’s plaid pattern. “I don’t know,” he admitted, “but they’re jolly nice bright things to wear.”

So it went, as the Earl informed and thoroughly charmed an audience of Stuart Country Day School students, teachers, parents, and founders during a recent visit to mark the school’s 45th anniversary.

After introductions by headmistress Frances de la Chapelle (sporting, probably not coincidentally, a jolly nice bright plaid shawl), the program continued with reminiscences by two of the school’s three “founding mothers,” Mary Garret and Millie Harford. The third, Peggy McNeil, is deceased, but remains well-represented by young family members currently attending Stuart.

“I cannot believe the beauty of the school today,” Ms. Garret concluded after she and Ms. Harford described the origins of Stuart, an independent Roman Catholic school, as a Bible study group, and how the three women found the “land, money, and zeal” that made it all possible.

“A Woman of Outstanding Talent”

Although he did not know Janet Erskine Stuart (1857-1914) personally, Mr. Stewart, who was born in 1928, and his wife, who prepared the slides for the program, became well-versed in her life.

Describing the “bits of kinship” he found between them, Mr. Stewart related how both he and Janet grew up among farmers, and how both embarked on “spiritual endeavors” that led them away from their respective families, she in a life devoted to Christ, and he as an educator following the philosophy of Rudolf Steiner. Although Stuart Hall, the family home in Northern Ireland no longer exists, Mr. Stewart and his wife still live on the same site “in a more modern house.”

Janet Erskine Stuart enjoyed a “wonderful childhood,” Mr. Stewart said, despite the loss of her mother when she was only 14 months old. The eldest sister in the family took on the role of mothering, and a Swiss governess introduced Janet to German thought and philosophy when she was in her early teens. When she fell under the influence of a Roman Catholic priest, her Episcopal father’s consternation was so great that he arranged for her to meet with Prime Minister William Gladstone “for guidance.” Undissuaded, she broke with her father, and pursued a life in the church, eventually taking vows as a nun. She rose to become the Superior General of the Society of the Sacred Heart, and, as a leading educator, she travelled widely, visiting both North and South American schools and convents.

Musing about what would have happened to Janet if she had been born later in time, Mr. Stewart wondered how “would her calling have come to her?” The world has changed a great deal, he observed, but, he concluded, she was “a true leader” who “still would have had a calling.”

Stewart or Stuart?

“Try explaining it to customs officials,” Mr. Stewart joked as the question of the spelling of his name, versus that of Janet Erskine Stuart, came up. The Scottish kings spelled it “uar,” he noted, as did his early ancestors. Then, in the early 1800s, later forefathers decided “it was time to go native,” changing the spelling to “ew,” the Irish way. “We’ve been plagued with it ever since,” he said.

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