The diocesan authorities, concerned at the declining enrolment, decided to amalgamate both the boys’ and girls’ schools. Mr. William Curran, principal of the former boys’ school, was appointed head of the new co-educational school in September 1981. Shortly after his appointment Hazelwood Integrated Secondary School opened within the Stella Maris catchment area and a further drop in numbers resulted. The task of stabilising pupil enrolment appeared to be hopeless.
Most Catholic families had fled Rathcoole by 1980 and of the few who remained many left during the violence which followed the signing of the Anglo Irish Agreement in 1985.
How some families managed to hold on so long is difficult to explain. Large families, especially those with teenage boys, appeared to be targeted early on. Fathers and mothers who took a prominent stand against intimidation and made their views known were quickly forced out. Small families on the edges of the estate supported by sympathetic Protestant neighbours appeared to have a better chance of remaining.
In the 1970s many of those intimidated out moved to the new housing estate of Twinbrook and squatted there until such times as they got official recognition or were allocated a home elsewhere. Others moved back to those areas of Belfast where they had grown up. Families sought accommodation in Ardoyne, New Lodge, Oldpark, Newington and Greencastle.
Many moved into sub-standard or inferior housing and over a period of years moved from one house to another, each slightly better than the previous. Some, who were originally country people, abandoned Belfast altogether and returned to their birthplaces.
Mr. Curran retired as principal in 1986 and Miss Malone succeeded him. A survey of contributory primary schools confirmed a continuing decline in enrolment. A drop in the Catholic birth rate together with population movement had severely impacted on pupil numbers.
Stella Maris suffered sustained vandalism, windows were regularly broken and classrooms frequently burned out. In 1976 the boys’ gymnasium was burned down and several classrooms damaged. Attacks were common place during the last week of the summer holidays and class work was frequently disturbed during the first weeks of the new school year as teams of glaziers replaced broken glass. The cost of all repairs was borne by the North Eastern Education and Library Board.
The first teacher redundancies occurred in 1978 and every year thereafter until closure; most were redeployed to other schools. Morale among teachers, especially those who felt their jobs were under threat, was at an all time low.
St. Nicholas’ Secondary School in Carrickfergus closed in 1989 and St. Colman’s Primary School in Greenisland a short time later. Catholic families fled both areas following a campaign of intense intimidation and the schools were no longer sustainable.
By 1990 Stella Maris numbers had fallen to two hundred. Miss Malone retired in 1991 and Tom Cunningham took over with Miss Eileen Mannion as vice-principal. However, the fate of the school appeared to be a foregone conclusion. Fears were confirmed in January 1991 when the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS) announced that Stella Maris would close at the end of June 1993.
Although it had long been expected the announcement still came as a shock. Parents, children and staff felt betrayed. A ‘Parents’ Action Committee’ was established and a group of very strong and articulate people fought valiantly to have the decision rescinded.
People of influence were lobbied and over five thousand signatures were collected. Families who had supported the school through good times and bad argued that ‘schools were at the heart of parish life’ and should receive all necessary assistance to stay open. But it was not to be, the decision to close stood.