The original school was set up by the Dominican sisters soon after they moved to the area. They opened their doors to the education of the poor. It was a brave move for the five nuns, who had no financial support. However there was great support for the school in the local population. The old school building was built in 1865 and consisted of four classrooms and a cloakroom. It became part of the secondary school St. Dominic’s College also set up by the sisters until it was demolished early in the new millennium.
There were about 150 pupils in the school at that time. Although Cabra was a rural area within walking distance of the city, pupils came from as far as Finglas, Blanchardstown and the city to the school daily. It educated both boys and girls and was noted for its high records of attendance. Of the 150 pupils, over 100 were regular attendees, despite high unemployment and poverty in the area. It taught a range of subjects including some optional subjects.
In 1883 it joined the national system of schools. It undertook the ideas of Froebel and the kindergarten system in its junior classes, which helped to make an enjoyable learning environment for the children.
From the 1930’s onwards the area of Cabra was changing. Many of the people who moved there, came from the city centre and had young families. They hoped the suburbs would enable them to access education for their children. Between the early 1930’s and 1950’s Cabra changed from being a rural area to being a large suburban area of the city. The number of pupils in the school dramatically increased and overcrowding became a huge problem. In 1934 the nuns considered an extension, but in the late 30’s the government announced the building of a school on the grounds that would accommodate 2,000 girls. However they ran into financial difficulties and with the onset of World War II, the plans were abandoned. Finally after even more homes were built in the area and more pupils attended the school, work began on the present day St. Catherine’s building in 1942. It was to have 26 rooms, staffrooms, cloakrooms, toilets and a domestic science room. It would have 2 sections run by two different principals, a junior school for boys and girls (taught in separate classes however), and a senior girls school. In 1944, the first four classrooms were opened with the remainder opening soon after.
In 1979 Pope John Paul II spent his time in Ireland in the Papal Nunciature on the same grounds as the school and convent. He also used the convent for the purpose of meetings, whilst on his visit.