The Sisters of Mercy have a long cherished involvement with Athy and District. The first steps were taken to bring the Sisters to Athy in the days immediately before the Great Famine. However, it was not until 1852 that the Sisters of Mercy arrived in Athy to take charge of the newly built convent at the rear of St. Michael’s Parish Church. Like other religious communities throughout Ireland the local convent has seen a sharp decline in numbers in recent years. There are approximately twenty-six nuns in the convent today, with another eight nuns in St. Vincent’s Hospital. Thirty years ago there were sixty five nuns in the convent which had it’s own Noviciate to cater for the novices wishing to join the Sisters of Mercy in Athy. The Noviciate is now based in Dublin and no novices have entered for the Athy convent for many years past.
How different the story was in previous generations when the local convent was home to novices from all over Ireland. Athy convent was particularly popular with young women from the West of Ireland while the South of Ireland also gave many novices who were to teach in the local school work in St. Vincent’s Hospital, or do other charitable work in and around Athy. The remarkable fact is that so few of the nuns living in the convent over the years were from the South Kildare area. This is possibly explained by what may originally have been a rule later changed to a tacit understanding that Athy girls would join the Mercy Order in convents outside their own locality.
At a time when religious vocations were the norm rather than the exception it was not unusual for several members of the same family to join the convent. There were no less than ten families represented by two or more daughters in the Athy convent over the last fifty years. These included Sr. Laurence and Sr. Ursula who were Malones of Barrowhouse, and the Cullen sisters of Ballytore who in religion took the names of Sr. Joseph and Sr. Cecilia. The Gavin family of Westmeath gave us Sr. Francis and Sr. Peter while Sr. Sacred Heart and Sr. Agnes were Blanchfields from Thomastown in Co. Kilkenny. Still in the convent today are Sr. Finbar and Sr. Dolores, members of the Cowhy family who entered from Ballyhea, Buttevant, Co. Cork. The O’Leary sisters from Dublin, Sr. Joseph and Sr. Carmel, were another set of siblings who came to Athy to embark upon life as Sisters of Mercy.
Nearer to home were the Fingleton sisters of Ballyadams who as Sr. Ignatius and Sr. Theresa were to live in community with Sr. Claud and Sr. Cecilia, two members of the Hall family from Killinaule in Co. Tipperary. The Meagher family of Doon, Co. Limerick gave us Sr. Alphonsus and Sr. Oliver but perhaps the most extraordinary family record was that of the Cosgrave sisters from Daingean, Co. Offaly. Sr. Xavier, Sr. Paul and Sr. Rose were members of the same family who joined the Sisters of Mercy in Athy and happily Sr. Xavier and Sr. Paul are still with us.
Around 1940 the house rule which restricted the members of the community to the convent was changed to allow sisters and postulants to return to their own homes one day each year. Irrespective of the distance to be travelled anyone availing of the opportunity to visit their home had to be back in the convent by 9.00 p.m. the same night. At a time when so many members of the community were from the West of Ireland even this concession had limited benefit. One can imagine the difficulties posed for someone like Sr. Brendan who entered the convent in Athy in 1914 and who was from the Glens near Dingle in Co. Kerry, a distance impossible to travel in one day.
Community life in Athy’s convent is more relaxed and less restrictive than ever before and the nuns are now actively involved with the wider community outside the convent. The regret is that the future of the Sisters of Mercy in Athy is so uncertain, but hopefully they will continue to have a presence in Athy continuing a tradition extending back over 140 years.