They arrived at a time when Athy was home to poverty, deprivation and disease. Their primary intention was to provide education for the children of local families who could never otherwise hope to aspire to a better life. On arrival by train at the local railway station which had been built six years previously, they were greeted by the local Parish Priest. The three Sisters of Mercy were then driven in a closed horse drawn carriage to the newly built Convent behind the Catholic Church in Stanhope Place. The building, much augmented over the intervening years, was built with the coppers and silver coins of the local people gathered in the years before and after the Great Famine.
Those first Sisters of Mercy were Mother Vincent Whitty, Sr. Gabriel and Sr. Mary and the welcome they received on day of their arrival and on the days following no doubt bode well for the future well being of the Sisters of Mercy in Athy.
Over the years Athy has witnessed many changes, many of which are no doubt faithfully recorded in the Annals of the Sisters of Mercy. The poverty and the slum dwellings of the 1850’s are no longer even a memory, and little visible remains are to be seen today of the wretched hovels of yesteryear. The Convent School opened in 1852 to cater for the young Catholic girls of the town, flourished under the guidance of the newly arrived Sisters of Mercy and in time became part of a two level system of education provided locally by the same Sisters.
Apart from tending to the educational needs of the local girls the Sisters also provided nursing services in the Poor House, now St. Vincent’s Hospital, at a time when professionally trained nurses were unknown. House visitations to the sick and elderly and especially to the poorer families of the area were other important elements of the Sisters of Mercy work locally. We shall never know the extent and range of help which the goodly Sisters provided quietly and without fuss for the most vulnerable in our community. Meanwhile the mission of Cuan Mhuire founded by Sr. Consilio, at one time a nurse in St. Vincent’s Hospital and for many years a Sister of Mercy attached to the Athy community continues.
I was reminded of the events of 148 years ago when I dropped into the Convent on Friday, 19th May knowing that on the following day the last remaining Sisters of Mercy were leaving to take up residence in their new houses at Church Road. The Sisters, all dressed in lay garb, were busy bringing boxes full of small items gathered over the years to their waiting cars in preparation for the short journey to Church Road. This journey was to be a reverse of the journey undertaken by their predecessors from the local railway station so many years ago. This time the trip was by motor car driven by a Nun, no longer readily recognisable as such in the absence of the heavy veil of earlier years.
Times have changed and nowhere was this more obvious in the way that the Sisters of Mercy set about their task of relocating a century and a half of memories from the Convent with which they will always be associated. The vast empty building looked somewhat forlorn as it was shorn of it’s furniture and fittings. History was in the making but unlike 1852 there was no-one to share in the experience as the lock was turned for the last time on the big panelled door of the Convent of Mercy.
How many times was that same door opened in response to the knocking and later the belling of supplicants, not just from Athy but also those passing through the town who could always rely on the charity of the Sisters of Mercy. Many a tale could be told if only the stone walls would unburden themselves. But it is not to be and somehow it seems almost surreal to realise that after 148 years the Convent will never again be a refuge for those in need.
The enclosed cemetery to one side of the Convent building is a forest of metal crosses, each marking the last resting place of nuns and postulants who died while members of the Athy Mercy community. There are 77 such crosses, a sad legacy of lives lived in poverty, chastity and obedience.
I have before mentioned the difficulties of unraveling the different paths who lead so many young women to join the Sisters of Mercy, and specifically the Sisters of Mercy here in Athy. I fondly remember, as will many aging men even of more years than myself that small bundle of joy known as Sr. Brendan who taught so many of us in St. Joseph’s School. She was from The Glens near Dingle in County Kerry but I never discovered how it was that she came to join the Sisters in Athy. The list of those entering the Athy Convent from all parts of Ireland during the 1930’s and 1940’s clearly demonstrated that the Convent in Athy was particularly popular. It was not unusual for several members of the same families to join the Convent and the role call of some of those families begins with the Gavins of Westmeath, who gave us Sr. Francis and Sr. Peter. The Blanchfield family of Thomastown, Co. Kilkenny gave us Sr. Agnes and Sr. Sacred Heart, while the Cowhey family of Buttevant, Co. Cork were represented by Sr. Finbar and Sr. Dolores. The O’Leary’s of Dublin gave us Sr. Joseph and Sr. Carmel, while nearer to home the Malones of Barrowhouse were represented by Sr. Laurence and Sr. Ursula and the Cullen Family of Ballitore by Sr. Joseph and Sr. Cecilia. The list goes on and on and includes Sr. Alphonsus and Sr. Oliver who were Meaghers of Doon, Co. Limerick and the three representatives of the Cosgrave family of Daingean, Co. Galway, Sr. Paul, Sr. Xavier and Sr. Rose.
The work of these nuns and the many other nuns who at one time or other over the last 148 years passed through the doors of Athy’s Mercy Convent is now part of our local history. The last remaining Sisters of Mercy in Athy quietly and without fuss or fanfair left their Convent on Saturday, 20th May to begin a new life in more homely surroundings.
The departure of the Christian Brothers from the town some years ago coincided with the 150th Anniversary of the death of their founder Edmund Ignatius Rice and culminated in the unveiling of a Memorial in the newly named Edmund Rice Square. I am sure the Town Fathers acting on behalf of the grateful people of Athy will no doubt already have in train plans to mark the closure of the Convent of Mercy in a suitable and permanent manner. Maybe it’s time to shed one of the ascendancy names which grace our main streets and squares and name one of them after the foundress of the Sisters of Mercy. This, coupled with an appropriate piece of street sculpture, would add enormously to the heritage of the town.