In the cold of a dark January evening, we walked behind the coffined remains of Sr. Angela as the hearse wound its way down Church Road on the first stage of its journey to the Parish Church. A community’s shame was in some measure erased by the coming together of so many local men and women to pay tribute to one of their own who 46 years ago joined the Sisters of Mercy. For shame it was we felt when we heard of the dastardly deed which culminated in the sudden death of Sr. Angela. Born Maudie Flanagan in Rathangan in 1926, her parents were Richard Flanagan, a native of Stanhope Street, Athy and Mary Cahill, a nurse from Tramore in County Waterford. Richard was former Master of the Athy Union and as such had been in charge of the Poorhouse which was opened in Athy on the 9th January 1844 as part of the Poor Law system established under the Irish Poor Relief Act of 1838. Bridie, Attracta, Dickie and Eileen Flanagan were born in the Masters quarters before Richard Flanagan left Athy to take up employment in Rathangan in or about 1924. Four more members of the family were born in Rathangan, Maudie, Angela, Danny and Tessie. In 1931, the Flanagan family returned to Athy on being appointed tenants of a new house in St. Patrick’s Avenue which had just been built by D. & J. Carbery Limited for Athy Urban District Council.
Maudie, after completing her schooling with the Sisters of Mercy in Athy took up a nursing career and qualified in Bedford Royal Infirmary, England. She later returned to Ireland to gain further qualifications and experience in Peamount Hospital and in September 1955, she entered the religious life as a postulant in the Convent of Mercy, Athy. Her first profession took place in April 1958 and as Sr. Angela, she continued her work as a Sister of Mercy and as a nursing sister in St. Vincent’s Hospital until she retired in 1991. During her 36 years in St. Vincent’s Hospital she tended, as did her colleagues, to the sick, the infirm and the elderly.
In those few sentences are encapsulated the life and career of Sr. Angela, a member of the congregation of the Sisters of Mercy which has served the town of Athy and several generations of its people since the first Sisters of Mercy arrived here in 1851. Then their primary mission was to provide an education for young Catholic children just 22 years after the granting of the Act of Catholic Emancipation. It was a mission the Sisters of Mercy would continue to pursue long after the Irish State had developed an educational policy and structures geared to the needs and aspirations of the Irish people. It was but one of the many roles undertaken by the Sisters of Mercy in the intervening 150 years. Their stewardship of the County Home now St. Vincent’s Hospital was one of those new roles. In the 1870’s when there were no nurses employed in the workhouse, the Sisters began to visit patients in the Workhouse Infirmary on Sunday afternoons. Before long, the Board of Guardians made a request to the Superioress of the local Convent for nuns to take over responsibility for the Infirmary. This they did and in time the position of Matron was to be held by successive members of the Sisters of Mercy and most recently by Sr. Dominic and Sr. Peig.
But the legacy of the Sisters of Mercy is to be found not only in the primary and secondary schools of our town or in St. Vincent’s Hospital. It is to be seen also in the women, who as young girls were educated in St. Michael’s National School or St. Mary’s Secondary School. The well spring of affection for the Sisters of Mercy is based on experiences born in the classrooms of yesteryear and those who experienced the guiding hand of the good Sisters can never forget their kindness.
The Missionary spirit of the Sisters of Mercy, freed in recent years from the straight jacket of rules largely devised in the previous century, allowed members of the local Convent to become actively involved in other areas of charitable work. The local Wheelchair Association owes much to the dynamism of Sr. Carmel while the Travellers Club is forever indebted to Sr. Rosarii. The Youth Clubs were grateful for the involvement of Sr. Joseph and Sr. Carmel O’Leary while the courage and foresight of Sr. Consilio in her work for alcohol and drug addiction is widely acknowledged. These are just some of the many ways in which the local Sisters of Mercy continued to contribute to the well-being of local community here in Athy.
Last week as we walked behind the remains of Sr. Angela we were not to know that within days we would re-trace our steps to follow the remains of Sr. Paul. One of three Cosgrave sisters from Co. Galway who entered the religious life in the local Convent of Mercy Sr. Paul was a well-loved member of the Mercy congregation. She taught in St. Mary’s Secondary school until she retired 20 years ago and for many years was an active member of Athy’s Art Group. She was pre-deceased by her own family members, Sr. Rose and Sr. Xavier.
The loss of two members of the Mercy Sisters within the same week has been a sad blow for the local community. Last year saw the Convent of Mercy close for the last time as the aging community of nuns left to take up a new life living amongst the local people of which they had been a part for so many years. Last week a parting hymn, Salve Regina, was sung for the second time within a few days at the graveside in St. Michael’s new cemetery. Those of us who stood in silence nearer to the wall separating the cemetery from the Glebe lands of an earlier age could not but realise that an era in which the Sisters of Mercy had paid a prominent part is slowly but inexorably coming to an end.