Thursday, December 6, 2007

The Sisters of Mercy: at the heart of the town

On 24 October 1873, the Sisters of Mercy took charge of what was then known as the Union Hospital here in Athy. It was part of the work-house opened almost 30 years previously and was more proper-ly called the Infirmary. The small infirmary had been provided within the workhouse by the board of guardians to comply with their statutory obligation to equip hospitals and dispensaries for the sick poor. The Sisters of Mercy worked in the Infirmary during daylight hours only and a trained night nurse would not be employed by the board of guardians until 1897 when upwards of 80 patients were in the infirmary.

This was the era of the so-called ‘pauper nursing’, when female inmates of the workhouse were locked into the Infirmary with the patients at night time in order to look after them as best they could. The Sisters of Mercy undertook the work in the Infirmary as an extension of their mission in Athy and 11 years later they would embark on another local social service which was noted in the Convent Annals on 4 September 1884 as follows:

‘On the Feast of our Lady of Mercy 1884, the House of Mercy was opened. Sister Margaret Hayden was placed in charge and two young girls were admitted.’ During the previous year, a new building was erected at Stanhope Place to house on the first floor what was described as the Pension School (secondary school) and on the ground floor the House of Mercy. This latter facility was intended to offer domestic training for young girls with a view to them taking up employment after a year or two. A report prepared in 1932 on the occasion of the centenary of the Mercy Order claimed that approximately 480 young girls had been trained up to that time in Athy’s House of Mercy, all of whom had obtained work ‘according to their abilities’. Indeed several of the former House of Mercy trainees went on to become valued members of religious orders throughout Ireland.

The Sisters of Mercy’s Convent in Athy closed a few years ago but, before it did, the House of Mercy had ceased to operate and the last Sister of Mercy in charge of the facility was Sister Rita Cranny, a native of Rosebran. Sister Rita, who will celebrate her 90th birthday this month, entered the convent in 1938. She made her triennial vows as a Sister of Mercy on 11 February 1941 and two years later made her final vows in a ceremony presided over by Canon McDonnell, the local parish priest.

Canon McDonnell, who died on 1 March 1956, is remembered today in the estate name McDonnell Drive, which was opened by the minister for local government on 24 September

1953. The urban district council later agreed to name McDonnell Drive in memory of the late canon, who had served as parish priest of St Michael’s Parish for 28 years. The late canon was a generous benefactor to the local Convent of Mercy and especially so to the House of Mercy, which benefited over the years by way of many cash donations made by him.

Sister Rita, who was one of four brothers and four sisters, the children of Tom and Margaret Cranny, was in time put in charge of the House of Mercy and remained in that position until it closed down just a few years before the Convent of Mercy itself. She taught domestic science to generations of Athy girls and in September 1992 celebrated her Golden Jubilee as a Sister of Mercy, 12 months later than intended due to a family bereavement. On that wonderful occasion, she was joined by her sisters, Teresa Kealy and Bridie Whelan from England, her twin sister Nancy and two cousins from Brisbane, Australia, Peter and Pam Cranny.

Sister Rita has been for 69 years a member of the Sisters of Mercy Order and during that time she has witnessed some extraordinary changes in Irish society. These changes have to some extent been mirrored in the followers of Mother Catherine McAuley, whose early mission of educating the poor has been replaced by social involvement with the community at large.

Sister Rita is not the oldest member of the present local community of nuns, an indication perhaps of the age profile of the dedicated missionaries in our midst who for so long were taken for granted by the people they served.

In 1952, the Athy-based Sisters of Mercy celebrated the centenary of the local convent’s foundation, an event that was celebrated in the poem composed by Sister Declan Cullen of St Leo’s Convent in Carlow, a few verses of which read: O’er the graves the trees are sighing Where the ancient sisters lie What think you their bones are crying Through the hundred years gone by.

Daughters, walk as we did, lowly Convents are not built with stones But with humble hearts and holy This the message of our bones.

The legacy of Sister Rita and her sisters in religion is one that in time will be measured by a generation which will have no personal experience of their work within the local community. Six years ago, I spoke at a function to mark the last days of the Sisters of Mercy’s involvement with primary education in Athy following the retirement of Sister Teresa Ann Nagle. I remarked how indebted we all are for the sacrifices made by the Sisters of Mercy in furthering education in our town. For them, cultural and intellectual stimulation were the bedrocks upon which educational standards were to be set and maintained. Their work in education is now finished, but there remains a courageous group of now elderly nuns who are the proud successors of generations of young Irish women who dedicated their lives to the people of this country. We salute Sister Rita and her companions in the Sisters of Mercy and extend good wishes to Sister Rita on her 90th birthday.

An anthology of Athy in song and verse has been produced in CD form by the Cultural Sub-Committee of Athy Town Council. Featuring some of the well-known musicians in Athy, it offers a unique collection of local songs and stories that will appeal to anyone with links to our historic town. Costing €15, it comes highly recommended.

Another launch, this time a book launch, will take place tomorrow night, Thursday 6 December in Athy Library at 8pm. The third volume in the series, being a compilation of edited versions of my articles which appeared in the Kildare Nationalist between 1997 and 1999, will be launched by the Laois Nationalist editor, Barbara Sheridan. I hope you can come along.

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