An entry in the annals of the Sisters of Mercy Convent for 1935 reads: “During the year the creation of a row of cottages facing the Convent on the borders of the Clonmullin Road and just beyond the enclosure wall of St. Raphael’s field was begun”. A somewhat censorious tone was noted in the final entry relating to what was to be called the “Convent View houses”. “This was the work of the Urban Council. We had no voice in the matter.” In May 1936 Mother Mary Gonzaga was elected Superior of Athy Convent and with so many postulants joining the local Convent it was found necessary to enlarge the novitiate.
The following September Mary Breen and Winifred Meagher entered the Convent of Mercy. Less than three weeks later Catherine O’Hara also joined the Sisters of Mercy in Athy. All three would spend the rest of their lives in Athy as part of the once growing but now dwindling community of nuns who made up the Athy Convent of Mercy. Mary Breen took the name Sr. Enda, while Catherine O’Hara would in religion be known as Sr. Philomena.
Winifred, or Una Meagher as she was sometimes called, came from the County Tipperary village of Doon and after her first year in the Convent she received the Holy Habit, taking the name Sr. Mary Oliver in a ceremony shared with her colleagues Mary Breen and Catherine O’Hara. Around the same time in far away Australia the foundation stone of a new Church was being laid in Parramatta, New South Wales by the Archbishop of Sydney, Dr. Kelly. The Church was to be dedicated in memory of Mother Mary Clare Dunphy, a Sister of Mercy who had entered the Athy Convent as a young postulant in 1873 where she received the Holy Habit before transferring to the Callan Convent. The Convent of Mercy in Callan opened when following an invitation from Dr. Moran, Bishop of Ossory, six nuns transferred from the Athy Convent on the 8th of December 1872. When Bishop Moran later went to Sydney as a Cardinal of the Church he requested the Sisters of Mercy in Callan to open a convent in his Australian diocese. Sr. Clare Dunphy and her colleagues travelled to Australia where the one time postulant who had entered the Sisters of Mercy at the Athy Convent died in 1927.
In January 1939 Sheila Meagher, who would later be professed with the name Sr. Alphonsus, entered the Athy Convent where she joined her sister Winifred. Three years later on 18th April 1942 Sr. Enda, Sr. Philomena and Sr. Oliver made their final profession. All three would have a joint celebration of their Silver Jubilee on 18th April 1964. I was puzzled as to why the Silver Jubilee was celebrated 22 years after their final profession, but it seems the Jubilee in question referred to the taking of their Triennial Vows in 1939. The final profession occurred three years after the taking of those vows.
Sr. Oliver and Sr. Enda taught for over 40 years in St. Michael’s primary school. Indeed the former Winifred Meagher was for several years principal of the school, from which position she retired on 30th June 1982. Sr. Enda retired from the school staff on 31st February 1983. Sr. Oliver was a member of the first Board of Management appointed for the girls primary school in 1975. Incidentally it is interesting to note that when Sr. Oliver retired as principal of St. Michael’s Primary School she was replaced by her own sister, the former Sheila Meagher, known in religious life as Sr. Alphonsus. Following her retirement Sr. Oliver visited the Holy Land in 1983 accompanied by Sr. Carmel, having made an earlier pilgrimage to Rome in October 1975.
In March 1984 Sr. Oliver was appointed Sister in Charge of St. Vincent’s Hospital where she remained for five years. In 1989 Sr. Oliver, together with the two other Jubilarians, Sr. Enda and Sr. Philomena, all of whom had entered the convent fifty three years earlier were planning to celebrate their Golden Jubilee. Sadly, however, Sr. Philomena died in the local St. Vincent’s Hospital on 21st March of that year. Sr. Philomena had trained as a nurse in the Mater Hospital, Dublin, while her two colleagues, Sr. Oliver and Sr. Enda had trained as primary teachers. The remaining two Jubilarians, Sr. Enda and Sr. Oliver, celebrated their 50 years as Sisters of Mercy in April and the following month Sr. Oliver had a family celebration in the Convent of Mercy. Her extended family came from Doon in Co. Tipperary and on 26th May she was joined by nieces, nephews, grand-nieces and grand-nephews, as well as her two sisters and her brother, all of whom were in religious life. Sr. Alphonsus had sometime previously transferred to Arklow as Superior of the local Sisters of Mercy Convent, while Sr. Antonio travelled from Florida, U.S.A. to join her sisters, Sr. Oliver and Sr. Alphonsus in the Jubilee celebrations. With them was their brother, Fr. Roger Meagher who was a Parish Priest in Derby, England. Fr. Roger concelebrated Mass in the Convent chapel and following lunch all the guests and the Sisters of Mercy adjourned to St. Michael’s school hall where the extended Meagher family of different generations put on an entertainment.
Sr. Enda passed away in 1998 aged 81 years. Sr. Oliver celebrated her 90th birthday last week amongst her friends and colleagues at the Mercy house in Church Crescent. She has spent 71 years in the Convent of Mercy, initially as a postulant and then as a Sister of Mercy, teaching for more than 40 years in St. Michael’s Primary School. It was while a teacher and a mentor to the hundreds of young girls who passed through St. Michael’s in her time, that she gave witness to the mission directives of the followers of Catherine McAuley who commit themselves:-
“To promoting the dignity of women
enabling the oppressed to become
agents of their own liberation
to the upbuilding of the family
conscious of its many and diverse forms
and to promoting the well being of children
to being radically and unequivocally
on the side of those who are poor and marginalized.”
The Sisters of Mercy came to Athy in 1852. I have identified 144 nuns who were members of the Convent of Mercy in Athy in the intervening 155 years. There are, I believe, 19 Sisters of Mercy still with us in Athy. No longer based in their magnificent convent building which was partly built with funds collected in Athy in the years immediately following the Great Famine, the nuns now live at four different locations around the town.
Sr. Oliver, at 90 years of age, is not the oldest member of the local Mercy Sisters. That honour goes to Sr. Carmel Fallon who continues to be involved in the Wheelchair Association at both National and local level. All of the remaining nuns, like their predecessors, have made an enormous contribution to education and nursing in this town. Their legacy is to be seen in the first class schools for girls which we have here in Athy and in the good work which continues to be provided in St. Vincent's Hospital where the Sisters of Mercy served for over 130 years.
Congratulations to Sr. Oliver on her 90th birthday and with it goes our thanks to her and her colleagues in the Sisters of Mercy for the sterling work they undertook in Athy after the founding of the local Convent in 1852.