The journey of life which started in Kilbeggan 66 years ago ended in Athy this week for the lady described by Fr. Philip Dennehy as an educationalist, a Christian lady and a Sister of Mercy. Sr. Francis, as she was once known but who in later years reverted to her own name of Sister Helen Keegan, was buried in the Mercy plot in the new St. Michael’s Cemetery. A soft drizzle of rain fell as her cortege wound its way up the cemetery avenue leading from the Dublin Road only to ease as the final parting prayers were said. As the assembled Sisters of Mercy raised their voices as one in rendering the Salve Regina as a final farewell to their colleague the rain stopped as suddenly as it had started. It contrasted with the stormy weather which greeted the young Helen Keegan as she journeyed from Kilbeggan to Athy 49 years ago to enter the independent Mercy House of Athy. The Annals of the local Convent of Mercy simply note on 29th October 1961 ‘Miss Helen Keegan entered’. What it did not record was the terrible weather conditions on that late October day which were so bad that the young Helen Keegan, accompanied by her parents, very nearly never completed the journey to Athy.
That same year Sr. Dominic celebrated her Silver Jubilee, while her successor as Matron of St. Vincent’s Hospital, Sr. Canice, made her first profession the previous Easter Sunday. 1961 was also the centenary year of the coming of the Christian Brothers to Athy, celebrated that year with festivities which lasted for one week from June 27th.
On the 8th of July 1964 Sr. Francis was called to teacher training in Carysfort College and 17 days later she made her triennial vows. She made her final profession on the 25th of July 1967 with Sr. Mary Ann and a year later Sr. Francis obtained her teachers Diploma. She taught in Scoil Mhuire where she was appointed Superior in 1986, finally retiring from teaching 13 years later.
As a member of that dedicated community of teachers, nurses and community workers who comprised the Sisters of Mercy in Athy she followed in the footsteps of Mother Catherine McAuley, as did so many others who since 1852 worked ceaselessly and with great effect amongst the people of Athy and district.
The Mercy Order which was once the only religious order to have a convent in every diocese in Ireland is now sadly in decline. The first Sister of Mercy was professed in December 1831 just a few years after the granting of Catholic Emancipation. For many decades religious professions were more than enough to maintain a vibrant Mercy community here in Athy but they fell sharply in recent decades prompting the closing of the Mercy Convent. The closure of the Convent due to falling numbers leaves us today with approximately 21, most elderly nuns, living in different addresses throughout the town. Their legacy of good work amongst the local community which first welcomed the Sisters of Mercy to Athy just a few years after the Great Famine is one which will never be forgotten.
The passing of Sr. Helen at 66 years of age was a sad blow for the local Mercy community where she had spent many happy and productive years. It was during her term as Principal of Scoil Mhuire that the girls secondary school and the Christian Brothers boys school were brought together in the same school complex. Both schools amalgamated within recent years to give us the rather strangely named Ard Scoil Na Trionoide.
Sr. Helen, whose journey to Athy 49 years ago commenced in a storm and ended last week with soft drizzling rain falling on those who followed her coffined remains to St. Michael’s Cemetery, earned the respect and admiration of the people of Athy for her work as an educationalist and as a Sister of Mercy.
A few hours after Sister Helen’s funeral 97 year old Bridget Hughes was laid to rest in Old St. Michael’s Cemetery. Bridget was the last of three Hughes sisters who lived for many years in Janeville House just off Offaly Street. Bridget and her sister Alice Lawler worked for decades for the late Bob Osborne and his son Cyril in their Emily Square offices. The Hughes sisters were of an old Athy family which for generations were involved with the freight business on the Grand Canal and the Barrow Navigation. Three generations back Martin, James, Thomas and Patrick Hughes were boatmen based in Athy enjoying a way of life which has long since disappeared. All that was left after their time were secondhand memories of a boating lifestyle which once made Athy a thriving hub of commercial activity involving shopkeepers, farmers and boatmen. With the passing of the last of the Hughes sisters those memories of the past have receded yet further back.
A man whose company I have enjoyed for many years reached an important milestone with the celebration of his recent birthday. Michael Wall, now of Chanterlands but originally of the Mayo landscape, continues to nurse the ambition of delivering the country’s affairs into the hands of his beloved Fine Gael much to the dismay of his much better informed wife Moya! I have enjoyed many a ‘discussion’ with Michael as to the merits or demerits of certain Irish political leaders and while we cannot hope to agree, may I nevertheless wish him a well merited Happy Birthday.