The haunting Latin verse, Salve Regina, filled the still air as we stood by the grave of Sr. Peig Rice. Wednesday afternoon of a mid May day saw her family relations, her community sisters and local townspeople come together to remember yet another Sister of Mercy who had passed from us. The remaining elderly Sisters of Mercy who once championed the cause of education and nursed the sick and ageing in Athy stood or sat by the graveside of their departed sister as they raised their voices to the heavens.
‘Salve, Regina, mater misericordiae:
Vita, dulcedo, et spes nostra, salve.
Ad te clamamus, exsules, filii Hevae.
Ad te suspiramus, gementes et flentes
in hac lacrimarum valle.
Eia ergo, Advocata nostra,
illos tuos misericordes oculos
ad nos converte.
Et Iesum, benedictum fructum ventris tui,
nobis, post hos exsilium ostende.
O clemens: O pia: O dulcis
Those same words have been sung on countless occasions since the first member of the Sisters of Mercy congregation in Athy died in 1866. She was a young postulant who had entered the convent with her two sisters on 8th November 1865. As the new community, founded just 14 years previously, had no cemetery she was buried in Barrowhouse graveyard. Sadly, one of her own sisters who had entered the convent with her died a year later and she was buried in the garden of the Sisters of Mercy convent. The remains of the young postulant were exhumed from the Barrowhouse cemetery and placed beside those of her sister. The two Ryan sisters were the first burials from amongst the many Sisters of Mercy who graced the corridors of Athy Convent of Mercy over the years.
Sister Peig Rice entered Athy’s Convent of Mercy on 23rd September 1958. She was received during Easter week and being proud of her Kilkenny background received the name of the Kilkenny patron saint, St. Canice. She later reverted to using the name Sr. Peig. It was not very common for 23 year olds to enter convents in those days but Peig Rice had spent some time in St. Martha’s in Navan training to be a poultry instructress, where she enjoyed the companionship of fellow students, some of whom attended her funeral on Wednesday. I believe Peig may have decided to forego poultry instructing for the more demanding and rewarding role of a nurse. Trained in the Mater Hospital Dublin she would later spend a year in St. Finbarr’s Hospital in Cork from where she obtained her CMB before returning to St. Vincent’s Hospital, Athy on 1st July 1962. There she worked under the then Matron, Sr. Dominic, whom she would replace on Sr. Dominic’s retirement in March 1981.
The Sisters of Mercy first took charge of the Workhouse Hospital in Athy on 24th October 1873 when three sisters from the local Convent came to live in a small building provided for them which they called St. Vincent’s. The Matron of the Union was still a lay person, the position being held in 1873 by Miss Lindsay. When the Union Hospital became a County Home on 1st May 1922 Sr. Angela Devereux became Matron and the entire complex was renamed St. Vincent’s. Following Sr. Angela’s death in 1943 Sr. Vincent Lalor was appointed Matron, a position she held for the next 14 years. Sr. Dominic was Matron from 1957 to 1981 when Sr. Peig Rice took over the onerous position. Sr. Peig retired as Matron in December 1996 and involved herself in the local Care of the Elderly Committee and in developing the Alzheimer’s unit in the hospital.
The funeral mass for Sr. Peig was a celebration of thanksgiving for her life, which like her sisters in religion was spent in the service of others. I am always reminded on the passing of a Sister of Mercy of how the teaching ministry of that Order empowered young Irish women to take charge of their lives and gave them a new vision of their roles in Irish society. In the same way the caring and nursing ministry which formed a large part of Sr. Peig’s life in the Sisters of Mercy benefitted several generations from Athy and those parts of County Kildare served by St. Vincent’s Hospital.