‘The idea of a convent in Athy originated with Miss Goold of Leinster Street who won the support of Fr. Patrick Byrne C.C., Mrs. Fitzgerald of Geraldine House and her daughter Ann Fitzgerald.’ These opening lines in the Annals of the Sisters of Mercy Athy were penned many years later by Fr. Thomas Greene C.C. He noted that the sudden death of Fr. Byrne, followed soon afterwards by the passing of Ann Fitzgerald, left the matter in abeyance. However, Ann Fitzgerald left £100 in her Will for the endowment of a local convent, following which her mother, the widow of Colonel Fitzgerald, offered the sum of £50 for the same purpose. Patrick Maher of Kilrush similarly offered £50. The availability of these funds prompted the parishioners of St. Michael’s Athy to convene a meeting in the Parish Church in the spring of 1843 to consider ways and means of advancing the idea first put forward by Miss Goold several years previously.
The enthusiastic support for a convent and more particularly a convent school in Athy resulted in arrangements for a weekly collection to be taken up in the main streets of the town every Saturday night. When Fr. Thomas Greene came to Athy on 12th May 1843 he found a very efficient collection system in place, with £150 already collected. The first stone of the new convent was laid in August 1844 by Reverend Laurence Dunne, P.P. of Castledermot. Fr. Greene’s written account then refers to the ‘dreadful distress then prevalent’ which resulted in the discontinuance of the weekly collection at a time when almost £1,400 had been spent on a new convent building. The ‘dreadful distress’ referred to in Fr. Greene’s note was of course the famine which started with the failure of the potato crop in 1845 and which was to continue until 1848 and beyond for many families.
The weekly collection resumed in 1848 when the worst of the Famine conditions had improved, but as Fr. Greene noted, ‘the old staff of collectors had been broken up and their subscribers had gone to America’. The principal organiser of the collection was Mr. Thomas Fegan of Market Square (now Emily Square) and his efforts and those of his voluntary workers accounted for a substantial amount of the £2,035 which was incurred in building and fitting out the convent between August 1844 and December 1852.
The convent closed in May 2000 and during its 148 years it received upward of 144 or more young women who joined the Sisters of Mercy. On entering, postulants wore a white bonnet for the first six months and a white veil for the next two and a half years before taking their first vows three years later. At the end of six years in the Convent perpetual vows were taken. Postulants and nuns followed the same daily routine which started with a bell ringing out at 5.25 a.m. followed by Matins and Lauds, then private meditation for 40 minutes and Mass. Silence was maintained at all times other than during the 45 minute recreation period late in the afternoon. Evening Vespers was followed by 30 minutes of spiritual reading in the Convent Chapel, concluding after a further short period of recreation with night prayers and the ‘great silence’.
In 1938 Rita Cranny from Ballylinan entered the local Convent of Mercy. She made her triennial vows on 11th February 1941 and her perpetual vows as Sr. Rita three years later. Like her fellow sisters she dedicated herself to the religious life and in doing so joined a religious community committed to providing education, social care and health care to the wider community of south Kildare.
The religious orders were an important part of Irish life as far back as the early decades of the 19th century. Nowadays Irish Society is a more secular society and the religious orders, especially the female orders, are downsizing to the extent that in a few years time many will have disappeared. Within our local community we are witnessing the gradual but inevitable withering of that wonderful religious order which for almost 150 years has been an enriching presence in this area.
Last week Sr. Rita Cranny died aged 95 years and with her death is closed another chapter in the life of the Sisters of Mercy congregation in Athy. We are indebted to Sr. Rita and her religious colleagues for their charitable work and their contribution to education and health care, first commenced in the dark days which followed the Great Famine. Athy has changed enormously since those early days and much of those changes are due in no small measure to the educational opportunities afforded by successive Sisters of Mercy to the young people of this area.
The involvement of the Sisters of Mercy and indeed that of the Christian Brothers in the education of the Irish people played a vital part in the resurgence of this country and the recovery of national pride which underpinned the events of the early decades of the 20th century. Now that we are about to embark over the next few years commemorating the centenary of those events I hope we will remember the part played by Sr. Rita Cranny and past generations of the Sisters of Mercy in nurturing and instilling the national pride which helped give this country the freedom it enjoys today.