Nothing typifies the commitment to sharing in a real community sense than the sight of Cha Chanders walking behind the coffin of Betty Dunne last Sunday. Just two days previously he had made the same journey from St. Michael’s Parish Church to St. Michael’s Cemetery as a grieving husband in the company of his family and friends. His wife Sheila to whom he was married for 38 years passed away after a short illness and neighbours and friends came together in great numbers to show their respects as they would do two days later for the funeral of Betty Dunne.
Sheila, who was from the rebel County, met Cha while she was working in the Post Office in Portlaoise and the following year they married in Ballincollig, Co. Cork. On coming to Athy she became a member of the Knights of Malta but as her children were born she devoted her time and her energy to her home and to the growing Chanders family. In later years however she again committed herself to her adopted community where she had lived since 1967. She played her part as a member of the Athy Festival Committee of the 1970’s and how justifiably proud she must have been when her father-in-law Cuddy Chanders was elected as the Lord Mayor of Athy during the first such festival.
I was involved in the Athy Community Council in its early years and well I remember the efforts which were made to get a Community Development Project up and running in the Woodstock area. The project was to be operated and controlled by the people of the area and Sheila Chanders was the first person approached to undertake the oft time thankless job which is associated with committee work. When I first approached Sheila she demurred but I persisted because without her the path forward would be more than difficult. Eventually after some persuasion Sheila agreed to become involved in the project which has since then gone from strength to strength. Sheila’s input and those of her neighbours who were involved in the early years of the Woodstock Community Project were vital to its success. It remains a lasting tribute to the hard work of many people from the area including Sheila Chanders. She is survived by her husband, Cha, a man who more than anyone else I know in the town of Athy has earned the right to be called natures gentleman. Sharing in his grief is his son Frank, his daughters Rosemary, Carol Ann, Clare and seven grandchildren.
Betty Dunne I had met on many occasions, all of them were made pleasant by her delight in speaking of times past, especially years spent in Shrewleen Lane. She was a gregarious woman who in true community spirit shared her life with her neighbours in Pairc Bhride. Her door was always open and the comings and goings during the day in the Dunne household spoke volumes for the high regard in which she was held by all who knew her. Betty is survived by her ten children.
Sheila and Betty were mothers in the traditional sense, survived as they are by their own children. Another mother who passed away during the past week and who counted amongst her children literally hundreds who as youngsters passed through St. Joseph’s infant school at Rathstewart and its successor Scoil Mhichil Naofa, was Sr. Bernadette. From Upper Church in County Tipperary Mary Quinlan, born less than a year after the Easter Rebellion, entered the Convent in Athy in February 1935. She was just eighteen years of age and one of several postulants who entered the Convent that year. So many in fact the Novitiate had to be enlarged. In her second year as a novice she was seriously injured when walking on a country road with Sr. Brendan on the way to a house visitation. The Irish Times of 28th May 1937 reported that the car driven by a chauffeur struck the young novice knocking her unconscious. Treated at the scene by Dr. Jeremiah O’Neill she was removed to the local Convent where she eventually recovered.
It is interesting to note that Sr. Bernadette and Sr. Brendan were for many decades the very visible guardians and protectors of all who passed through the infant school at St. Joseph’s. The young Tipperary girl made her final profession on 20th February 1942 and as Sr. Bernadette she was assigned to teach the infant boys in St. Joseph’s.
Sr. Bernadette was my very first teacher and she made my acquaintance when on the day of my fourth birthday I was brought to school. Strangely one other boy started that same day, 12th May, but I wasn’t to know that until a few years ago when I inspected the school attendance book and saw that Frank English’s name appeared next to my own.
I have few memories of that first year in school, one vivid recollection however is my father bringing me home after I had an accident which required a change of short pants! Those of us who went to St. Joseph’s School [and if you were a boy from Athy you went there] always recall Sr. Brendan, but not always Sr. Bernadette who was our teacher at a time when our faculty of recall had not yet been sharpened. Sr. Brendan, and to a lesser extent, Sr. Alberta, reaped whatever rewards came from remembrance of infant experiences but Sr. Bernadette’s class was a dim memory. The St. Joseph’s experience was a happy one and I can still recall the morning we youngsters gathered in lines on the gravel driveway alongside the infant school as the Sisters, including Sr. Bernadette, said their goodbyes to us before we were left in charge of a Christian Brother to march across the town to the Christian Brother’s School.
When I joined Sr. Bernadette’s class she was a young woman, only 29 years old, and over the years until her retirement at 65 she guided the paths of hundreds of young Athy boys in her quiet caring way. Our class had the pleasure of honouring Sr. Bernadette when we held our class reunion two years ago. She and Bill Riordan who taught in the Christian Brothers Secondary School were the only two of our teachers who were then still alive. Now with Sr. Bernadette’s passing we leave behind another milestone on our journey through life.
As Salve Regina was sung in St. Michael’s Cemetery last Tuesday by the Sisters of Mercy for the eleventh time in just over a decade, my thoughts turned to the huge debt which generations of Athy people owe to Sr. Bernadette and the Sisters of Mercy. She was just one of many who answered the call to the religious life and who over the years selflessly devoted themselves to the people of Athy and South Kildare. There are eighteen Sisters of Mercy still with us in Athy, continuing a Mercy presence which started in 1852 just as the effects of the Great Famine were receding. Their legacy is one which we continue to enjoy but which in time will pass into history.