A Different Kind of Life

Part One

Most of us know very little about the lives of what appears to be the last generation of ‘Ballinacree nuns.’ We asked those who are from the community, or well known in it, to tell us a little of their story.

Sr. Philomena Lynch, Greeve
In my young days in Greeve I used read a magazine called the African Rosary published by the Holy Rosary Sisters of Killeshandra. There were photos of groups of young nuns going off every year, by ship and spending weeks at sea to reach countries in Africa: the nearer they got to Nigeria the warmer it got.

Sr Philomena Lynch Greeve

Sr Philomena Lynch Greeve

As I thought about the work these sisters were doing I felt that maybe I could help them. I joined Killeshandra and it all began there. I completed two and a half years novitiate and then trained to be a nurse in St. Vincent’s Hospital followed by midwifery in Holles St. When I finished I was off to Kenya with three others who were teachers. I spent the next 20 years in a very remote area in a mission hospital. To get there from the nearest town was a journey of 60 miles along what looked a bit like a pass through a field in Ballinacree. The difference was the 14 riverbeds you had to cross to get to the hospital in what was called the Hidden Valley far away in the hills. In the beginning I found it all very difficult. The climate was harsh and the people were desperately poor. One needed to be young and healthy to cope. Every three years I came home for a holiday. The change of climate was a relief but the real joy was to meet again the family who were so good to me. People around home were interested in my work as a missionary and a nurse in this remote part of Kenya.

Philomena worked as a nurse / midwife in Kenya in East Africa

Philomena worked as a nurse / midwife in Kenya in East Africa

I could tell them about the culture, the language, and the heat but other things were more difficult to explain. It was probably hard for them to imagine a hospital where often there was no doctor and we sisters simply had to do our best. They might be happy to hear that we delivered many healthy babies but find it harder to imagine a place where a number of patients might die the same day; people who would have arrived sick and weak with hunger after a three-day trek over the mountains. As I look back now it was well worth sticking at it. The people simply had nothing and still I learned so much from them. They were always happy – never a complaint no matter how ill they were. They were so peaceful and kind. I remember now how much they gave to me, not what I gave to them. If I was young I would do it all over again. They were years when I felt, as the hymn says, that God was always at our side. Our hospital, where there were no other services, was good news for the poor.

I feel that if young Irish boys or girls could spend a while in some of these countries where people have so little they would realize how well off they are by comparison. Take Charles for example. He was a little boy of about seven who was waiting for me one night as I was leaving the hospital. He asked me for a box so I gave him a small cardboard one. “Too small sister, big one, I sleep tonight in it. I have no house to sleep.” I gave him a bed in our simple hospital; to him it was a four-star hotel! He stayed and we put him through school. For Charles his new life began with a cardboard box – and nothing else.

Delia Gaffney, Ross (Sr. Basil)
I joined the Sisters of Mercy in Blackrock, Dublin on All-Ireland Sunday 1961. The night before, I attended a social in the old school in Ballinacree with my sister, Elie. Why did I enter religious life? A verse of scripture that greatly influenced me was from St Matthew’s gospel Chapter 10: You received without pay, give without pay. At home, prayer had a natural place in our daily lives. First thing in the morning and last thing at night daddy knelt down and said his prayers. Each night we prayed the rosary as a family and if we were travelling we prayed it in the car. Many a time I pretended to be asleep so as not to have to say ‘my decade’.

Delia (Sr. Basil) with Roy the community Labrador. On hikers he'd refuse to move on until he had 'counted' everyone.

Delia (Sr. Basil) with Roy the community Labrador. On hikers he’d refuse to move on until he had ‘counted’ everyone.

My granny introduced us to the Bible and mammy to our Angel Guardian, to whom I have devotion and gratitude to this day. Mammy, also, made certain that we were blessed with holy water before leaving the house. My granny’s sister was a member of the Sisters of Charity of St. Paul in England and she visited us periodically. I also had a relative in Carysfort Park, Blackrock where I entered. Many a time, in those early days I was extremely lonely and I contemplated going home; only sheer will power kept me hanging on. Some of the things I missed most were the wind in my hair, shooting and fishing, more especially motoring around Lough Sheelin and walking the fields with my dogs.

Having completed my teacher training I moved to Mourne Road in Drimnagh, where I could hardly understand a word the students were saying but soon I grew to love it. In 1972 I moved to Sancta Maria College, Ballyroan, in the foothills of the Dublin Mountains, where I spent my next thirty two years, twenty four of them as principal. We were surrounded by cornfields and hayfields; there were dogs and cats, hens, pigs, sheep and cattle. Staff and students alike worked with enthusiasm to ensure that it maintained its unique hospitality and loveliness. As the quiet rural area of the Dublin Mountains was progressively being transformed into a suburb of Dublin even the students looked out with sadness.

Early in Ballyroan I was invited to start a group for young people known as Renewal, Action and Youth. The general idea was that young people from fifth year upwards would abstain from drink until they were at least eighteen or twenty one. Social action and prayer were part of the agenda. I reluctantly agreed to give it a try for a year; it continued for close on twenty years. Part of the ‘action’ dimension was a folk group. We sang faithfully at the midday Mass every Sunday and for weddings and funerals.

We sang carols locally and in Grafton Street to raise funds for the needy. We had discos with a record player and we hiked the Dublin Mountains and further afield. We travelled to Rome for the deaconate ordination of a group member, Brendan Leahy, the present bishop of Limerick; and to New Jersey, for the wedding of another. There was a tremendous spirit in the group and many of those former members continue to do wonderful work for God and humanity.

Over the years I have had many interesting experiences at parish level. One was a week-long retreat based on a one-to-one Scripture reading, reflection and sharing with a facilitator. People who requested a follow-up had a monthly prayer meeting which consisted of exposition, some spiritual input, an opportunity for confession and Mass concluding with a cup of tea. That continued until I left Ballyroan in 2004. On my retirement in 2004 I got the opportunity to do further studies in religion and education in the Catholic University of Melbourne. When I finished that I trained as a retreat facilitator and now organize retreats for young people. These retreats offer them the opportunity to become more aware of their gifts and personal uniqueness and awaken them to the contribution each one can make in building up the local Christian Community. We remind them that as baptised and confirmed Christians they are Christ’s hands, feet, eyes, ears, mouth and heart on this earth. The future Christianity depends on them.

Although now officially a retired teacher there is no shortage of things to do in the parish of Rush where I live . There is St Vincent de Paul, the liturgy group, ministry of the Word and the Eucharist, and the ‘Julian Group’ which consists of parish members who meet after Mass on Tuesdays to pray and reflect on the scriptures and which also work with the priests and teachers of the three local schools to prepare students for confirmation.

For me the path I chose in life has been enjoyable, exciting and fulfilling. It enabled me to participate in many organizations local and national. It has provided me with opportunities to walk with young and old along the road. Above all it showed me the importance of charity and compassion; the need to listen and be non-judgemental. It has been a good life so far.

Sr. Rosemary Traynor. Greeve
I was born in Greeve and grew up with my sister and five brothers. I attended Ballinacree School and Gilson Secondary School, Oldcastle. After Leaving Cert I had the big decision to make as to what to do with my life. The general expectation was that I would study to be a nurse. I wanted to be a teacher but Irish, a necessity, was not my strong subject. I also had a secret desire to become a sister.

Rosemary on home visitation in New York

Rosemary on home visitation in New York

When I shared my desire with my mother she encouraged me. The seeds of my vocation were planted many years earlier. When I was eight years old the “nuns” came home. My aunt Julia Traynor and Sister Antonia Sheridan (Moat), two sisters of the Cross and Passion, who had been in England for eighteen years, were home for the first time. There was a lot of excitement in our home around this event, but the memory that touched me most was from the day the sisters left. They had to leave very early in the morning and somehow they missed saying goodbye to me the night before. My aunt woke me up and kissed me ‘Goodbye’. Her love and her kindness at that moment touched me deeply. From then on I looked forward to her monthly letter in which she included a mention of each one of us. I found in them a sense of her love, care and, I suppose now I would say, compassion. It made me want to be like her. We grew up before TV and with limited radio. We played outdoor sports, board games and cards indoors and occasionally went to the cinema. Our social life was very much centred around the parish church, the school, extended family and neighbours. Our Catholic faith was an integral part in our lives, at home, in school and in the neighbourhood. The rosary with the trimmings was recited at night. Sunday Mass, Holy Hours and Benediction were never missed. Our home, too, had missionary magazines such as the African Missionary, the Far East, and the Messenger, which were full of stories and pictures of people who left home to share their life and faith in foreign countries.

I was attracted to these stories and as I grew older I became more curious about missionary life. When my friend, Philomena Lynch, went to the Holy Rosary Missionaries I questioned her on every detail of her daily routine. I knew that at some stage I wanted to enter religious life and when the time was right I chose my aunt’s order, The Sisters of the Cross and Passion. I made my Novitiate in Dublin with thirty other young women from all parts of Ireland. There was a lot to learn in this new life. It was not always easy, but it was a happy time as we prepared for a life of a sister of the Cross and Passion. As ours is an international Community I was assigned to our province in the USA where I took up studies in preparation for teaching. Coming to America and learning the American way was a challenge. I didn’t have to study a new language, but I soon learned that the same words can have different meanings.

My educational foundation in Ballinacree and Oldcastle prepared me well and made my college experience in Mount St. Joseph and in Providence College, Rhode Island very enjoyable. In New York I joined a vibrant group of young American sisters. In a sense we ‘grew up’ and learned together as new methods of education were introduced. The Second Vatican Council opened the year after my final profession. The sweeping changes it introduced and its call to renewal often brought conflict; an early big source of debate for sisters was about our religious dress. But the deeper call was to examine our lifestyle and rediscover our ‘charism’, (the spirit and call) of our foundress, Elizabeth Prout. I loved teaching and found it very rewarding to work with young people. Later, when I spent many years as a Parish Director of Religious Education I was able to share my passion for teaching with the many parents, grandparents and teenagers who volunteered as catechists for the children of the parish.

Often in our lives, whether as parents, family members or neighbours, we don’t realize the impact our lives have on those around us. Sometimes we notice it only at a time of departure or change. As I look back now from my parish in Plainview, New York, I recognize the impact that our Cross and Passion community has had in the parishes where we have ministered. I see lay people totally involved both as professionals and as volunteers in the works that once were reserved for priests and nuns. These people recognize the crisis that our Church is going through but they continue to participate and to live the Gospel values of faith, truth and justice as they serve the needs of the community. They give hope to the future of our Church.

I have always been grateful for the opportunity to serve as a Sister of the Cross and Passion and for the trust and support extended to me by my family, my community and by the many people I have encountered since I left Ireland for my mission in 1958.

Sr. Mary Connaughton. Ballinacree
Four church-related memories from Ballinacree stay with me. One was the way our neighbour Peter Sheridan, used takes so seriously his duty as godfather and brought me to Mass; even on that Sunday of heavy snow when I fell and hurt myself and he had to carry me home. Another was a Saturday evening on the choir gallery of the old church.

Sr Mary Connaughton

Mary worked in Tallaght for 23 years

My small brother was on his knees furiously pedalling the wheezy harmonium with his hands as I sang and played at full throttle ‘On Top of Old Smokey all covered with snow, I lost my true lover for courting too slow’. Suddenly the peddler disappeared. Standing up to ascertain the cause I came eye-to-eye with Fr Eamonn Butler the young curate, who had come outside the box, so to speak, and crossed to the altar to investigate. To his eternal credit he didn’t press charges but returned to the confession box now that order was restored. The third has to do with Bridgie Butler, our long-suffering dressmaker who did her best to keep us tidy. She could turn old coats inside out, turn collars on shirts, convert blouses into shirts – miracles with material. On more than one occasion she fitted dresses on Eibhlín, and myself when she met us in the chapel.

I decided to join the Sisters of Mercy in 1958 the year I finished training for primary teaching in Carysfort Training College. I spent my first year teaching senior infants in Coolock; those 40 five-year-olds gave me a great start. From there I went to Inchicore. In 1979 I was assigned to San Francisco to teach in St Brigid’s parish school. A pupil in my first class was Myles Kilroy a son of Tony of Moat.

After five years there I returned to Ireland to teach in Inchicore and two years later to St. Michael’s Primary school in Arklow, a town renowned for its music. There seemed to be always a festival, a Scór competition or some musical event to occupy our evenings. In 1990 I volunteered to work in Brazil and what followed were probably the brightest years of my life. For the first two years four of us sisters lived in a three-roomed thatched house in Campina Grand in the Northeast. I had often read about famine and here I experienced it at first hand but the memory that remains today is not the hunger but the sense of community the people had. For instance, to prepare for Christmas, the people used gather neighbours in their homes to pray and sing. We were invited to pray in the poorest of houses. To our eyes they had nothing; yet every meeting ended with a collection for those who had no food. Everyone brought something, a banana, a homemade bun or a piece of fruit from a tree by the roadside. Two more years in a semi-desert region were very different. The rain didn’t come and cattle died in the fields. Women walked three or four miles every morning to carry home buckets of water for cooking and washing. Then, at twelve one night, I was woken up by the cheering and shouting of children out in the street. It was starting to rain and they were catching the drops with cups, pots and buckets while their mothers scraped up water from the sandy potholes. This celebration ended with a bonfire to thank God for water.

I left Brazil with regret because of sickness in 1994 and returned to teach in the newly built community school in Tallaght. People had been rehoused here from the Ballymun flats. Many of our first 120 students had been in four or five different schools. The parents all in their twenties or thirties missed the closeness they enjoyed in the city and could not get used to having no shops, buses or street lights. As soon as they got a job they left the area and returned to the city. Twenty-nine years later we have a first class hospital, shopping malls, cinemas, theatre and the Luas. We recall many residents planning meetings in smoke filled rooms where plans were drawn up for roads, community centres, football pitches and other amenities.

For the past 23 years I have been living in a poor section of Tallaght combining community work with teaching. I sometimes think that Reality TV shows contain very tame stuff compared to the raw material we can offer. Many years ago a missionary sister who visited the training college left us with a parting word. God has work for you to do and if you don’t do it then it may never be done. Most of us try to do our bit, and sometimes it’s not easy. This brings me to my fourth memory of Ballinacree. In the old church there was a window that used filter in a soft blue light in the evening. Even today, when times are difficult, I sometimes ‘go back’ to that soft light. It was there that I first came to trust the Irish proverb ‘Is goire cabhair Dé na an doras’. ‘God’s help is closer than the door’.

Saint Brigid

Brigid is a patron of our parish and our football club. There are many stories about her, and not all of them are in agreement. She was born in 451 in Faughart, Co Louth, daughter of a slave woman and Dubthach, a chieftain of Leinster. Even as a young girl she had a great love of God, was generous and had the gift of healing. A friend of St Patrick, she founded two monasteries in Kildare one for women and the other for men. She was an influential abbess and ruled the church of Kildare and Leghlin along with Conleth, the bishop. The scripture and manuscript school she founded there became famous. The Welsh monk and historian Giraldus Cambrensis who visited there centuries later said that he had never seen anything like the beauty of the Book of Kildare. Sadly this book disappeared in the 1500’s.

Brigid worked many miracles of healing and after her death became a patroness of the sick, of midwives and farmers. The names Brigid, Bridget, Bridgit, Bríd and Bride all come from Brigid. There are 43 Kilbrides (Cill Bríde – Church of Brigid) in Ireland.

Brigid is not just a local saint. Four churches in Cologne are called after her, others in Italy, France, Germany, Holland, Portugal and Switzerland. ‘Her mantle’ is in the Cathedral of Bruges, ‘her skull’ in Luminar, Portugal and she is patron saint of the Dutch city of Ommen.

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