Sister Mary Angela Gilsenan
A biography written by Anna Moloney rsm
I Brigid Gilsenan, was born in Kilskyre, Meath, a County which borders Offaly and Dublin, both significant in our early Mercy story. My Parents were Michael Gilsenan and Mary Connell. When I joined the Sisters of Mercy on Whit Monday, May 15 1842, the Community was already established six years in Tullamore and during that time had experienced many joys but many sorrows too. Only six months previously our dear Mother Catherine had died in Baggot Street on November 11 1841.
This was a sad time for all but especially for Sister Mary Ann Doyle, her first companion. In an account of her death it said “No words could describe the grief and desolation of the entire community.” In the words of Sister Dolores Walsh [Tullamore] “her motherly care, her gentle but firm authority, her exuberant spirits, her sparkling wit, her dedication to prayer, and her dependence on the providence of God, her total unselfishness and dedication to the poor had made a lasting impression on her followers and life without Catherine was daunting. But her work was of God and we were blessed to have Sister Mary Ann Doyle as our inspiration and guide under God – one who knew Catherine so well and shared her vision so completely.”
It is said that my entrance on that Whit Monday gave unusual joy as I was the first postulant received in the new Convent. (This new Convent was built between 1838 – ‘40, but much to the disappointment of the Sisters, Mother Catherine was not present on the day of the official opening) My companion and I are listed among the first fourteen postulants of the Tullamore Community. On February 21 1843, we received the holy habit when Brigid Dillon was given the name Mary Frances de Sales and I became known as Mary Angela.
Great work was being done to bring God’s mercy to all the people of the town, and there was always something else to be done. Apart from the education of the many children, the Sisters visited the County gaol, and the Workhouse, which opened in 1841. In 1842 there was an attempt to establish a House of Mercy, but that proved unsuccessful. That year too saw a visit from Frances Warde when the Carlow Sisters stayed overnight on their way to Westport.
In 1844 the year of my Profession the Kells foundation was made. Although Catherine’s ‘hurrah for foundations’ is well known, this one was a major upset to the little Community. Reverend Mother Mary Anne Doyle’s term of office was coming to a close, and Dr Cantwell, our Bishop thought her most suitable for the new foundation. She who had been our support and stay was now gone but we put our trust in the Lord and he walked with us and saw us through this lonely time. Mother Teresa Purcell, who had received the habit from Mother Catherine, and had been Assistant to Mother Mary Ann Doyle was our second Superior. We all knew of the incident on the day of her Profession, when she tucked the Crucifix into the cincture, thus starting the practice we all knew, and causing Mother Catherine to say "we shall wear it thus so all may see to whom we are consecrated”.
I was Assistant to this inspired leader, who had been prepared for Profession by Mother Catherine herself. Some of these precious lectures and notes, which had been kept by Mother Teresa have been preserved in Tullamore. Her health began to fail in 1850, during which time she was too weak to carry on her duties as Superior. The parish priest Dr O Rafferty was a wonderful support and allowed her to have Holy Communion every day – a rare blessing at that time. I who had been privileged to be formed by two Sisters whom Catherine had formed, was now chosen to succeed Mother M. Teresa.
But to go back a little to 1850 – to be precise when Mother Teresa was weakening in health. There was an established Carmelite Convent in Loughrea, where children were educated, but there was no one to visit the sick and care for the dying poor. Bishop Derry, and Bishop Cantwell his friend, solved the problem for themselves. Bishop Cantwell promised three Sisters and arranged that they be ready to travel back with him on his way through Tullamore from the Provincial Synod in Thurles. There were plans for open a House of Mercy and a public Laundry In Loughrea, so Sister. M. Joseph Delamere and I went to Baggot Street, to learn the system there, and set up a similar system in Loughrea. Mother Teresa was too ill to travel herself, so I was to help the Sisters in the regulation of the new Convent. We were more than generously provided for, with sacred vessels, books, vestments, - even a state chair for the Bishop at ceremonies and stalls for the choir. Two Postulants soon joined us. I remained there for only two months, though the Bishop wanted me to stay, but Mother Teresa’s health was worse. Dr. O Rafferty brought a Novice to help in the new Community, and I returned to Tullamore. Loughrea did not succeed and Dr Rafferty who was instrumental in our going to Loughrea brought the Sisters back to Tullamore. But if God wants a work to go ahead, it will. The Sisters from Tullamore later made a foundation in Drogheda and the Sisters from Baggot Street who had experienced failure in Drogheda, went to Loughrea.
Our work continued and in 1854 four Sisters left Tullamore for the Drogheda Foundation, so a few years later when Rev William Kelly arrived at the Convent looking for Sisters for his parish in East London, we hesitated at first. We were afraid the works of the Community would suffer, but Fr Kelly was a very persistent man. The plight of his own poor parishioners, and the evidence of the good work being done by the Sisters in Tullamore urged him on. He was very persuasive and on three successive days offered Mass that the Community might accede to his wishes. The outcome was a happy one for Commercial Road, but the Bishop’s express desire was that no one should be sent without her own consent. He also wished that I should go with the Sisters and stay for two months until the Community was sufficiently established –Mother Evangelista Daly, Gertrude Dunne, Sister. Mary Teresa Ryan, Sister. Patrick Grey a Novice, Anne McDonald who had received votes for reception, and two more Postulants –Brigid Gallagher and Catherine Green [later Sister.M. Xavier Gallagher and Sister. Brigid Greene] made up the Community.
Our departure from Tullamore was mentioned in The Tablet of March 1859
“As the Le Wellen weighed anchor this evening, under a brilliant sun, and on the most beautiful blue bay of waters, the eye could behold, there stood a moment on her deck a group of ladies darkly mantled and shrouded in thick sombre veiling”
The scene when we arrived on 2 March was not so beautiful. A house was ready for us, but no time was spent reviewing our own accommodation. There was work to be done and in that first week we took over the running of the Poor Schools where there were nine hundred girls. [Tablet, March 9 1859] Cardinal Wiseman visited almost immediately and blessed our new undertaking. The task ahead was enormous and on the advice of Cardinal Wiseman. I stayed on and Sister M Gertrude Dunne returned to Tullamore. Death visited the Community early on as in so many of our early Foundations. Sister Brigid Greene died….but more members joined. In 1861 three made their Profession and three had received the habit. His Eminence the Cardinal presided at the Reception Ceremony of Anne McDonald before a large congregation in the Church of Saint Mary and St. Michael.
The alleys courts and tenements were crowded with large families, and apart from the work in the schools, we undertook the care of the sick when cholera and smallpox swept through the Parish.
In 1872 there was a crisis in Burnley, Lancashire. Canon Rimmer was gravely concerned at the very low standard of education in St. Mary’s School. Matters reached a climax in 1872 when the Government threatened to stop all grants to the schools until there was significant improvement before the next annual examination – March 1873. Fr Dillon’s two Sisters were in Commercial Road so he sought permission from Bishop Turner of Salford to go and recruit some Sisters. On his arrival in the Convent, there was reluctance at first as two Communities had already failed in Burnley, but eventually volunteers came forward. Three of us were selected for the new foundation – Sister M. Ignatius Dillon, Sister M. Catherine Winship, and myself. My two companions were studying for their Mistress’s Certificate. Cardinal Manning refused permission for them to go unless two postulants capable of taking their teaching certificates were found. Their prayers were answered and the Foundation to Burnley went ahead. Sister M. Aloysius Dillon accompanied us and remained with us for a few months, until we settled.
My journey took me from Kilskyre to Tullamore, to Baggot Street, to Loughrea, back to Tullamore, then to London’s East End and finally to Burnley, where I laid down my weary bones on 13 May 1887.
The Light of Christ is carried for a short while by each of us and then is taken forward by others.