Teresa Cowley

A biography written by St John Enright rsm

Reminiscent of the first plot of ground which Abraham acquired in the land of Canaan, when he bought the cave at Macphelah for the burial of his beloved Sarah, the first piece of ground which the Mercy Sisters from Strabane Co Tyrone, Ireland had in South Africa was a borrowed grave in the Nazareth Sister’s burial site, when Gonzaga McDonagh the talented and accomplished young musician who accompanied Teresa Cowley and seven others on the South African foundation died before they reached their destination.

We cannot but also think of the borrowed grave on which our faith is staked. The photograph of the little wooden cross in Kimberley is a touching reminder of the sorrow of Teresa and her new community.

In terms of church history the church in South Africa is very young, dating from the diamond rush of 1878 and the new flood of people to the goldfields, later named Johannesburg, in 1884. The catholic church’s first ecclesiastical vicariate was established in 1886 and extended from Bechuanaland in the north of Basutoland in the south taking in the Orange Free State and the Transvaal republics - an area the size of Ireland. To Bishop Anthony Gaughran Oblate of Mary Immaculate, himself a Dublin man, was entrusted this vast area, ripe for the refining influence of the catholic faith. Bishop Anthony lost no time in inviting Nazareth Sisters, Holy Family Sisters, Oblate Priests and Christian Brothers to the southern tip of his vicariate, and to the northmost part, to the little border town of Mafeking along the Molopo River, he invited the Sisters of Mercy.

In 1897 he visited the small mercy community of 22 in the town of Strabane Co Tyrone, Ireland which had been founded from Navan 30 years earlier and which became known as the convent on the hill. Before he left five professed sisters - three school teachers, a nurse and the music teacher were chosen from the volunteers and were joined by four young ladies ranging in age from 19 to 23 who asked to join the mission to South Africa.

The group was led by Teresa Cowley and her exceptional leadership qualities together with her wisdom, simplicity, gentleness, shrewdness, courage and bravery as well as her very strong will, bound the little group together in the face of many trials and challenges. Jane Cowley was born in 1852 in the parish of Dunshaughlin Co Meath Ireland and at the age of 25 entered the young community of Strabane which had close links with the motherhouse in Baggot Street - the short line being Tullamore, Kells, Navan, Strabane. After twenty years as a beloved teacher with special care of the young orphan children in Mount St Joseph she led the mission group, and like Catherine before her, she led by example.

The group left Strabane on 24 September 1897 and after 24 days on the high seas they reached Cape Town on 17 October where the Cabra Dominicans treated them to exceptional hospitality. Then they travelled by train for two more days and nights until they reached Kimberley en route to Mafeking. In Kimberley they were hosted by the Holy Family Sisters with a warm and loving welcome and learned that not only was there no convent ready in Mafeking, there wasn’t even a plot of ground secured. The nine visitors were accommodated for over a month in the Holy Family Convent - that in days when provisions were scarce and space too. When Teresa realised that the waiting could be extended she rented a house in Kimberley and from there endeavoured to expedite the work of building in Mafeking. Finally in February 1898 they were ready to bid farewell to their friends and head off north again. They could wait no longer for the building so they rented two houses in the town and immediately started school.

Eventually the convent school was build by June 1899 but the outbreak of the Boer war was imminent and by October the same year the British army commandeered the convent as a military hospital and lookout and the Sisters of Mercy found themselves in the centre of a legendary siege that was to give the then obscure little town of Mafeking a permanent place in military history and made it a household name in its day.

Bishop Gaughran encouraged the sisters to join the women and children in leaving the town for a safer locale but they made their own decision. The annals tell us “They chose to stay” - a euphemism no doubt for “they refused to go”!! so the army built them a trench 50 feet long, 5 ½ feet wide roofed with corrugated iron on which were heaped sand bags and clay. And this was the sisters home for the 218 days of the siege of Mafeking. (November 1899 to May 1900). We read again in the annals that as the army moved in the community assembled in the chapel and repeated aloud the acts of faith, hope and charity and contrition after which the chaplain Fr Ogle removed the Blessed Sacrament. One almost wants to continue “And it was night”.

But far from pitying themselves these teachers became nurses overnight and became quite proficient at the task. They did us all proud with the quality of their skill and the compassion in the hearts for the sick and wounded soldiers from both sides of the combat.

The archives abound with letters of gratitude to Teresa and her sisters for their care and self sacrifice - they chose to take the night shift so that the other nurses could rest, they went without food in order to give to the sick and wounded, they went from sick bay to sick bay comforting the wounded, praying with the dying, promising to write to mother’s about their sons last stand.

From the annals: “Our spare time is employed in a kind of coarse needlework on haversacks, powder bags and flags, but the point lace is not neglected.” The annals tell us too of the touching story of John Hoyne and Frank Gallagher who as youngsters had attended the Convent school in Strabane. They later joined the British army and served in Mafeking. When wounded during the shelling they were overjoyed to find themselves being nursed by their former teachers.

After the siege Teresa was decorated with the Royal Red Cross and her companions with Royal Victoria medals.

And then she presented the British army officials with a bill for the rental of the convent during the siege!!. She got her £240 sterling and into the bargain she asked for and received compensation for the damage done to the convent during the heavy shelling of the siege - extensive damage and she argued for every last penny.!!

When the war was over she wrote consoling letters to the families who had lost loved ones in the war and sent photos of their burial places. And afterwards she continued the great friendships she and her sisters had made with people from every walk of life. Colonel Robert Baden Powel, Commanding Officer during the siege, was a life long friend and the archives have several original letters and cards written by him to the community, including a famous request for a pencil case complete with the sketch of what he wanted.

Then it was back to business. The school was reopened in 1900 and another built in the town, visitation of the sick poor in their homes continued, convert classes were begun, and when more women joined the community a new foundation was established in Vryburg. Teresa was then off to Johannesburg to open a school in Braamfontein in 1908 and in Mayfair in 1914.

But her health was failing and on 28 November 1914 Teresa died in Mafeking and was buried with full military honours in grave No. 811 in the town cemetery. Letters of condolence flowed in from fellow religious, from civil and military authorities, secular citizens from all walks of life.

Her life in the Holy Spirit resulted in her gentle courageous manner, her pious compassionate nature, a non-racist ecumenical approach to the people God sent her way. Extant in the archives is a letter from a freemason who wished to learn more about the theology of her Church; a note from a heart sore and homesick young soldier still caught up in the war; a letter of gratitude for medals and request for a scapular and many other such letters.

Her human characteristics: She was obviously a great letter writer, she was musical - the Irish Harp is a treasured heirloom, she was charming, modest, mightily shrewd, well beloved by her family and community in Ireland and South Africa.

Finally she was an archivist’s dream - great record keeper - even in the trenches she managed to keep important documents safe: the original plans for the convent are water marked but intact. And of course the now famous Diary of the Siege of Mafeking was kept by Stanislaus Gallagher native of Omagh Co Tyrone during those dark days.

The convent was sold in 1968 and restored to its original condition. It was declared a national monument by Chief Lucas Mangope in 1991 and today is the seat of the Housing Corporation in the Northwest Province of South Africa and fittingly named Teresa House.

A note about the spelling of the word Mafeking/Mafikeng: In colonial times the spelling was, maybe not surprisingly, Mafeking. The correct spelling is Mafikeng, locative in the Tswana language for Mafika meaning place of rocks; Well named!