Celebrations by the Town Honour Carlow's 'Magnificent Seven'
Editor: Both Sheila Carney rsm and John McDarby contributed to this account of the celebrations.
November 4, 2018, marked the 175th anniversary of the departure of seven Mercy Sisters from Saint Leo's Convent, Carlow, Ireland, bound for Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the United States. We don’t know what weather accompanied them as they began their journey but on this November morning, the drizzle that greeted the gathered did nothing to dampen their spirits. John McDarby, descendent of Veronica McDarby, one of the seven missionaries, greeted the crowd and introduced Bishop Denis Nulty, Bishop of Laughlin and Kildare who spoke about the significance of this day in the history of Carlow. Following his remarks the bishop, joined by Sister Kathleen Kennedy of the Carlow Mercy community and Sister Sheila Carney, representing both the Institute of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas and Carlow University, Pittsburgh, unveiled a plaque.
The assembly then moved inside for a variety of presentations. Msgr. Kevin O’Neill, former president of St. Patrick's College, Carlow, spoke of the seven missionaries in their Irish context. "They could never have foreseen that they were the start of an outreach that would see other Sisters go to the ends of the Earth. Sisters from St Leo's are in Africa and Brazil, as we speak,” he said. He was followed by Sr Sheila Carney who carried the story forward by speaking of the contribution each made in their new American city – Frances Warde (Adminstrator), Josephine Cullen (Educator), Agatha O’Brien (Business sense), Elizabeth Strange (Artist, writer and translator), Aloysia Strange (Educator), Veronica McDarby (Portress) and Philomena Reid (Music teacher). “These were multitalented women,” said Sr Sheila. She read a passage from the annals of St Leo’s about the departure from St Leo’s of the sisters 175 years ago and “the air being rent with the cries of weeping parents, friends and the poor.” She stated “It took the town of Carlow to raise these courageous, generous women.”
Original music created by Justin Kelly, also marked the occasion, Justin composed “The Ballad of Mother Agatha O’Brien” which he performed. Agatha was the youngest of the seven, a postulant, who had entered as a lay sister. When the time came for her profession, Bishop O'Connor refused to profess her as a lay sister because, as he said, she was "capable of ruling a nation." In 1846, Frances Warde took her on the foundation to Chicago and left her there as superior (first leader).
The program also included a pageant representing the early days the Pittsburgh, performed by St Leo's students – which they conceived, developed and presented under the direction of Janice de Bróithe. St Leo’s Chamber Choir under the direction of Mary Amond O’Brien, enthralled the full attendance.
Posthumous honorary degrees were awarded to the seven missionaries by Carlow University. In return, the Carlow County Council and the Carlow County Museum gifted the University with an original work of art created in silver and 9 ct gold, representing the relationship between the town and the University.
A good cup of tea brought the afternoon to a conclusion.
The celebration was not over, however. An evening concert was held in Saint Clare Church, Graiguecullen, the home parish of Agatha O’Brien. The concert theme was The Journey based on another original composition by Justin Kelly honoring the seven missionaries. Justin was joined by St Fiacc's National School Choir, wonderful musicians, Liam Lawton, internationally known liturgical musician and Irish actor Patrick Bergin, who not only sang but read poetry by and about his father – an Irish labor leader. The contribution of each contributed to the journey theme.
This day with its varied participants and contributions, a day of civic and religious pride, remembrance and gratitude, November 4, 2018 now takes its place alongside November 4, 1843 and will be remembered by all those passing along the Old Dublin Road where the commemorative plaque hangs.
This commemoration is part of the Carlow County Council Centenaries Committee programme for 2018, coordinated on behalf of the Council through Carlow County Museum with St. Leo's College and the Sisters of Mercy.