First UK-Irish Mercy Archives Conference held at Baggot Street, June-July, 2015
Mauree O'Sullivan rsm writes: 'How can I do justice to twelve hours of powerful talks in this short article? The Conference, attended by 54 Sisters and a few lay people from all over the world, was held in Baggot St and began with an inspiring Mass by Fr. Piaras Jackson, SJ.
Conference delegates in the recently renovated at Baggot Street.
The articles brought to the altar were: a crucifix, symbol of prison ministry worn by a prisoner in 1865 when publicly hanged; a sampler from the 1860s, embroidered in cross stitch, created in Alton, Staffordshire and brought to Ireland by Sisters who founded the Rathangan community in Co Kildare in 1875; an English/Turkish dictionary used in the Crimea and 1858 Annals from Wexford. All that set the tone for the next three days.
The opening address was given by our Leader, Margaret Casey rsm (The Congregation) who recognised the importance of the work being done by archivists. We were in a privileged venue. I found it emotional to think we were in the International Room - the classroom where it all began! Margaret said our dedication to keeping records was greatly appreciated as they will remain after we are gone. It gives us pride in a shared past.
Mary Reynolds rsm set the scene and said we were a global presence coming here to preserve our heritage. She encouraged all to sign up for Mercy E-News! She said it was a wonderful time for Mercy and came close to Catherine's dream that lay people would be carriers of her story.
Next there were four talks on Creative Women of Mercy. Anne Hewitt rsm gave many examples of the poems of Sr. Joan McNamara who played a pivotal part in the Institute in England. She is constantly searching for the truth and continues to challenge us through poetry. There is a mystical dimension to her faith. She wrote several reflections on the psalms. (The Unmarked Road. 1996)
Mary Coyle rsm gave a very interesting account of Sr. Colmcille Cunnane, a great Irish and music teacher. Her music had been played by Ailish O'Brien rsm at our Mass. Her compositions reached all parts of the country through her students in Mary Immaculate Training College where she was a lecturer. Her successor is Maire Ni Dhuibhir.
Evelyn Kenny rsm gave a talk on the artist, Aloysius McVeigh rsm from Dungiven. She was a warm and encouraging teacher as well as being an amazing artist. She painted Jesus and Mary in everyday settings and sanctified the ordinary to a degree that was extraordinary. The ancient art of the icon made a great impression on her. Her painting of Our Lady of Derry is absolutely beautiful and endeared her to the people of Derry. She said, "I am the hand that does God's work."
Anne Reddington rsm from South Wales exhibited her much admired art in the chapel. Catherine's quotations are her inspiration and she connects with God in the ordinary things of life. She produces very colourful geometric shapes and captures the special essence of her themes. Every painting has a see-saw effect: the ups and downs of life.
Barbara Jeffery rsm and Jenny Smith from the UK told us of setting up the Heritage Centre at St. Mary's Convent, Handsworth, Birmingham, the last convent founded by Catherine. They still have a clock which Catherine mentioned in a letter and there is a statue of Catherine and Sr. Juliana Hardman in the prayer garden. The house contains tapes, touch-screens and a visual display of Catherine's letters.describing the earliest convents and the growth of the Mercy Association in England. Barbara has written a very interesting book- "Living for the Church before Everything Else" where you can read the whole history of the Hardman family. Jenny looks after the archives and is concerned about temperature, humidity, light filters, etc. They also have a visual display of Catherine's letters.
Maire Ni Chearbhall gave a talk on the Role of Mercy in Education from the time when wealthy people asked Sisters to set up schools because the hedge schools were inadequate to the present time. She described the Workhouse schools and Technical education where crafts were promoted. The National Schools began in 1831 and these were followed by Secondary Tops where primary teachers prepared students for exams without any pay. The State funded National Schools in 1887 but Secondary Tops continued to the 1970's. Dr Ni Chearbhaill also addressed the role of Sisters of Mercy in workhouse schools, preparatory schools, rural domestic economy schools and teacher training colleges.
Marianne Cosgrave and Jenny Smith gave an account of foundations from Ireland to England and England to Ireland. Borris In Ossory and Rathangan were founded in 1873 from Alton which was unusual. Sisters needed to return to Ireland in 1875. Barbara talked of the move from Wexford to Gainsborough in Lincolnshire. Archives confirm the convent was in the old rectory.
Elsie Walsh rsm, assisted by Dora Lynch rsm, regaled us with stories of the Fishguard Sisters coming to Cahir which they thought was in the diocese of Cashel. A Sister from Tenby was going on a course so could someone from Cahir take her place? The novice mistress, Eucharia, had time so she went and that was the beginning of a long mission in Haverfordwest. Soon they had 60 names for a school that didn't exist but the foundation went on from strength to strength. Elsie, herself, spent many years there.
Claire Childs, Archivist from Our Lady of Mercy, GB thought the work of Sisters in World War 1 was overlooked so she wanted to make information available to all. She visited parishes, convents and nursing homes to see what she could find and discovered that the Sisters undertook chaplaincy work and the Irish soldiers were delighted to see them rendering such services as letter-writing and visitation of sick soldiers. Even the non-Catholics asked them for Sacred Heart badges. Many convents suffered in the air raids. After dark there could be no glimmer of light for fear of Zeppelins. Travel restrictions followed and the Sisters were unable to return to Ireland. They lost relatives and friends and children were often absent due to deaths of fathers. Sisters helped in feeding the poor and made playing fields available for allotments. Refugee nuns were given hospitality in convents. Two Mercy Sisters received an award from Belgium for providing exceptional nursing care to the soldiers. At 11 am on the 11/11/1918 the war ended and bells were heard ringing for the first time in four years.
Adele Hickey from the National College of Art and Design did her thesis on the Mercy habit! She said it was the most powerful iconic garment in dress history, designed to remove women's individuality. Though now viewed as a hindrance, some still feel the loss of identity.
Alan Carty was employed by Fingal County Council but took early retirement to return to his first love, the study of history. He is completing a thesis on the treatment of tuberculosis in Ireland from 1880's to 1970's. He said people were uncared for in tenements when TB was rife until the Sisters gave £13,600 towards Peamount, Ballyroan and Our Lady of Lourdes hospitals.
Noelle Dowling, Chair of the Association of Church Archivists in Ireland gave a humorous and fascinating talk on letters which are still extant from Catherine McAuley, Bishop Murray and Cardinal Cullen. We learn of the conflicts, discipline and rules of the time. There are requests for Sisters to go to the Crimea and Australia. There was a mention of High Mass being cancelled in the Mater because of cholera.
The story of the life and illuminated manuscripts of Sr. Mary Clare Augustine Moore were ably demonstrated by Mary Kay Dobrovolny rsm and Danielle Hicks Gallagher. Clare Moore was unparalleled in her artistic talent. It was interesting to hear that Catherine recognised her talent but got impatient with her slowness as she would paint only three leaves in a day! Catherine apologised later. Clare admired Catherine very much and never revealed the tension in their relationship. She loved when the Foundress sat down and watched her drawing. Her beautiful pictures were shown on screen during the talks. Danielle described the various techniques, parchment and vellum used. Clare had entered Baggot St. in 1837 and may have had tuition in art prior to that. She illuminated the life story of every Sister in a Register. It was breath-taking work and she was considered the finest illuminator in Europe.
Showing the importance of Oral Archives, Ann Marie McQuaid rsm played many recordings of snippets of interviews she did with Sisters as Oral Archivist. There were some from Sisters who lived during World War 11 when prisoners escaped through the convent and frightened a young novice. Years later one returned to see if she were still alive and spoke to her! These stories give great insight into the city of Belfast. We hold the stories that researchers love. They are a great source of information and will be intriguing in the future for those who know nothing of Mercy.
Dr. Carmen Mangion of London Uni. described the Anglo-Irish connection with Mercy in the 19th century. The Sisters were well known as the largest congregation in England, having gone from Baggot St,.Cork, Carlow, Limerick, Derry, Skibbereen, etc. They also went to the Crimea and Constantinople and we heard of famous names like Florence Nightengale, Sr. Georgiana Moore (Clare's sister) and Mother Frances Bridgeman.
Marianne Cosgrave, our leading archivist who organised this Conference with her team, brought us on an emotional journey through some annals in our congregation. She called annals "the storehouses of memory and places of culture". We owe a debt of gratitude to the chroniclers of their time. Many are anonymous but they live on. They tell us of events like the cholera in Dublin when Sr. Mary Ann Doyle moved on her knees from bed to bed. They describe ministry to the poor, sick, marginalised and prisoners. The annals gave voice to the Sisters' lived experience. They are records of the often bewildering changes in our lives and are a testimony to our endless search to find meaning. As the early Sisters did, we must leave something behind to testify that we have lived!
A great party and sing-song was held on the first night and we thank Patricia O'Donovan rsm for her wonderful playing on guitar and accordion and Jo Kennedy rsm who acted as MC.
The Conference was brilliantly facilitated by Dee McKenna rsm who showed such passion and enthusiasm for her work. Beware the person who tried to snooze......!!!
Thanks to all for a great three days.'
Messages to: Maureen O'Sullivan rsm - Southern Province, The Congregation
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Feedback from delegates
The highlights of the conference for me were relationships that were fostered during this conference. The papers that were delivered gave a very good insight on the day to day living of the sisters in their different places – how they struggled, suffered, sometimes misunderstood and yet they soldiered on and continued to make a difference in the lives of the people they were sent to. Archives became alive here in this conference and it helped me to see the importance of keeping annals so that the coming generations can learn about it.
- Constance Khuele rsm, South African Province, The Congregation
It was such a privilege to be present over the three days, that it seems impossible to highlight just one paper or aspect of the Conference, for every single topic held utter gems. That said, as a creative woman within Mercy, it was a delight to learn about just some of the lesser known artists, poets and composers. Along with that, to hear the experiences of everyday Sisters, through the annals and oral archives, who by their stories of life at different points in history, are in fact, extraordinary. I am so grateful to have touched into these lives that are the roots and branches of Mercy today.
-Danielle Hicks-Gallagher, Partner-in-Mercy, Northern Province, The Congregation
We have been able to get in touch with our roots through tireless commitment and dedication of our Mercy Sisters who were before us. Linkages have been established of the different foundations in the world with Baggot Street where it all began.
If the Mercy story is to continue to the future, we need to keep our annals to date for they are invaluable sources of information; lots of our elder sisters have a wealth of information and it should be harvested on time before it’s lost, and this calls for oral archives recording in our different provinces; so that when we are all gone, our stories will be told by others for they will be on record somewhere
- Jacinta Mwende rsm, Kenyan Province, The Congregation
Highlights of the conference for me.... Well, it could all have been written in red letters! Loved every minute and every presentation. It was good to be with like-minded folk all with the same interest.
Some of the best moments were hearing ‘our side’ of the story – Heritage Centre at Handsworth; patchwork quilt foundations and Mercy in World War I. They made me very proud, listening to those archivists who had done such a lot of research, much of which is dear to my own heart.
It was also very enlightening to listen to other aspects of the Mercy story, e.g. creative women, education in Ireland and the three research progress papers. These filled in a few gaps for me.
By the time the conference closed I was left feeling the lived experience of Sister Mary Frances Warde’s dictum—‘What a glorious thing it is to be a Sister of Mercy’.
Looking forward to the next conference!
- Mary Cecily Burke rsm, Union, Great Britain
Among the highlights for me were :
• The friendly atmosphere.
• The well presented papers. I particularly enjoyed, ‘An artist of much merit: Sr. Clare Augustine Moore and Her Illuminated Manuscripts.
• The joy of having the venue in Baggot St.
- Dora Lynch rsm, Southern Province, The Congregation
I really looked forward to this UK-Irish Conference and I was not disappointed. It was a really a historical moment meeting and interacting with our English counterparts. Presentations were excellent and we got to know the Mercy Congregation archivists and made many connections.
- Eithne Lowther rsm, USA Province, The Congregation