Homily of Bishop John Kirby at the Golden Jubilee of Mercy College, Woodford
It all began with Catherine McAuley, the nun who was on our £5 note before the change in currency a few years ago. She was a Dublin woman who came into money in her middle years and decided to address some of the issues facing women and children in the early 1800’s. She was appalled at the levels of poverty, illness and ignorance among many of her fellow citizens of Dublin. In 1831, she founded a community of women to address some of these issues and that community became the Sisters of Mercy. The magnificent impact of the sisters on the life of people in Ireland has not yet been fully evaluated. They played a major part in the development of Ireland from a poor, ignorant, disease-ridden society to a modern, well-educated, progressive country.
Initially, the nuns operated the local primary school and have continued an involvement in that school since then. However, in the 1950’s they began to encourage some pupils to stay in school longer and secondary education in some of the basic subjects was offered to these. Initially there was just one class of 29 girls in the kitchen of the primary school. There was no school transport system at that time and the nuns under the direction of the principal, Sr Augustine, offered hot cocoa to the pupils coming miles on foot or on their bicycles. The school fees were minimal and the main costs were born by the nuns ploughing their salaries back into the school with some support from the convent’s central funds in Loughrea.
In 1959 the nuns formally established a new secondary school, Mercy College. It was no longer an add-on to the primary school, but a completely separate institution. All of this was years before the advent of school transport or free secondary education and indeed was part of the process that led people to look for and expect full secondary education. The first principal of the new school was Sr Rosarii Burke.
Very quickly new accommodation was needed as the secondary school venture gained support. Under the leadership of Sr Berchmans Whyte a new school was built with facilities for both girls and boys. Initially boys were only taken until the Intermediate Certificate but this changed in the early 1960’s and the college continued to thrive. By 1967 the demand for classroom space was such that the nuns had to make rooms in the convent available. There was always a great foresight in the school management and new educational developments were constantly added. As the school continued to grow, there was need for a totally new building and this was completed in the late 1980’s. The Mercy Sisters provided the site and the Department of Education supplied 90% of the building costs while the Mercy Sisters contributed 50% of the remainder. Community support and fundraising raised the other 50% of the local contribution. Thus, what started in the primary school kitchen in 1959 is now a thriving secondary school. As an African proverb has it “From one small seed a whole forest can grow”.
Over the years, the role of principal changed from the nuns to lay teachers and Frances Holohan, Mary Killeen and currently Loretta Canning continue to promote the ethos of the Mercy Sisters in Woodford. However, the debt of the Woodford community to the Mercy Sisters is huge. There was continued support in terms of personnel, resources, land and finance for the development of this school. I am happy that you have chosen to honour this Golden Jubilee recognising the commitment of the Mercy Sisters in an appropriate fashion.
Indeed the debt of the Clonfert Diocese to the sisters is also enormous. I am delighted to acknowledge a wonderful amount of good work in Clonfert. Primary and secondary schools in Loughrea, Ballinasloe, Portumna, Woodford and Eyrecourt are but a small testimony to their commitment to the charism of Catherine McAuley. The sisters also cared for the sick and elderly in St Brendan Hospital, formerly known as the County Home and for children in the industrial schools in Ballinasloe and Loughrea.
Mistakes were made in all of these institutions, but nonetheless I wasn’t to acknowledge the good work done by the sisters since their arrival in Clonfert in 1851. The industrial schools were a product of their time and while there were mistakes, the basic thrust was the care of the young children who were not looked after by the wider society. I do not wish to deny the validity of recent criticisms, but I do believe that these have to be put in context and that the aim of the Mercy community has always been that of care, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”
Many of the needs identified in the past are now being met by the state or by other agencies. Jobs in education and nursing formerly done voluntarily by the sisters are now part of the overall budget for a good quality service. There are fewer sisters in the roles that we associated with them for many years. As well as that, changes in dress have meant that sisters have not got the same high level of visibility as they had in the past when the distinctive black and white habits were a familiar part of the visual landscape.
For women who desire a challenge in their lives, there is a great adventure in the following of Christ and in the living of the life of the gospel. It will be very different from the Mercy life of the past, but it will certainly be challenging for the future. Thus, there are sisters involved in prison chaplaincy, in counselling and in the care of AIDS sufferers and their families. No, they have not gone away, and they will not go away as long as the call of the gospel is as clear as it is now. We give thanks for 50 years of dedication and commitment here in Woodford and we look forward to another 50 years in which this small rural school will continue to be a great force for Christian education and social advancement. It will be itself a great tribute to the vision of the mercy community to the development of education in Woodford.
Notes to editors
- This homily was delivered by Bishop John Kirby on Saturday 26 September 2009.
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