The Sisters of Mercy of Clonfert
1851 – 2002
As the people of Loughrea were slowly recovering from the ravages of the Famine of 1847, a group of Mercy Sisters, led by Mother Vincent Whitty, arrived from Baggot Street on 23 October 1851 – the venture by the Tullamore Sisters a year earlier having failed because of death and ill health. The Sisters had come at the invitation of Bishop Derry, because a Mrs Whyte of Loughrea had a left a legacy of £1000 to make a foundation of the Order in the town.
The Sisters immediately set to work, visiting the poor, sick and leprous in their smoky hovels. They also visited the hospitals which at that time, were crowded with poor sufferers as a result of the Famine, eventually taking charge of St. Patrick’s Hospital in 1884, now known as St. Brendan’s Hospital where they still minister. A school was opened allowing the Carmelite Sisters to return to their cloister, thus leaving the Sisters of Mercy to look after the educational needs of the town.
At the dying request of a young Sister, an orphanage was opened in 1862 followed by an Industrial School in 1864. The Sisters supported the orphans out of their own resources, supplemented by an Annual Bazaar and Raffle as well as private donations from friends and benefactors.
In 1854 a foundation was made in Ballinasloe. The Sisters there ministered to the poor and needy as well as giving instructions in the Workhouse in spite of much opposition from the Protestant community. They took up permanent residence in the hospital in 1872. A Reformatory was opened in 1864 which eventually in 1884 became an Industrial School continuing to 1967, when both it and the Loughrea Industrial School were closed.
In 1917 a Secondary School was opened in Loughrea replacing the Private School of the early days. It was followed in 1918 by Ballinasloe, and both schools are reputed for their excellent achievements over the years. In 1973 Loughrea Secondary School was joined by the De La Salle Brothers’ students and staff, thus becoming co-educational. Ballinasloe Secondary School, after many years waiting, will move to new premises early in 2003, on a site belonging to Garbally College.
Spreading their wings once more in 1882, a foundation was made in Portumna, where the Sisters taught in stable buildings adapted for use until a new Primary School was built. They visited the Workhouse daily before moving there permanently in 1886. A Technical School was also built by the Sisters and opened in 1898 with accommodation for 20 students. Maria Regina Secondary School was opened in 1957 and has since amalgamated with the other local schools and is now known as Portumna College.
The embedded Celtic lettering headstone – Clonfert Cathedral
New foundations in Woodford in 1900 and Eyrecourt in 1902 saw the traditional works of visitation and education being carried on once again by the Sisters, with co-education in more recent years in Woodford, lasting right up to the present day.
However, the Sisters didn’t confine themselves to Clonfert, as 1959 saw a foundation in Napa, California, followed in 1962 by another in San Francisco. The latter has been closed in recent years, much to the regret of the local community who greatly appreciated the Catholic education their children received from the Sisters.
1987 saw Clonfert reach out again. This time it was South Africa that was calling, so having initially settled in Piet Retief, the Sisters moved to Bethal near Johannesburg in 1995, close to Secunda where the Sisters had made a second foundation in 1990. The aim of the Sisters was to do all they could to help in the fight against Apartheid. With the union of the Clonfert houses and the South African Province in 2001, Secunda was closed. Again, the people of the black townships in particular, found it difficult to part with the Sisters they had come to know and love.
Becoming part of the Western Province has enriched Clonfert – the smallest diocese in Ireland. Loughrea, the former motherhouse of Clonfert, was one of three houses in the Western Province to be founded directly from Baggot Street. It was here that Catherine McAuley spent a night with the Carmelite Sisters on her way to Galway and actually wrote a poem about it. Faithful to the call of mercy, the Sisters still engage in the traditional works of visitation, education, work with youth and those on the margins of society. Though in keeping with the general trend among religious, the Sisters are growing old gracefully, they continue to be open to the workings of the Spirit among them.
Ogham (left) and Runic (right) = Hold Fast