The now blackened-with-age stone cross on the Old Ground side of the Cathedral in Ennis is of great significance for both the Parish and the Sisters of Mercy. The Cross commemorates the Parish Mission of November 1853 preached by Jesuits and bears the names of the Bishop of Killaloe, the priests of Ennis Parish and those of four Jesuit priests. At the end of the mission there was a special meeting of parishioners at which the Bishop presided. A momentous decision was taken at that meeting: to invite the Irish Christian Brothers to return to the town and to invite the Mercy Sisters in Limerick to open a Convent in Ennis for the purpose of providing Catholic education for the children of ‘this and adjoining parishes’.
By the following May four Sisters from Limerick had taken up residence in Arthur’s Row and teaching had begun with over 400 pupils. By 1860 a secondary boarding-cum-day school was opened. Over the next decades Convent and schools expanded, an orphanage, a knitting enterprise, a bakery, a centre for the making of Altar Breads for the Diocese of Killaloe and a small commercial laundry were established – all on the original campus off O’Connell Square, but now stretching back to Clonroad through the purchase of land from Edward Gore in 1881. By 1941 the secondary school, now Coláiste Muire, had moved across town to College Road, leaving more space for the growing primary schools; by 1965 the primary schools, too, were on the move to new buildings on Station Road. Visitation of families in their homes and of the sick in hospitals was a central Mercy ministry from the start – in the time of the founder, Catherine McAuley, the Sisters became known as the ‘walking nuns’!
Requests to the Ennis Mercy Community for mission foundations were responded to generously. Between 1872 and 1878 a total of forty five Sisters went from Ennis on missions overseas. They went to Meriden and Middletown in Connecticut, USA; to Christchurch, New Zealand and to Singleton, Australia. These Sisters put down roots in their new homes from which, in due course, other convents were founded; they did not return to Ireland. Nearer home, they went in 1878 to Ennistymon, in 1885 to the Ennis Workhouse, as St. Joseph’s Hospital was then known; in 1899 to St. Cronan’s Workhouse, Roscrea; in 1902 to St. Patrick’s Workhouse, Corofin. Sisters also responded to invitations to go to Killaloe in 1889; Spanish Point in 1929; Lemoore, California in 1959; Arroyo Grande, California in 1963; to Corofin in 1981 (to 2003); to Nuu, Kenya in 1980 and to Nguutani, Kenya in 1990. Sr. Clare O’Neill ministered in healthcare in Iceland for seven years, 1976 to 1983.The Ennis Sisters of Mercy were originally an autonomous Mercy group but through processes of renewal, reconfiguring and re-organisation since 1970, they are now part of the worldwide Mercy International Association – the global Mercy family. Its headquarters are in Baggot St., Dublin, in the first Mercy Convent, opened by Catherine McAuley on the feast of Our Lady of Mercy, 24th September 1827. There are approximately 2,000 Sisters in the Irish congregation today.
In the 161 years since the Sisters arrived from Limerick more than 350 women have followed the example of the Founder of the Sisters of Mercy, The Venerable Catherine McAuley of Dublin, and become Sisters of Mercy in Ennis; they dedicated their lives to prayer and to the compassionate service of others as an expression of Christ’s own service to those in need. One cannot but marvel at the resource that Ennis Parish, through the Sisters of Mercy, has been to education, health care, social work, missionary and other services to people. Dean Kenny and Bishop Vaughan and all who attended that 1853 Parish Mission meeting, could never have imagined its far reaching outcomes. What an example of leadership and of being proactive in meeting the needs of the time!
The needs are different to-day. The once vibrant band of young Sisters is facing diminishment: ageing, declining numbers, dwindling resources, in a rapidly changing society. Others are now well equipped to provide the services that they once pioneered. They are, however, full of hope and continue to pray for the needs of those around them, for the needs of the global community and for the Church, trusting in God’s Divine Providence. They rejoice in the words of Pope Francis in his letter last year to all consecrated people setting out the aims of the Year of Consecrated Life: ‘to look on the past with gratitude … to live the present with passion and … to embrace the future with hope’. The Mercy Sisters who are Ennis parishioners can truly look back ‘with gratitude’ as they thank God for that original invitation in 1853, for the gift of their own vocations and for the unfailing love and support they experience from the local communities in which they live; each in her own way tries to live the present ‘with passion’; and with confidence they ‘embrace the future with hope’. A constant reminder of our roots in the parish is the presence in the Cathedral of five panels of the ’Corporal Works of Mercy’ stained-glass window, installed in 2004 to mark the 150th anniversary of the coming of the Sisters to Ennis. The window was a gift of the then Parish Priest, Dean Kenny, in 1869, to the original St. Xavier’s chapel (now the Riches of Clare Museum). It was transferred to the ‘new’ chapel dedicated in 1895; two panels were incorporated into the present Convent on Bóthar na Trócaire, when we moved there in 1994 and one panel into the entrance at Coláiste Muire in 2004.
One special year closed and another exciting one, with special resonance for us as Sisters of Mercy, has already begun. On 8th December 2015, Pope Francis opened the Holy Door of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome to mark the official start of The Jubilee Year of Mercy. Incorporated into the midday Mass in the Cathedral of Sts. Peter & Paul here in Ennis, on December 13th, was the opening of our own Killaloe Holy Door. It leads to a beautifully appointed, welcoming ‘sacred space’ which will help to keep us focused on the purpose of this Jubilee Year. The Year of Mercy is a reminder to each of us to be aware of the infinite love and mercy of God towards us; a reminder to show mercy and compassion towards others; to focus on forgiveness, reconciliation and providing practical help to people who are in need or suffering hardship. The hallmark of Sisters of Mercy has always been ‘practicality’ – providing education, health care, social work – sometimes perhaps with not as much evident compassion as we would now wish. In to-day’s changed circumstances we continue to be practical through advocacy, prison visitation, a myriad of small ‘good turns’ for others that go unnoticed and the supporting of colleagues and co-workers in mercy ministry in 44 countries across the globe, and through continuous intercession in prayer.
Let us unite with Pope Francis who has described the Holy Door as a ‘Door of Mercy, through which anyone who enters will experience the love of God who consoles, pardons and instils hope’
Five panels from the former St. Xavier’s Convent Stained Glass Corporal Works of Mercy Window now in the Parish Church.
Canice Hanrahan rsm
South Central Province