Our Trip Down Memory Lane this month brings us to St. Mary’s in Arklow, Co Wicklow. This article was first published in Mercy Live newspaper in June 2004. All Sisters mentioned in this article, including the author have all since gone to their heavenly reward. Sisters have retired from teaching in St. Mary’s College.
The Story of St. Mary’s, Arklow
Arklow grew from a small settlement made by the Vikings in the wide estuary of the Avoca River, a thousand years ago. From this settlement grew the small fishing town familiar to the first Sisters of Mercy who came there in 1876.
The first Sisters of Mercy came to Arklow to answer an appeal made by Cardinal Cullen, for help to nurse the cholera victims, when the epidemic broke out there in 1866. These Sisters came from Athy, two from the newly founded convent in Rathdrum and one, Sr. Margaret Macken, from Baggot Street. When the epidemic was over in 1867, the Sisters returned to their convents. The Parish Priest, Archdeacon Redmond, campaigned for their return to found a permanent convent in Arklow. Ten years later, in 1876, six Sisters came and the first convent was opened.
Three Sisters came from Rathdrum: Sr. M. Alphonsus Kelleher (Leader of the group), Sr. Margaret Mary Sherry and Sr. M. Columba McGlennon and three came from Athy: Sr. M. Agnes McDonald, Sr. M. Joseph Maguire and Sr. M. Regis Ryan.
The first Sisters lived in a small house beside the Parish Church, provided for them by Archdeacon Redmond, but on his death the new Prish Priest, Fr. James Dunphy, mobilised help to build them a convent, which was opened and blessed by Cardinal McCabe in 1881 and was dedicated to the Sacred Heart. Later additions were made in 1897 and a new chapel was added in 1930 – 1932.
St. Mary’s Convent, Arklow, Co Wicklow
The Works of Mercy
Helping the poor demanded the attention of the Sisters from the beginning, and they found scope for their charity among the families plunged into distress by the periodic ‘bad seasons’ at the fishing, then the only means of livelihood. About half of the five thousand or so persons in the town at that time, lived in thatched, mud-walled cabins. Many of them were poor all the time, particularly when the fishing was bad. Herring fishing failed just then and most of the families of the fishermen who manned the fishing boats faced destitution. The Sisters did what they could to help the hungry. Fishing was precarious, subject to weather conditions and accidents that often left children orphaned and wives widowed. The Sisters did their best to console and support the mothers to be self-supporting, by teaching them cookery, needlework and knitting.
Sr. M. Bernard McDonnell took care of the poor for many years. She knew everyone in need and would see to it that each got suitable and adequate help, as far as possible. ‘Miss Mary Bernard’ was everyone’s friend.
The care of the sick was a ministry dear to the heart of the Sisters. They kept a register of the sick which is still in our archives. In the first year, the Sisters visited eighty five patients regularly and gave instruction to seventeen of them who needed it. Since that time the Sisters have continued to visit the sick and dying and to comfort the bereaved.
Work in the Schools
The Sisters did not come to Arklow to run schools, but they knew that running a school was the most practical way of providing a good, sound religious education for the girls. Besides, Archdeacon Redmond and Fr. Dunphy who succeeded him were anxious to get the Sisters into the schools. They first opened a Junior Boys’ Private School in a stable loft behind the house, and gradually girls were admitted. The numbers in the school were relatively small, but the school grew into The Angel Guardians’ School, which lasted until 1955. It had a gentle, encouraging character with much stress on good manners and good conduct, and with particular emphasis on Christian Doctrine. Almost three years after their arrival in Arklow, the Sisters went to teach at Flash and were given charge of it in 1880. Later, a new National School, St. Michael’s National School, was built close to the convent. The Infant School opened in 1889 and ninety four little girls were the first of the vast throng of Arklow children who have since passed through St. Michael’s. The rest of the school was built by 1892 to accommodate five hundred girls. Rev. Mother Ursula Lynam was the Manager. The National Board of Education gave a grant of £1000 to finance the building of the school and the parish contributed £1509. Four times since, further extensions were made, in 1918, 1951, 1968 and 1977 to meet the increasing number of pupils. From its foundation, St. Michael’s educated practically all the girls of Arklow, giving them a good grounding in their lessons and a deep grasp of the faith.
From 1921, the Sisters also taught in St. Joseph’s National School, the Rock where great apostolic work was done.
The need to provide further education for girls led the Sisters to open a Secondary School, St. Mary’s Intermediate School, in 1882 in the new convent. The classes were taught in a room on the ground floor. Mother M. Joseph McGuire was in charge. She had worked with success in the Secondary School in Athy and proceeded to put her talents and organising ability at the service of the Arklow girls. The school came under the Intermediate Board of Education in 1885. Though the number of pupils was small, it was very successful. The numbers grew when a small boarding school was opened by Sr. M. Regis Butler. She was ambitious for the school, and prompted by her, Castle Park and other small plots of land were bought, which were used for the extension of the Primary and Secondary schools. In 1911, a temporary building was erected and in 1926 – 1927, the present school was built and was still further extended twenty years later.
In the 1950’s, a new day Secondary School and Commercial College. Our Lady of Good Counsel, was opened to provide secondary education for those who might otherwise be deprived of it. The school has since been amalgamated with St. Mary’s College. Now only two Sisters teach in the college, but the work is ably carried on by dedicated lay teachers.
Magdelena Frisbey rsm (RIP)
South Central Province