The Sisters of Mercy came to the ancient and monastic town of Abbeyfeale, County Limerick on 23rd September 1871. Dr. George Butler, Bishop of Limerick, had wished to bring them there for a long time. Because the convent in Limerick city was unable to start a foundation he applied to his friend, Dr. David Moriarty, Bishop of Kerry. They both consulted with Mother M. de Sales Cotter, Superior in Holy Cross Convent, Killarney, Co Kerry and she communicated with Mother M. Elizabeth O’Riordan of St. John’s Convent, Tralee, Co Kerry, and so the foundation began with Sr. M. Evangelist Lombard and Sr. M. Dominic of Holy Cross and Sr. M. Brendan O’Connell of St. John’s.
The priests and townspeople were exceptionally generous and caring to the sisters giving provisions and land. Two families were particularly remarkable. The family of Mr Joseph O’Sullivan who ran a drapery business donated a two storey dwelling house as the first convent; later it became St. Joseph’s Secondary School. Land was donated by David Leahy and further land was purchased from his daughter Lizzie. In 1878 Abbeyfeale convent’s ties with Killarney were changed; the foundation coming under the jurisdiction of the bishop of Limerick, and in that same year, too, a new convent and public chapel were built.
In 1871 when the Sisters came, Fr. Michael Coughlan was Parish Priest, 1856 – 1883, and Fr. William Casey was Curate, later he became Parish Priest until his death in 1907. The priests worked indefatigably for a better life for the people of the parish and the Sisters were also keenly involved in the issues of the times. Through the efforts of Fr. Casey one of the earliest branches of the Land League was set up in Abbeyfeale in 1879 and he led a highly effective campaign against tyrant landlords who owned most of Abbeyfeale, slowly breaking their stronghold. The Sisters were also concerned with the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association and the Gaelic League taking courses to learn Irish and teaching it in the schools. In 1883, the year Fr. Casey became Parish Priest, there was a severe outbreak of fever which claimed many lives including several of the Sisters.
From the moment of their arrival the Sisters were involved in education. The National School run by the Babington sisters was placed under their care; the number of pupils quickly rising from 83 to 250. A new school opened in 1875, this was replaced in 1938, with extensions in the 1980s. Students were first prepared for Leaving Certificate in 1943 and St. Joseph’s Secondary School was officially recognized by the Department of Education in 1947 with a new school, Scoil Iosaf Naofa, opening in 1970. A school amalgamating the three second level schools of the town opened in September 2011.
In 2003 when the six remaining Sisters moved to a residence in Mountmahon and vacated the convent it was described as ‘a powerhouse of prayer, commitment, self-sacrificing love providing education in its best and truest form.’