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Go Teach All Nations

24 June 2010


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“Go, teach all nations…” 

Sr. Annunciata Desmond was born in Donoughmore, Co. Cork on 12th August 1924 to Patrick and Hanna (nee Kiely). She was third of five girls, the first two being twins. She attended the local National School and, for secondary, went as a boarder to Presentation Convent, Thurles. 

During her Primary years she felt the call to join some Sisters from her area who had entered in England because she admired their habit and angelic faces! Her father, being a sensible man, said she would go nowhere till she finished secondary school. In the meantime, one of her neighbours, who was teaching in a commercial school in Cork, surprised everybody by joining the community of St. Maries of the Isle in September 1943. The Desmond family visited occasionally and the little girl thought this could be the place for her.

Sister of Mercy

                                         Sr. Annunciata Desmond

She found boarding school quite difficult with all the regimentation and no privacy. Rules were strict, letters were opened, etc. but she weathered the storm and in Leaving Cert. year, 1942, decided to enter. She was flabbergasted when her sister, (now Sr Mercedes whose story was told to us so beautifully by Ella) was entering there. Having survived the shock she decided to wait a while. She was invited to the Presentation congregation but, after her years in boarding school, she decided it was not for her. Her former primary school teacher advised her to become a Junior Assistant Mistress and she spent a month in Ballycotton and later worked for a longer time in Bantry.

She enjoyed every minute of this and stayed in Rooska with a Protestant lady. She was the only young female adult around so she got great attention from the boys who brought her to dances, dramas, etc! But Annunciata wasn’t fazed by this and still stayed with her decision to enter. She found the Novitiate easier than her sojourn in boarding school and enjoyed it though everything was scarce during the war years. She taught in the secondary ‘Top’ and infant classes each day and in 1948 began two happy years in Carysfort.

The Call to the Philippines
After training she was assigned to the secondary Top for four years. In 1954 a Filipino bishop visited St. Maries requesting Sisters to teach in a school in Tacloban, formerly run by Benedictine Sisters who had to withdraw due to lack of personnel. A novena to Our Lady of Lourdes resulted in this decision on February 11th. Six Mercy Sisters were chosen to go to the Philippines – Srs Joseph Mary, Canisius, Gertrude, Assumpta, Emmanuel and Annunciata. On 12th August 1954 (her 30th birthday) they set off for Dublin on the train. She remembers staying in Henrietta St. and visiting Catherine McAuley’s grave. Next day they left Dun Laoghaire by boat, reached Waterloo and from there by train to Southampton. With no dining carriage they were starving!

In Southampton they boarded a German ship, the Hamburg with about 70 passengers and cargo. Six Redemptorist priests joined them. They docked in several ports and had a great opportunity to visit places they had only read about. In Genoa they visited the home of Christopher Columbus. Next was Port Said where some left the ship to visit the Pyramids. They then went through the Suez Canal, sailing on the Red Sea. They docked at Aden where they were met by a former teacher from South Presentation convent. This lady was a friend of Sr. Assumpta and she brought them to her home and treated them to cool drinks which were appreciated after the walk in the dead heat. They emerged from the Red Sea out to the Indian Ocean. They were now wearing white habits. A storm arose and waves crashed over the boat nearly drowning them. Annunciata had to get into her black habit and was called the “black sheep” of the bunch by Sir Andrew McFadden who was the Scottish Ambassador to Japan! They had cargo for Colombo (Sri Lanka) so they had a chance of visiting the city. Some snobbish ladies disembarked at Singapore after their holiday in England. Others joined the ship as they did at each port.

The Sisters shopped in Hong Kong for white sandals which they got with “deanta in Eirinn” written on them! They visited Jesuit and Redemptorist houses and schools in both Singapore and Hong Kong. They reached Manila on 12th September after a month on the ship. They stayed with the good Shepherd Sisters while getting their papers in order and were treated royally by them. This ended the best holiday in Annunciata’s life!

The next journey was to the quay where the boat from Tacloban was ready to sail. It was different from The Hamburg with many more people and more cargo. A great welcome awaited them in Tacloban from Mayor, priests and people and the school choirs. The convent was part of the school, Holy Infant Academy, where she taught for two years. They started visitation and in 1956 the first two Filipino postulants went to Ireland to be trained and many more followed afterwards. Thus the seed of Mercy was sown. In the same year they took over the school in Tanaun, a barrio about half an hour’s journey from the city. Annunciata and Sr. Philip, who had come in the meantime, were assigned there. It was a 3-stream co-ed school. The Monsignor there was anxious that there should be a boys’ Praesidium of the Legion of Mary in the school so Annunciata started it off. They were tough years, leaving each morning at 6.30a.m and returning at 5.45 p.m to be on time for Spiritual Reading read aloud by the Superior!

It was quite hot and difficult to preserve food. Annunciata remembers being given a bar of chocolate which was like gold and which she kept for next day. It tasted different from the usual chocolate and she soon realized that she was chewing maggots! Snakes were daily visitors and the rats seemed very much at home. They even came out when the Sisters were dining. But Annunciata was more afraid of the alleged ghost of a murdered priest who was supposed to haunt the corridors of the old seminary where they stayed some nights.

In 1959 Annunciata and Canisius left for Ireland. They flew over the Himalayas and touched down in Vietnam, Calcutta and Lebanon. They visited Rome and had the great privilege of meeting Mgr Hugh O’Flaherty (the Pimpernel of the Vatican W.W.11) who said he had taken the day off from the Vatican to show them around.. He asked where they wanted to go and all they wished for was a bed – they were so exhausted! However, he got tickets for them for a canonization in St. Peter’s the following day so they saw Pope John XX111 in person.

God continues to call
Back in Eire, after resting for some time, Annunciata was once again requested to teach in the Secondary Top. This was challenging as some subjects were taught through the medium of Irish and the national language had been put very far back in her memory and it was rather rusty. However, she persevered for twelve years until the Secondary Top amalgamated with St. Als in 1971 and she was free. In 1972 a secondary school was started in Eldama Ravine, Kenya, and the Sisters there invited her to assist. In the interim she taught 1st class girls in St. Maries. Then she set off for Kenya.

Eldama Ravine was a rural, pastoral area of Kenya and most of the people had been converted by the Southern Baptists who had no love for “papists.” They did their best to prevent the Sisters from treating the people telling them that the “papists” would poison them! However, with time, the Tugans (native tribe) saw the value of the Sisters for themselves. In the first class in secondary school four out of forty children were Catholic but, later this increased. Over the years there were about 20 vocations to different religious congregations with a few to Mercy.

Sisters of Mercy

Sr. Annunciata Desmond (front right) with Srs. Yvonne Channels, Selina Mbuli and Margaret Twomey in Kenya

Annunciata found those first years very tough – trying to build up a boarding school with facilities for Home Science, typing and library work. It was no joke. Sr. Juliana taught typing, Office Practice and Accounts so that many girls got jobs when they finished school. Later they saved money to build labs. The Sisters ran prayer groups, bible study, attended weddings and funerals and occasionally buried the dead, often without coffins and sometimes had to fill in the graves with their bare hands if the men ran away! These people feared the dead. The Sisters lived in the hospital compound for some years until members of a German organization, MISERIOR, who had helped to build the hospital, visited and allotted money for a new convent to be built elsewhere.

In 1992 the school was handed over to lay women and Annunciata was requested to teach in a desert school for a year. This was run by the English Sisters of Mercy. During that year a Camboni (Spanish) priest was desperately looking for Sisters for his mission in Lokori where people were dying from simple ailments due to lack of facilities. He approached the Bishop and contacted St. Maries of the Isle and they granted his request. In January 1993 Sr. Margaret Twomey (working at that time in the MMM’s hospital in Kakuma) and Annunciata went to Lokori. After a year they were joined by Sr. Louise Roche. A Primary Health Care unit was set up so they travelled miles into the desert to outreach stations that were set up by the priests. During the same period the headmistress of a nearby primary school asked Annunciata to teach English and Christian Doctrine. She spent the morning in school and the evenings with adults teaching them their ABC, how to use the sewing machines, to knit, crochet and do bead work making necklaces, bracelets, rings and rosary beads. These were sold and each woman got her share of the income.

At the end of 1996, (they now belonged to the Vice Province) Annunciata was asked to leave the desert and go to Njoro. During that time also she went to Nairobi and helped Sr. Bernadette Meehan who was setting up the Vice Provincial accounts. When the Sister-in-charge of the clinic in Njoro went to Ireland for a course, Annunciata became overseer of the clinic! In December 1999 it was handed over to the St. Joseph of Tarbes Sisters so she returned to the desert to the same school and became librarian, helping with English classes, etc. She did her best to help people to help themselves by starting a goat project. About 50 families, benefitted, each getting six goats. The money for goats came from family, friends and past pupils. It was rather frustrating at times but some did well and built up their herd. In 2008 the idea of mobile phones was in the air as many teachers, police and NGO personnel had phones but no network and no communication. Annunciata approached two companies in Nairobi with the list of all those who required them. There were many follow-ups and promises but not until the new Prime Minister visited in 2009 did they move. Now they are on the air!

Home Sweet Home!
That same year the Provincial Leader requested Annunciata to go as leader, pro tem, to Miguta where the pre-postulants resided. Later she went to Nairobi and helped Sr. Louise (Provincial Bursar) with the accounts. Finally, in July 2009 she came back to St. Maries on a holiday, hoping to do another year in Kenya before reaching 86,but, unfortunately the state of her health is preventing her from going back. Annunciata, what a wonderful legacy you have left us, Mercy Sisters. You are an inspiration to us all. Go raibh mile maith agat agus go maire tu cead! (Thank you and may you live to be a hundred!)

Maureen O’Sullivan RSM


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