In the account which Rev. Father Porte O.M.I. wrote to Bishop A. Gaughren of his visit to Bechuanaland in 1894 urges the necessity of a Convent School for girls at Mafikeng. He says many, non-Catholics as well as Catholics, were not only willing but desirous to have such a school for their children, and would give it their whole-hearted support. Mafikeng was a small military and trading station to which the railway from Cape Town was completed in 1894. The Bishop had a Church built there in 1896 and set about looking for Sisters for the project. He approached the Holy Family Sisters in Kimberley for help. They were not able to give Sisters, as they had made many foundations in the previous decade, but the Superior, Mother Xavier Garland, suggested the Convent of Mercy in Strabane, where she had been to school.
When Bishop Gaughren visited Ireland in 1897, one of his first visits was to the Bishop of Derry, and then to Strabane Convent after the Bishop's sanction was obtained.
He pleaded his cause so eloquently that many volunteers came forward. Five were chosen: Mother Teresa Cowley (former Superior of Strabane, who was to be the Superior of the group), Mother Magdalen Dunne (Bursar, in Strabane), Mother Stanislaus Gallagher (Novice Mistress in Strabane), Sr. M. Evangelist McGlynn (the Community Nurse), and Sr M. Gonzaga McDonagh, the youngest of the group, who was a gifted linguist and musician. The young superioress of Strabane, Mother M. Joseph, is recorded as reproaching the Bishop, with the words, "My Lord, you are taking the best of the Community". His Lordship, with disarming amiability declared he wanted only the best, and spoke so convincingly of the work to be done in some neglected part of his large Vicariate that all opposition was overcome. As he was leaving, his Lordship, standing on one of the terraces allowed his gaze to rest on the valley whose cornfields, orchards and meadows were then beautiful with the promise of a rich harvest. (It was July 1897).
The contrast between this scene and that of the desert-like spaces of Bechuanaland must have been vividly before him; but when someone asked if the scenery of South Africa compared with that spread out before their eyes he answered promptly, in what has become a time-honoured phrase "More extensive, but not varied!". It must have brought many a wry smile to the first arrivals.
The Bishop would not be able to return to South Africa for several months, perhaps a year. (Besides Ireland, he was going to Europe and to the USA). It was decided that the Sisters should leave as soon as possible though work would not be begun in Mafikeng until the beginning of 1898.
The approaching departure of the Sisters to a country very little known at the time was freely discussed by the pupils and three girls from the Boarding School, each without the knowledge of the others, applied to the Mother Superior for leave to go home to consult her parents about accompanying the Sisters to South Africa.
Though all the relatives at first opposed the idea, because of the distance and unknown country, all eventually came round and gave their blessing. The three Postulants were Margaret Coffey (Mother Magdalen's niece), (later Mother M. Joseph); Helen Byrne (later Mother M. Patricia, Novice Mistress), and Brigid McGlinchey (Mother Evangelist's niece), (later Mother M. Columba). There was a fourth girl, who was to be a lay Sister - Sarah. She did not stay very long and returned to Ireland. The parents of these girls gave generous gifts towards the expenses of the new mission. A crowded six weeks followed, outfits had to be made, farewell visits to be paid. Finally came the day of parting.
The Sisters travelled via Dublin, Holyhead to London. Here, they were the guests of the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, Hamerton Convent. The Superioress, Mother Angelina, was a past pupil of Strabane Convent. Sr M. Laurence of the same community was a cousin of Mother Teresa. A record kept by one of the travellers says that the hospitality and friendliness of these Sisters was beyond belief. A number of Sisters were sent to take the travellers round London and show them places of interest. On the morning of their departure, the 24th September 1897 - feast of Our Lady of Mercy - they had Mass at 6h30, followed by Benediction, and the hymn "Mother of Mercy" sung specially for those leaving. They sailed on the "Arundel Castle". The Captain was a Cork man who was very friendly to them and on board they met a South African priest, Fr. Quirke, returning after a holiday. He was of Irish descent, but born in South Africa. He proved a most entertaining travelling companion and gave much information about the country to which the Sisters were going.
The voyage was pleasant but uneventful. The Captain and officers were most courteous, and the health of the party excellent - with one exception. Sr M. Gonzaga, who had been in poor health before the voyage, contrary to expectations, did not improve. In fact, he was worse on October 17, when the "Arundel Castle" arrived in Cape Town. It was Sunday morning. Rev. Fr. McCarthy, D.D. came to meet the Sisters on board, and took them to the cathedral for Mass at 11.00a.m. Dr Kolbe was the preacher. Afterwards they enjoyed the hospitality of the Dominican Sisters at St. Mary's Convent, Bouquet Street.
The following evening they began the journey to Kimberley. In Kimberley they reached the end of their travels for the time being. Fr. Lenoir, O.M.I. and Rev Brother Mullen, Superior of the Christian Brothers, met them. They were taken to the Holy Family convent in Currey Street, and Rev Mother Xavier and her Community welcomed them with the most affectionate kindness. It would be impossible to give an idea of the pains the Holy Family Sisters took and what inconvenience they put up with for the sake of their guests during the weeks the Sisters of Mercy spent at the Convent waiting for a suitable house near the Church. The Sisters said that the hospitality of the Holy Family Sisters towards them should never be forgotten by those who came after them.
Sr. M. Gonzaga's health grew steadily worse and then it was proposed that the Sisters should go to Taungs where they would find ample accommodation, Mother Xavier and her Sisters pleaded so eloquently to be allowed to keep them a little longer for the sake of the sick Sister that they remained. A house was rented in Currey Street, and here, in spite of the most devoted attention of Dr Ashe, and all his medical skill, given unstintingly and without remuneration - he resolutely refused all payment - Sr M. Gonzaga died on 2nd January 1898.
People showed great sympathy to the Sisters in this sorrow. Sr M. Gonzaga was buried in the Nazareth House plot in Kenilworth cemetery, Kimberley.
Fr. Ogle was the Parish Priest in Mafikeng. The Sisters went to visit Mafikeng, and with him, they secured a site for the new Convent. On 15th February, 1898, the Sisters arrived in Mafikeng. Rev Fr. Ogle had travelled down the line and escorted them to St. Anthony's Church, where he celebrated Mass. They were the guests of Mr. and Mrs. Hampson for breakfast, and then went to look at the proposed site. Though it looked unpromising, it turned out very suitable. However, the Convent was not begun until some months later.
Meanwhile the Sisters lived in a rented house and another house was secured for a school. About 40 pupils attended, - as many as their limited accommodation would allow. Not many of these pupils were Catholics, and those who were, were very ignorant of their religion.
On June 24th, 1898, the postulants received the habit of the Sisters of Mercy and took the names of Sr. M. Joseph, Sr. M. Patricia and Sr. M. Columba. "Rev. Fr. Ogle performed the ceremony at St. Anthony's Church, which could not contain all those who came, out of devotion or curiosity. In an eloquent sermon Rev. Fr. Ogle explained the duties of the religious life. The music was supplied by Mr. and Mrs. Hampson and Miss Hampson and Mr. Pat Carroll".
His Lordship approved of the site selected for the Convent. (It was given by the municipality, free, except for £50 transfer fees). Rev Fr. Ogle set to work to clear it. In the warm sun he toiled, chopping trees, rooting out stumps, raising and levelling ground, working with the natives as well as directing them. Fr. Lenoir drew the plans of the Convent, and the contract for the building was given to Messrs Grant and Pennycook of Mafikeng.
Work was begun in November 1898, and on June 1st, 1899 the Convent was ready for occupation. In July school opened with about 50 day pupils and 5 boarders. Rumours of war probably hindered many from sending pupils to board. It was soon plain to all that war was imminent. Women and children left the town. The boarders went home with the utmost haste, and on October the military took possession of the Convent.
A bomb-proof was made for the Sisters in the adjoining Hospital grounds. Here they lived during the seven months of the siege, when not on duty in the Hospital wards.
On the outbreak of war the Bishop had wired the Sisters to come on to Kimberley, if they wished, or to stay and help with the nursing or anything else. They all chose to stay. Just before the war there had come news that two postulants were sailing on the" Avondale Castle", leaving on 8th September and arriving in Cape Town on 1st October. (These were the two Mahers - later Sr M. de Sales and Sr M. Agnes). Through the good offices of Fr. Ogle the Sisters managed to get the postulants met and brought to the Holy Family Convent in Kimberley where they stayed till after the siege of Mafikeng was raised in the following May. The story of the seven months siege
The story of the siege has been told in detail elsewhere, and it is not possible to include it here. By the time the siege was raised on 17th May 1900 - one of the historic dates of an older pre-world war era - Mafikeng had become a household word all over the English-speaking world.
When communication was restored after the Relief of Mafikeng letters of congratulations were received from the Bishops of South Africa, cables from friends overseas, and boxes of provisions from many Convents, as well as pressing invitations to the Sisters from all the Religious Orders who had houses at the Coast. The Government offered the four Senior Sisters free passages to Europe. Mother M. Teresa and Sr M. Evangelist accepted and left South Africa early in July. The remaining Sisters with Mother M. Magdalen and Mother M. Stanislaus went to the Dominican Convent, Wynberg, where they were received with "sisterly affection and nursed back to (almost) robust health."
On 29th June 1900 the two postulants who had been in Kimberley since the previous October arrived in Mafikeng. There were only two Sisters in the Convent -Mother Magdalen and Sr M. Patricia. The latter had gone had gone over to the hospital to help (they were still in demand at the hospital for extra duties) and M. Magdalen was alone. She sent a Mr. and Mrs. Quinlan - two Catholic friends - to meet them, but they were expecting nuns and returned to the Convent alone. However the two, directed by the station-master, came on and found their escort before reaching the Convent. They had got the postulant's cap before Sr. M. Patricia returned from the hospital that evening. (The above is too long, I know, but it is so removed from to-day's world that is tempting to linger over it. There are no more tales of like quality throughout the rest of the 'story'.)
On August 28th 1900, Mafikeng and district were swept by a cyclone. The convent, shell- shattered as it was, offered no protection against the torrential rain which poured through the perforated roof as through a sieve. There was nothing of value left to be spoiled except some Church vestments and fancy needlework brought from M. Magdalen's sister by the two postulants. Walking in the flooded corridors was a novelty for the postulants but those who had been through the siege wondered if the elements meant to complete the ruin begun by the war.
When the report of this new disaster reached Bishop Gaughren he left Kimberly for Mafikeng as soon as possible to hasten the repairs undertaken at the expense of the Government.
In October, exactly a year after the schools had been closed down; they were re-opened, only 20 pupils being present. Gradually the former residents returned to the town and the attendance at school improved.
Meanwhile Mother M. Teresa and Sr. M. Evangelist had arrived in London where they were the guests of the Sisters of Nazareth. Through the kindness of Lady Sarah Wilson who had been through the siege of Mafikeng herself, a sum of £2000 was give to the Convent from the Mafikeng relief Fund. This was used to pay the debt on the original building. They were in communication with some of the families of the officers who had been in Mafikeng, and visited one whose nephew had been killed. They were received in audience by Queen Victoria - on, of all days, the 24th September. (The day on which they had booked their return passage which they had cancelled on hearing of the audience). They had got many good gifts in Ireland too, and in fact they were much better off after the siege, and as a result of it, than they had been before. Another result of their trip was even better. Sr. M. Pilkington, of Cahir Convent Co. Tipperary, accompanied them back to South Africa. (They had appealed for professed Sisters and this was the only response). She was a musician, just the person needed to fill the place left vacant by Sr. M. Gonzaga's death.
The dawn on 1901 was very fair. The future looked particularly bright after the trials of the past. But there were more sorrows to come. On January 4th, His Lordship the Bishop had written from Pokwani to Mother Teresa in connection with the transfer of the Convent property to the Sisters of Mercy. Eleven days later they received the news of his death. They had lost their best, perhaps their only friend in the country. The Bishop had hoped to be able to officiate at the profession of the three novices who were in retreat at the time of his death. The Rev. Fr. Sechet performed the ceremony on January 23rd.
The work of the Sister increased - the schools grew, classes in catechism and instruction of converts went on - visitation of the sick and the poor in their homes. There were not so many poor among the Europeans, but visitation of the poor coloured people were at first resented by their own Church workers.
Bishop Matthew Gaughren was consecrated at Leith Scotland about the middle of March 1902. His Lordship showed the same fatherly interest as his deceased brother in the Mafikeng Convent.
In June of this year (1902) Mother Teresa was decorated with the Royal Red Cross for services rendered during the Siege. The ceremony took place in the convent grounds. A detachment of military and all the principal residents were present. Colonel Vyvyn, a most kind friend of the convent, represented the reigning sovereign. Baden Powell's brother, Mr. Frank Baden Powell, was one of the many visitors to the convent that year.
In 1903, a branch convent was opened in Vryburg. School there was very successful, but the number of Catholics was so small that the work did not justify the presence of a resident Priest, when more populous towns were understaffed. The convent was closed in 1911.
Four postulants had arrived at the end of 1901 with Mother Magdalen and Mother Stanislaus, who had been home in Ireland. These four were (in religion) Sr. M. Berchmans Bolger, Sr. M. Alacoque Carey, Sr. M. Aloysius Duggan and Sr. M. Xavier Murphy (who died quite soon). Sr. M. DeSales and Sr. M. Agnes were professed on 23rd January 1903, and the four above in 1904. When at the end of 1906 Bishop Matthew Gaughren returned from Europe and was accompanied by eight postulants, the community numbered twenty, including the four in Vryburg.