I was a thought in God’s mind and in the minds of my parents way back in 1923 when the mystery of my human journey began to unfold. There have been many calls, the first to birth and baptism, into my family, which like all other families, was “unique, original and unrepeatable.” I was the third of six children born in Dublin, and educated at all-Irish speaking Primary and Secondary Schools with the St. Louis Sisters in Rathmines, Dublin.
It was towards the end of my time there that a persistent thought of entering a religious order came to me. My older sister had entered the St Louis Sisters, but I was drawn towards Mercy. I was acquainted with a small autonomous Mercy Community in Rosscarbery, Co Cork, where I had had a grandaunt, by then deceased, who came on the foundation from Skibbereen, and an aunt who was the first postulant. I entered there but my early years of postulancy, novitiate and college are a dim memory now. I was assigned to secondary teaching in the very small rural school for girls in Rosscarbery. There was great poverty amongst the local population. I loved the place, the life and the environment.
In 1894 the convent was built by local self-taught craftsmen and financed by the surrounding population. It is a gem of architecture and an expression of the generosity and vision of these people. This was led by the Parish Priest who foresaw what a community of Mercy sisters could do for the families, particularly for the youth of the catchment area. The community of sisters has always been fully supported by the community it served.
Sr. Brigid O'Flanagan
Ministries began seriously when I came home from college and started teaching. I was armed with a degree in commerce. My first assignment was to teach Leaving Cert History through Irish. Those were the days of blind obedience!
Like variations on a musical theme there were many calls in the years ahead, a call to leadership, in the school and in the community, to pursue my own spiritual growth and development. Vocation to me meant following the dream of our foundress Catherine Mc Auley who taught us to care for people in the situations and circumstances in which we found ourselves.
The ministry of education was what I was engaged in all my life and I suppose I am still the teacher. I learned early on that education is much more than imparting academic knowledge, that the development of the whole person goes hand in hand with acquiring knowledge and experience. I see it as respecting the uniqueness of the individual, teaching students to find themselves at the depth of their being and to discover the wealth of potential within.
Being entrusted with the leadership in the school was an opportunity to pursue my vision. There were three of us sisters in the school who worked well as a team and we were able to create the vision together. Serious development began. In 1965 we became co-ed and set up a boarding school for girls. We started with ninety five pupils and within less than twenty years reached an enrollment of four hundred. We built up a mixed team of lay and religious teachers. We shared a passion for care of all aspects of student development, as well as working with parents and being an agent of change in the local community. It was not all plain sailing and many problems to overcome. All this took place during and after Vatican II, which enlarged the vision of the church, defined by Pope Paul II as “all humankind redeemed in Christ”.
There was also development going on in our religious community. We worked our way, over seven years, into amalgamation with the Sisters of Mercy of the Kerry Diocese. This happened in 1978 with the encouragement of the Sacred Congregation for Religious in Rome, much to the disappointment of our local Bishop. In the meantime in 1976 we had taken on a lay Principal at the school and I remained on the staff as Guidance Counsellor.
1980 was a sabbatical year for me and on my return I was assigned to Ardfert Retreat Centre in Kerry. Within a year I was asked to take on the promotion of post-primary education for the Travelling Community as a national project. I was based in Dublin where the Kerry group bought an apartment in Terenure, which is still used by the Southern Province. I found this ministry challenging, as I was breaking new ground but I worked with those already involved in Traveller Education and found the support I needed there.
I left formal education on retirement. I am now engaged in living and supporting community life in my beloved Rosscarbery. My official ministry at this time is being responsible for the organisation and running of the Spirituality Centre in Ownahincha, which is also a holiday house. This is a ministry of presence. The setting, the space and the activities offered in Ownahincha have provided a lifeline for many.
There is one other ministry to be mentioned. After officially retiring, in 1996 I was handed the plans of a new Mercy Voluntary Secondary School to be built in Mounthawk, Tralee and asked to see this building project through. This was to be an amalgamation on a greenfield site of two existing Mercy Schools in Tralee, Moyderwell and St Johns. I was given a very talented team of two parents and two teachers whose gifts complemented each other. It took us nearly ten years and we were responsible for the provision a school for one thousand mixed gender students. Lifelong friendships have happily been established and there was great satisfaction when the school was opened by the Bishop of Kerry in 2004.
I am interested in the legacy of the Sisters of Mercy, and am in awe at the possibilities and potentials that lie ahead. The spirit is alive and active and all we have to do is listen. Naturally, at my age, I am engaged with the matter of my own mortality, not without a certain fear and trepidation. Death is a “fixed horizon,” about which the only certainty is that it will happen. I take courage in the words of Daniel J. O Leary: “Once the fear of the final curtain is identified and accepted, a new energy focuses our attention on present reality. Now we can really live again and get down to the work of serving and saving our world.” There is also the gift of faith in the Resurrection and I await the fulfilment of that promise in peace and serenity.
Have I found my life fulfilling? The answer for me is contained in Ps 15 V6: “The lot marked out for me is my delight” (Grail Ed)
It was the personal call that made that life possible. For me life has always been an opportunity to be grasped and to be lived out with enthusiasm to the end, with the help of a loving God who promised “Behold, I am with you always…..”.
Sr Brigid O’Flanagan
(Sr. Brigid died on 24th May 2015. May her soul rest in peace)