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St. Leo's Carlow - 175th Anniversary

20 April 2012

South Central

St. Leo’s Mercy Convent, Carlow, 175 Anniversary

One hundred and seventy five years of Mercy presence in Carlow, 1837 – 2012, is a significant milestone and certainly an occasion for celebrating and remembering.  

Catherine McAuley herself led this foundation, the fifth since the Congregation began in 1831.  Dr. Andrew Fitzgerald, President of St. Patrick’s College, Carlow, knew her well since she had placed her three orphaned nephews, James, Robert and Willie Macauley, sons of her sister Mary in school there, and he was aware of the work of the new order of Mercy.  Dr. Edward Nolan, bishop of Kildare and Leighlin had received a bequest of a considerable sum of money left by a townsman, Michael Nolan, for the relief of the sick and poor in Carlow town.  Catherine accepted Dr. Nolan’s invitation to start a foundation, arriving in the town on a fair day, 10 April 1837, accompanied by Srs. M. Francis Warde, Josephine Trennor, Teresa Whyte, Ursula Frayne and Cecilia Marmion.  Their first home was the old Academy on the edge of the College grounds. 

This building proved to be a very unsuitable convent and distressed Catherine but the group indomitably carried on.  It was tiny, too small to start a school, and visitation of the sick and a small amount of instruction were the works at the beginning.  Sr. Francis Warde was the superior.  The first postulant, Miss Rebecca Green, entered on 14 April.  In the town the sisters were called ‘The Ladies’ because they were not enclosed. 

John Nolan, a brother of Michael, gave £2000  and so St. Leo’s Convent began.  The new convent had two floors over a basement, a fine airy chapel in the right wing and in the left wing, a large bright schoolroom.  Because the Presentation sisters already had a school for poor girls in the town St. Leo’s became a pension school.  And from this little acorn grew two mighty oaks, St. Leo’s College and Askea Girls' Primary School. 


Then the extraordinary era of foundations from Carlow began.  Already in 1837 four postulants had entered followed by five in 1838.  In 1839 the first foundation was to Naas with Sr. Josephine Trennor as superior, in 1840 sisters went to Wexford town followed in 1842 by a foundation to Westport led by Sr. Francis Warde. 

In 1843 the Bishop of Pittsburgh, Michael O’Connor, requested a foundation from Carlow and his invitation was accepted – the first Mercy foundation in the U.S.  Sr. Francis Warde was the leader and six sisters went with her.  They arrived in the burgeoning city of Pittsburgh, the ‘Iron City,’ on 21 December 1843, still celebrated there as Foundation day.  Again the postulants came.  On 1 January 1847 the first Mercy hospital in the world and the first permanent hospital in Pittsburgh began, open to all, regardless of race, gender or religion. Education too was at the heart of their efforts, from pre-school to graduate level.  Among the Mercy schools in Pittsburgh are Saint Mary’s Academy and Carlow College (1929).  The Sisters of Mercy of the Americas have stated, ‘Catherine’s (McAuley) particular concern for women manifested itself in her efforts to help women to recognize their inherent dignity, to be self-directing and self-sustaining.’  During her life Sr. Francis Warde opened thirty seven other houses in the U.S.         

Here Sr. Sheila Carney tells the moving story of the Sisters leaving Carlow on this
historic journey.


Foundations were also made to Tuam in 1846 and to Cheadle, U.K. in 1849.  Bishop Francois Pompallier’s request for a foundation to New Zealand saw eight sisters, including two novices and three postulants, led by Sr. M Cecilia Maher, land in Auckland on 9 April 1850 after a journey of nine months.  It is said they left St. Leo’s early in the morning while the sisters were still asleep.  Two sisters nursed in the Crimean War 1854-1856.  Sisters went to Gort in 1857, to Kinvara in 1878 and later to Ennistymon. The strong link between Mercy and Monasterevin began in 1898, then with Graignamanagh 1908 and Leighlinbridge 1910.

The Sacred Heart Hospital, formerly known as the Workhouse and later the County Home has a long and varied history.  The sisters began to work there 21 November 1881 and continued for the next 118 years.  In 1923 the patients were transferred to the old militia barracks and the Irish Free State army moved into the hospital building.  The new Sacred Heart Hospital was ready in 1988.  All the sisters have retired now as they have from St. Fiacc’s House.  Not to be forgotten is the association between the sisters and Knockbeg College.  Vatican 2 and diocesan amalgamation gave the Carlow sisters the opportunity to work in Africa, Pakistan and Brazil. 

The works of Mercy at present are less traditional and give scope for many sisters to follow their dreams in areas where they did not previously have the opportunity. Sr. Mary Carmody says,’I felt compelled to do my share in protecting our awesome but endangered planet – our mother.  We decided to set up a community garden and wild life area called Tearmann in Baltinglass.   In this garden we aim to be ecumenical with all life, bird, bee, grass, earthworm, tree and human.’

So the sisters in Carlow do have much to celebrate.  They have prevailed down through changing patterns in every area of Irish life, from the Famine, to the development of nationalism, the changes after Vatican 2, and the rise and fall of the celtic tiger, always reading the needs of the times and adapting.  We can only wonder in amazement at their expansion, often in extremely difficult situations, and marvel at the courage of those who went so far from home.  The anniversary surely calls us to have pride and thankfulness for our past, and willingness to honour and carry forward the spirit of those adventurous women wherever the future leads, remembering Catherine McAuley’s words,

‘Put your whole trust in God, he will never see you want for the means to do his work.’

These great events will be celebrated in Carlow on 10th April exactly 175 years after Catherine and her small group arrived.

               Sr. Mary Coyle (archives SCP) in co-operation with Srs Francis Conway,  Elizabeth Maher and Mary O'Toole (Carlow)

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