Mountmellick – The Story of Our Community
In 1771, when Nano Nagle was making final preparations to bring the Ursulines to Cork, Mountmellick was raised to the status of a parish. Catholics were few, ignorance and poverty were rife and morale was at a very low ebb. Under the leadership of two zealous pastors the Catholic population increased in spite of oppression, famine and emigration. In 1833 Rev. Andrew Healy became the third P.P. of Mountmellick. He was deeply concerned for the welfare of his people and prayed earnestly for 20 years that the Lord would send Presentation Sisters to provide education for the “poor females” in his parish.
Because of poverty it seemed impossible to provide for a community of nuns – there was no way he could raise funds – but he so believed that the Presentation Sisters were the “right” ones that he refused an offer from another Congregation that would be self sufficient and hence not totally committed to the poor; so he kept on praying and trusting against all the odds until his heart’s desire was granted in 1854.
Anna Maria Corballis was a talented young lady belonging to a wealthy and very religious Dublin family. After her two older sisters joined Fanny Ball in establishing Loreto Abbey, Dublin, Anna Maria entered first the Cistercians in England and later the Carmelites in Dublin. In both cases her health broke down. Eventually she discovered her true vocation when she entered with the Presentation Sisters in Bagenalstown. Before taking her solemn vows, as Sr. Charles, she disposed of her patrimony in favour of the Presentation foundation in Mountmellick, through Dr. Healy, Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin.
Foundation: On March 6th 1854, Sisters Charles Corballis (Bagenalstown), Aloysius Brophy (her cousin), Ignatius Taylor and Frances Kelly (all from Carlow Community) travelled by train to Portarlington, stopping off to visit the sisters in Kildare. They were accompanied by Fr. Hamilton, a professor in Carlow College, who, with the bishop, ardently supported the new foundation all along the way. There was consternation when no covered car could be procured at Portarlington railway station to bring the sisters on the last leg of their journey to Mountmellick. Fr. Hamilton thought it very undignified for “cloistered nuns” to have to travel in an open car and, with their unseemly luggage, remarked that “they were more likely to be taken for a group of strolling players”!
A house had been rented in the centre of the town as a home for the new community. This big house, devoid of any furniture or convenience, except for two deal tables and three wooden chairs, provided little welcome on a cold bleak afternoon in early March. However, nothing could daunt the enthusiasm of this little group, who had left the security and companionship of their respective communities to embark on a very challenging mission. The sisters slept on pallets on the floor for some time and it is recorded that they carried their three wooden chairs from the refectory to the chapel and back several times daily for most of that first year!
A major task on the evening of arrival was to set up an oratory using one of the deal tables as an altar. Next morning the Bishop offered Mass after which the Blessed Sacrament was reserved and the house blessed. Now, with Jesus in their midst, the first community of Presentation Sisters was officially established in Mountmellick on 7th March 1854.
The Sisters were somewhat disconcerted by the seeming lack of welcome on the part of Fr. Healy or his parishioners. In fact, he had told no one of their coming and so the Sisters were already installed before anyone was aware of their presence. Soon, however, they understood why Fr. Healy acted as he did when they became aware of “the old spirit of bigotry and Protestant ascendancy” which prevailed in the area and how easily hostility could be aroused.
25th March 1854 was a very significant date in the history of the parish, when the Angelus bell rang out at 6 a.m. announcing again, after centuries of silence, the Good News of the Incarnation. We are told that, as Sr. Aloysius rang the bell, she held a little statue of Our Lady in her hand and prayed fervently that the Mother of God would send out blessings of hope and peace to all of her oppressed and deprived children.
In April 1854 the four rooms on the ground floor of their rented home were set up as classrooms, using desks obtained from a former national school, which had catered for 48 pupils. The Sisters were very happy when, on 23rd April, they eagerly opened their school doors, well prepared to accept 40 – 50 pupils. 300 young people turned up aged 4-19 years! The annals describe scenes from these early school days reminiscent of Nano’s first experiences in Cork. These young people, some of whom would just have survived the famine, had little experience of discipline or co-operation. Quarrelling, shouting and generally boisterous, they paid no heed whatever to the many efforts made to calm them. The Sisters felt helpless and sometimes frightened in those early days and it took much courage, patience, faith and commitment to persevere in such difficult circumstances. Their pupils had no knowledge of religion and very few had made First Holy Communion, so the Sisters provided evening classes to teach them prayers and catechism.
In May 1854 the Sisters set up a shrine to Our Lady in their garden and encouraged the pupils to take part in May processions and sing hymns to Our Lady. Afterwards, we are told that, when things got out of control in the classroom, it was enough to make the sign of the Cross and say a Hail Mary aloud to restore order and quiet! The proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, that year, was eagerly availed of as an opportunity to foster a lively devotion to their heavenly Mother in the hearts of the pupils.
During all this time the Sisters kept a very low profile. Because of the prevailing anti-Catholic atmosphere they were seen as a threat. On the feast of Corpus Christi, two men in the grounds of the Sisters’ house deliberately fired a shot at Sr. Ignatius who was standing inside a window, narrowly missing her but leaving the window shattered. Fr. Healy had the two men arrested. During the court hearing, however, he stated that he did not wish them to be prosecuted, but, since the Sisters had come for the benefit of the people they should be respected. This produced a favourable result.
In a special solemn ceremony in 1855, the Bishop presented the Sisters with rings, now worn for the first time in the Order. (Pius IX had sketched the shield and cross with rays saying, when asked for a motto, that the “cross would supply for all”).
1856 saw a number of improvements introduced. Overcrowding in the school was affecting the health of the pupils and their teachers and so the sisters acquired the only available site – a disused distillery yard with some ruined buildings in it, at the entrance to the town. The old distillery dwelling house was renovated as a new home for sisters and a two-roomed thatched school, well lit and ventilated, was built mainly from rubble on the site. A chapel in the new home, capable of holding 200, proved a huge asset in fostering a spirit of faith and devotion in many parishioners.
In September 1856 a very large number of children, adults and married women made their first Confirmation; they were confirmed in the parish church in Graigue. Immediately after the ceremony the newly confirmed, all dressed in white, walked in procession, followed by the congregation, right through the town and into the convent garden – a distance of one mile. No one had organised or foreseen this event, not even Fr. Healy – a striking witness to the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. (The convent garden is still a place that attracts the newly confirmed, newly-weds and past pupils -after almost 150 years.)
A new convent was built in 1863. It was built at a time of real poverty, and with the help of very small donations, bazaars etc. – money often coming in ‘miraculously’ -the exact sum at the exact time! Two years elapsed before it could be occupied as there was no money to furnish it. A statue of the Immaculate Conception, placed at the highest point of the convent, caused quite a stir. It was just 7 years since the Sisters came to Mountmellick, at which time an orange pole and flag was permanently raised exactly opposite the site of the new convent and everyone entering the town had to pass under it.
In reaction to the erection of the statue, a delegation of the ‘local ascendancy’ brought a petition to Dublin Castle to have the offending statue removed. The petition failed when it was ascertained that it was legally distant from the public thoroughfare. Angry members then threatened to erect a statue of Queen Elizabeth right opposite – but it didn’t happen. The prominent position of Mary Immaculate was a heart warming sign of hope and security for the Catholics where religion was only struggling into life after a cruel persecution of nearly 300 years.
In 1866 St. Joseph’s ‘Benefit School’ opened for Catholic families who had become better off and were sending their children to Protestant Schools so as not to mix with the poor children! The school was set up in the house vacated by the Sisters and the subjects taught were English, French, vocal and instrumental music, painting and needlework. ‘Sunday school’ classes, which up to now were held in Graigue, were transferred to the convent.
In 1868 the first Parish Mission was preached by the O.M.I. Fathers. Many older adults needed to be instructed in the very basics before receiving the Sacraments. The Sisters gave this instruction each evening after school, teaching the Christian Doctrine by rote, since only one in twenty could read. We are told that it was pathetic to see old men hobbling in to get their first ever lessons in Catechism. The bishop came and administered the sacrament of Confirmation to hundreds of these adults at the end of the parish mission.
By 1869, twenty-five years after the foundation, it was clear that the foundation was already bearing much fruit with 18 sisters in community and 30 professed sisters (past pupils) elsewhere. The custom of mothers bringing their children to be offered to Our Lady, May Processions, “Holy Childhood”, “Holy Angels” and Children of Mary were firmly established in the parish. ‘Mountmellick Work’ and other forms of embroidery and hand work had become very popular and profitable. In 1882, an exhibition of needlework was held in Dublin with the intention of promoting home industry – the Sisters, having embroidered a beautiful large quilt in Mountmellick. Work for the occasion, received a certificate of merit.
By 1883 it was clear that developments called for a larger and more ‘modern’ school. The site of the Benefit school, which had been absorbed into the ‘National System’ was available. This year was one of great economic depression and the Sisters got little encouragement financially. However, putting their trust in God, Mary Immaculate and St. Joseph, as always, they set about raising the money. They decided, among other things, to run a bazaar. Their first request for a prize was made to Pope Leo XI11 who graciously sent a beautiful cameo of Our Lady and his Apostolic blessing! Thus heartened, they redoubled their efforts and the bazaar raised £650 clear! The rubble from the thatched school and St. Joseph’s was used to help in the building, while the Sisters taught in the open air and/or under canvas tents in all weathers for two years until the new school opened in 1886. This was to be the scene of their labours for the next 88 years – with the addition of 2 more rooms in 1930.
In 1921, after 67 years in Primary Education, the sisters were aware of a growing need for secondary education. This was especially a life long dream of Mother Patrick Clarke, a woman of great vision and zeal. So, when the Quaker boarding school (established in 1687) came on the market in May 1921, it was bought by the Sisters, through the generous financial aid of D.E. Williams of Tullamore, who had often expressed to the sisters a desire to help the young people of Mountmellick. On 25th October, the feast of Our Lady of Victories, the secondary school, although still in need of vast renovations, opened its doors to thirty day pupils and five boarders. With Mother Ita Fanning at the helm, M. Berchmans Curtin and Sister Martha Timmins formed the nucleus of ‘St. Mary’s College’ where, over the years, countless young girls were well equipped academically, culturally and spiritually for life. St. Mary’s College was destined to grow from strength to strength under the patronage of Our Lady of Victories and have a huge impact locally and nationwide. The fee in 1948 was £30 p.a. for the Boarding School. Pupils came from many counties. Both teachers and pupils worked consistently and tirelessly and achieved great results. The Sisters dedicated themselves totally to the apostolate in St. Mary’s College.
In 1953, Mother Michael Ryan led a foundation to Bicester, Oxon in England and later to Swindon and Acocks Green, Birmingham. In 1958, the Convent of our Lady of Victories was opened. The convent was blessed by Bishop Thomas Keogh, Kildare and Leighlin.
In 1967, a further step was taken when the College became co-educational and the boarding school was phased out. In 1986 it merged with the local Vocational School to form the current Community School. At the same time, the convent behind St. Mary’s College was closed and sold to the trustees of the new school. In 1990 the amalgamated schools underwent renovation and is now known as Mountmellick Community School. Some old dormitories were removed or converted for school use and a school gymnasium was built.
In 1971, two new schools were built on the same site on Davitt Road, Mountmellick, replacing both the convent primary school and the boys primary school. The girls school became known as St. Joseph’s Girls National School and the boys’ school as St. Patrick’s Boys Primary School. Until 1971, the boys had attended the convent school until they finished 1st Class and then continued their education in the boys’ school. This changed when the new schools were opened. The boys then started school in the new St. Patrick,s Boys School. For this reason, three Sisters worked on staff of the boys school. In time, the number was reduced to two and finally one. In 1973, the ‘old schools’ were demolished and the rubble was used as foundation for extended playground in St. Joseph’s GNS – an unbroken chain of significant recycling since 1856!
In July 1992, the establishment of a house in Kirwan Park began a new phase in the history of Presentation Sisters in Mountmellick. For two years this was a house of formation for young sisters. From 1994 to 1999, the house became the Ministries Office (later the Education Office) – a centre for administration and support to many primary and secondary schools in the Northern Province. Since 1999, the present interprovincial Justice community, are responsible for the development of a ministry which supports the congregational thrust towards Justice, Human Rights and Ecology.
In 2004, one hundred and fifty years after foundation, there were thirteen Sisters resident in the town. Three Sisters worked in Primary education, two Sisters in the Community School, three in Kirwan Park and others in a variety of parish based ministries.
In 2008 Ministries included Sisters on Board of Management of Primary and Secondary Schools, Voluntary teaching in Secondary School, Two sisters on Staff of Primary School, Ministry of Prayer – prayer groups, Homework ministry, Church sacristy, Home Visitation and Community Ministry, voluntary housing for the elderly. Sr. Mary Caulfield now (2008) lives in Wolfe Tone Court and initiates many activities for the residents.