Farewell to Schull’s Sisters of Mercy

September 20th, 2022 7:05 AM

By Jackie Keogh

Former students of Sister Gabriel organised a farewell tea party for her at the Convent of Mercy, Schull before she leaves for Kinsale at the end of September. (Photos: Carlos Benlayo)

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Sr Gabriel, Sr Veronica and Sr Emmanuel will all be greatly missed when they depart Schull at the end of the month, after playing important roles in their community for decades

THE people of Schull are finding 100 different ways to let the three remaining Sisters of Mercy nuns know how special, how valued, and how very much loved they are before the convent closes and they leave the area for good at the end of September.

‘They are darlings,’ is how one woman described the genuine, emotional, and enormous regard the people of Schull have for each of these nuns who – in the case of 77-year-old Sr Emmanuel, 79-year-old Sr Gabriel and 90-year-old Sr Veronica – still glimmer with goodness and humour.

A recent sit-down with the nuns at the convent gave an insight into the work they did – and still do – and the roles they have provided the community, from teacher to nurse to caregiver and friend.

But it is the random things that catch your throat – like one day, when driving through Schull, seeing Sr Gabriel being ambushed by young people who hugged her outside the supermarket on an ordinary sunny day in the village.

Like a litmus test, their names were randomly mentioned in passing and one elder in the village reported that not only was she taught by these nuns, so, too, was her daughter.

That should be sufficient to cement their legacy of giving, right? But this woman went on to say that when her husband died one of the nuns called to her regularly for a long time afterwards to say ‘hi’, to see how she was doing, and to be there for her as a support.

The likeability of these nuns is well known but it was incredibly enriching to hear them speak of their love for the people of Schull. A few smiling tears were shed as they were the ones to say ‘thank you’ to the community.

‘We want to thank people for being who they are and for being so good to us,’ said Sr Gabriel while Sr Emmanuel concurred, ‘We love the people. They have been more than kind. We feel very much at home with them.’

Sister Gabriel McSweeney, Sister Emmanuel O’Sullivan and Sister Veronica Neville with Fr Anthony Buckley.

Sr Veronica, who comes from Cobh, has a wonderful laconic sense of humour. It’s gentle, subtle and yet razorsharp.

For example, when describing her relocation from the closing Convent of Mercy in Skibbereen to Schull in 2003, she deadpans: ‘I had no fixed abode.’

Sr Veronica entered the convent in 1950, at the age of 18. And, in answer to how she found God, Christ, religion, she is still funny, but perspicacious.

‘How wouldn’t you in Cobh?’ she postulates. ‘We had the nuns and the brothers, children’s mass on Sundays, three retreats in the year, confraternity – you couldn’t escape nearly.’

Sr Veronica, an educator,  is hilarious, but there is genuine regard beneath the blackguarding. ‘I admired the sisters in secondary school,’ she said. ‘They were very caring and very interested in us. The classes weren’t very big and you got great attention.’

Sr Gabriel, who is from Goleen, entered the convent in 1961 at the age of 18. But she says she remembers, at the age of nine, telling her mother she wanted to be a nun.

Shortly before her mother’s death, at the age of 49, she said it was Sisters in the South Infirmary who helped to arrange for the 12-year-old to attend boarding school in Kinsale.

There wasn’t a secondary school on the Mizen Head peninsula at the time and Skibbereen, the nearest school, was 30 miles away, which might as well have been the moon in terms of daily transport.

Sr Gabriel went on to teach primary and secondary school and was principal of the convent primary school in Schull until 1998, when a new parish school was built, and she taught there until 2008 when she retired.

Sr Emmanuel entered the convent in 1964 when she was 20, but she said she felt ‘called from the time of my first communion.

‘Christ became very important to me,’ she said. ‘I felt it was my calling. I was supposed to be going teaching but four nuns from the hospital were going to Peru so they needed more nurses.’

Sr Emmanuel was sent to the Mercy Hospital to train and subsequently worked at Bantry General Hospital. Here, she said they were ‘blessed with staff that were pleasant to work with, honest, very caring for one another.

‘There was great sharing in that,’ she adds, recalling how one gentleman told her he was very impressed because he could feel the love between the staff and the closeness of their co-operation.

It was in 1904 that five Sisters of Mercy first came to Schull. There wasn’t a convent in the town at the time but local people – amongst them the O’Keeffe family – were good to them and they were given Air Hill House.

The Sacred Heart Convent was built in 1907 and the nuns taught primary school because there wasn’t a secondary school on the Mizen.

But even at the primary school the nuns taught to Leaving Cert level and helped a lot of people get very good jobs.

‘That was a great feat,’ said Sr Gabriel, ‘and Sr Michael, in particular, excelled at the time.’

Only in a convent, where good order reigns, would one find annals from that time still in pristine condition and written in an immaculate hand.

A primary school was built in 1921, but the records begin on Monday October 17th 1904. They recall that there were 66 pupils on the first day of school, a number that speedily increased to 124.

The primary school subjects included Irish, English, maths, religion, history and geography.

‘But they were so progressive,’ said Sr Gabriel. Picking up the annals she reads, ‘Many improvements were introduced in the methods of teaching.

‘Some branches, not taught previously, include home economics, map drawing, analysis, composition, free hand and model drawing .…’

On the next page, she reads, ‘Several pupils attend at the convent for instruction in music, French and fancy needlework ... and from the start there has been great aptitude in quickly learning the different subjects.’ The Sacred Heart Convent in Schull was never very big – at capacity it could only ever accommodate nine nuns. In recent decades, there were five members of the order living in the convent but bereavements have brought that number to three.

At the end of September, Sr Emmanuel said she will be moving to ‘a beautiful room’ within the order in the city, while Sr Veronica notes she was ‘fortunate to make a retreat in Clonakilty recently on the subject of letting go’ and believes her relocation there will be seamless.

Meanwhile, Sr Gabriel – who as principal had perhaps the highest profile – is equally philosophical because she is going back to Kinsale, the town where she spent her teenage years.

These three wonderful women are leaving Schull for age and health reasons.

In all of the time they spent in Schull they were part of peoples’ lives and deaths.

It is not hard to imagine that their leaving will be like a death, but it will be borne with the same good grace in which they have lived and shared their lives with others.

Sr Gabriel McSweeney with locals at the convent’s final, and poignant, May procession.

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