A Drimoleague nun who helped 200 British soliders escape from Nazi-occupied France may also have helped a young child escape the clutches of the Germans. The family of that child, who is now 92, is reaching out to West Cork, hoping to solve the decades-old mystery, writes Niamh Hayes
BORN in 1895, Kate McCarthy grew up in Drominidy, Drimoleague before travelling to France as a teenager to join the Franciscan Sisters of Calais, where she became known as Sister Marie-Laurence.
Now a Welsh family is reaching out to her relations to see if a wartime escape story involving a young English girl can be verified.
Her early days as a young nun were spent in the little town of Béthune, nursing Allied soldiers and civilians in World War I.
She spent some time in America before returning to France as the country fell to the Nazis during World War II.
She became friends with Sylvette Leleu, who led a French resistance group, and together with Angèle Tardiveau, they helped soldiers who were looking for a safe place while waiting for their escape.
In total, Kate was instrumental in freeing around 200 British officers and soldiers.
In 1940, the group merged with the Musée de l’Homme resistance group in Paris, and Kate became a key figure in the group’s escape and intelligence networks.
In June 1941, Kate’s actions were found out and she was captured by Gestapo and put in jail awaiting her trial, and 13 months later, she was condemned to death.
As part of Hitler’s Night and Fog decree, she went through a succession of prison and concentration camps and covered a journey of 1,500km towards Berlin. Within her prison moves, she came across Sylvette and Angèle and they made a pact that they would resist at all costs.
They were sent to Ravensbruck, a women’s concentration camp in Germany, where they worked 12-hour shifts digging sand, unloading coal and digging up roots of trees.
Kate contracted typhus, ending up in the infirmary before discharging herself only to find Sylvette and Angèle gone.
There was now a gas chamber at Ravensbruck and Kate managed to avoid being selected four times by running and hiding each time.
Kate left Ravensbruck after it was liberated by the Swedish Red Cross in 1945 and was brought to Malmo in Sweden before returning to the UK.
She was awarded the Médaille de la Résistance by Charles de Gaulle and the Palm to Victoire from the British government.
She eventually settled in Cork where she became mother superior of Honan Home Convent and remained there until she passed away in 1971.
It has now emerged that Kate may have been instrumental in getting a 12-year-old Irish girl out of occupied France.
At the age of five, Yvette (now Wilcox) was adopted by an English couple, Wyndham Patrick de Lacy Cuffe and his wife Dorothy, in 1934 in Steyning, UK.
It’s believed that Yvette’s natural parents were originally from Co Meath. Almost immediately after her adoption, she was sent to a convent in Desvres in France which is believed to have been administered by the Franciscan Sisters of Calais, the same order that Kate joined.
Tim Wilcox is Yvette’s son, and he is hoping to find a direct link between his mother and Kate.
‘For 70 years, we didn’t know when, exactly, but someone, somehow, managed to get Yvette out of occupied France, sometime between September 1940 and May 1941,’ said Tim.
‘Yvette was put on a train to Paris by a nun. She was met, in Paris, by a man who put her on another train to Lyon. She spent a night in another convent before setting off on a long and tortuous journey across country. She was flown back to the UK on a Sunderland flying boat,’ he explained.
The family thought that Yvette’s well-connected adopted father had managed to get her out of France, but now that doesn’t seem so, as communication of that type wouldn’t have been possible.
‘It’s very likely that Kate must have played a key part in organising Yvette’s escape. I think the Desvres convent must have contacted her and realised it was only a question of time before their young English charge was found and interned by the Germans.’
Yvette, now 92-years-old, lives in mid Wales. Tim would like to hear from any of Sr Kate McCarthy’s descendants to see if they can verify this story.
‘I’d like to thank any surviving members of the McCarthy family for Sister Kate’s immense courage and dedication in the face of the horrors she went on to endure after her capture at Ravensbruck, and maybe get some more information.’
If anyone has any information to help piece together the story of Sr Kate McCarthy and Yvette, please get in touch by emailing [email protected]