Fr Kevin Hegarty
THE story began with the arrival of three veiled women to Belmullet in 1894. It ends in an appropriate sense of symmetry with the departure of three women from the town on the first Friday of May.
It is the story of the ministry of the Sisters of Mercy in Erris for 122 years. On last Sunday, the community acknowledged that contribution at a special liturgy in Belmullet church.
In September 1894, Sr Assisi Scully, Sr Benignus Stapleton and Sr Vincent Madden established a convent in the town. On May 6, 2016, Sr Canice Burns, Sr Mary Lou Haverty and Sr Bernadette Hoban will close the door of the convent for the last time.
The sisters came to Erris when people laboured under the tyranny of poverty. They have contributed significantly to the religious, educational and social development of the barony in the last century.
A glimpse of what the sisters faced in the 1890’s can be derived from the autobiography of Maud Gonne, the beautiful English woman who devoted her life to the cause of Irish freedom.
In 1898 she attended the celebrations in Ballina of the centenary of the 1798 Rising. Afterwards she travelled along the north coast road in Belmullet. As the military music and fiery speeches of the celebrations receded into the distance, she entered a dark country. The haunting beauty of the coastal scenery contrasted with the dismal vista of a broken people. The landlords still held tyrannical sway. Evictions were frequent. There were outbreaks of dysentery and typhoid.
At Ballycastle and Belderrig, She noticed several fresh half filled graves. People were too weak to complete the burial of their loved ones. In one house she met a mother who had lost four of her six children. Hunger has forced people to eat the seed potatoes. Unless they were replaced, famine beckoned.
In Belmullet she met the parish priest, Monsignor Hewson. Together, they organised a public meeting to highlight the plight of a people, from whom hope had evaporated as quickly as snow under a midday sun. Thousands poured into the square of Belmullet to hear her demands that government officials respond for actions. The officials, fearful of what an enraged and desperate crowd might do, gave in. Maud flamboyantly declared that she had stopped a famine in Mayo and escaped to Paris for a rest.
However, the challenge of social justice demands a long tern commitment. The Sisters of Mercy knew this and were in for the long haul. Christian faith for them, was not merely a matter of words and rituals. It was actualised in active concern for the poor and vulnerable, especially in the spheres of education and nursing care.
In Erris there are many monuments to their ministry, notably in their contribution to primary education, the establishment of a secondary school in 1943 and their involvement in Belmullet Hospital and Aras Deirbhle over several decades. Perhaps their greatest contribution was their prayerful pastoral care of the bereaved, the sick or those troubled by the circumstances of their lives.
The poet Pádraig J Daly has written beautifully of old nuns he knew:
“When they hugged you into their skirts,
You knew how tightly God embraced the world.
Pouches dangled from their waists with needles,
scissors, keys and coloured pens.
Beads rattled when they walked.
Their long pockets held sweets and rainbow balls.
They showed how letters were made,
spent patient hours leading tiny fingers
along the abacus.
Gloriously they lit our lives.”
Indeed! Of course they were not perfect. There are things that they wish they had done differently or not at all. All human endeavour has its quote of light and shade. It is however fair to conclude that the Sisters of Mercy in Belmullet, to paraphrase some words of WB Yeats, wrought something close to perfection.