AT THE HOMESTEAD Sister Mary Walsh and her brother, Paddy, outside the family home in Knockfin, Westport.?Grianghraf: Cormac Ó Cionnaith
A transatlantic tale
Sr Mary Walsh set sail for New York with her sister more than six decades ago
EMIGRATION is something that Ireland and its people are all too familiar with, and in recent years levels have once again surged. But for young people leaving our shores today, the move has been made that bit easier thanks to developments in communications and travel.
Westport native Sr Mary Walsh’s memories of leaving home over 60 years ago at the tender age of 20 shows just how much has changed.
In 1952, the journey to New York for Sr Mary and her sister Kathleen took seven long days.
“We had to travel to Dublin to do physicals and to get our visas and then we left from Cobh, where we got a ferry to bring us to the big boat, the Georgia. It was an eyeopener, the boat was huge. There were people who were friendly, but we didn’t know a lot of people, or anyone from Westport,” recalls the 81 year-old.
Sr Mary’s first impression of New York was overpowering. She remembers the large buildings and department stores – a far cry from her homestead in Knockfin, Westport. Back then, even escalators were completely new for Mary and Kathleen.
After eight days, the sisters headed to Cleveland, Ohio, where Mary worked in a packing factory and as a bookkeeper for a few months before entering the Ursuline Order on September 8, 1953. Life in the convent was very different.
“At first it was hard not being able to go home. It was very difficult. I couldn’t even visit them [family]. My aunt would have to come visit me and I couldn’t visit her until they changed the rules … When my sister got married I was allowed to see her for ten or 15 minutes. The wedding party came to the mother house.”
Asked why she decided to become a nun, Sr Mary puts it down to her experience of helping the Sisters of Mercy in the local play school when she was in sixth class.
“I got interested in teaching then. Then, when I went to the Sacred Heart [Secondary School] I was very impressed with Sr Anthony. I think I always had it in the back of my mind to become a sister,” she recalls.
The soft-spoken nun’s passion for teaching is obvious. After becoming a nun in 1953, she went on to secure her degree in teaching. Her 52-year teaching career, which continues to this day, has included 23 in St Charles Borromeo Catholic School, Cleveland, where she still teaches today. “The children are my favourite part of teaching. There’s such give and take, especially when you’re teaching religion. They share with you how they feel. You never know what they are going to come out with.”
Sister Mary did not return home to Westport until 1967 – 15 years after she embarked on her voyage to America.
She travelled west with Sr Patricia O’Malley and Sr Margaret Ann Kilbane, both from Achill. It was the three women’s first time on an airplane. They travelled together, as nuns were not allowed travel alone at the time.
Sister Mary’s return was bittersweet, as the visit was made because her mother Nora had been diagnosed with cancer.
“Someone said my mother paid the nurse to get out of hospital early so she could see me … I was only allowed to stay three weeks,” said Sr Mary. Happily, she travelled home once more before her mother passed away, two years later.
Speaking about her mother’s passing and the pain of dealing with the death of her father, Eddie, just six weeks later, Sr Mary admits that she did have doubts about her faith, but says those doubts soon went away.
Coming home to Westport most summers, Sr Mary gets to meet old friends, view her beloved Croagh Patrick and reminisce about the old days of going to shows in the town.
She talks about shops from her childhood as if it was only yesterday, Shanley’s drapers, Lipton’s and McHale’s grocers and King’s and McGreal’s butchers. Being away for so many years has not tainted Sr Walsh’s love for her home one iota.
The passionate teacher gets home nearly every year in recent times and enjoys the simple things in life, seeing her family, brother Paddy, sister Margret in Cork, niece Fiona and nephew Mark and all her extended family. She also loves going to church here and enjoying the scenery, especially Croagh Patrick.
This time around, Sr Mary returns to America with much to look forward to. She will celebrate her jubilee on July 20 at the Ursuline Sisters of Cleveland.
And will she continue to teach? Of course. It’s her calling.
“You’re not as accurate as you were when you were 20 years old, but I still have the strength and feel like my mind is pretty sharp yet.”