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Mother Kevin, a prophetic woman

30 November, 1999

Miriam Duggan FMSP tells the impressive story of Teresa Kearney, better known as Mother Kevin, who worked as a missionary in Uganda and was first Superior General of the Franciscan Missionary Sisters for Africa.

Teresa Kearney, better known as Mother Kevin or Mama Kevina was the third daughter of Michael and Teresa Kearney of Knockenrahan, Arklow, Co. Wicklow. She was born on 27th April 1875, three months after her father was accidentally killed. Teresa was just ten years old when her mother died. She was raised by her maternal grandmother, her much loved Grannie Grennell who guided her youth and handed on her own deep faith and spiritual outlook on life.

Student in Arklow
The Kearney girls attended the National School run by the Sisters of Mercy in Arklow. Teresa left school at fourteen – a respectable age in Ireland of that time. Though scarcely a star student, she imbibed a love of learning and the facility of a Jill of all trades. Teresa wanted to train as a teacher but the finance was not there. So she became a JAM (Junior Assistant Mistress) and joined the band of the undervalued untrained teachers who made up the bulk of the profession.

Teaching in Dublin and England
Ireland at that time was not a land of opportunity and emigration was a fact of life for many. When Teresa was fifteen, her two sisters emigrated to America at the invitation of an aunt. Disappointed that no invitation came her way and feeling alone, she headed for Dublin and took a job as an assistant teacher/general dogsbody. This experience was not a happy one. Perhaps her memories influenced her later efforts to ensure that African women would be well trained for whatever they did. A mere two years later, on the death of her grandmother, Teresa herself left Ireland to teach in a school in Essex in England.

Thoughts about being called
It was at this time that she turned her thoughts to religious life. With a growing conviction that God was calling her to be a sister she applied for admission to the Franciscan Sisters, St Mary’s Abbey, Mill Hill, London, volunteering for work among the African-Americans. For three years she waited patiently for a posting to the American Mission, but when the call to foreign mission came, it came from Africa.

On the way to Africa
In 1902 at the request of Bishop Hanlon of the Mill Hill Fathers, six Sisters left the Abbey bound for the Vicariate of the Upper Nile. Their task was to care for the women and girls and to further weaken the association of Catholicism with French missionaries and Protestantism with British missionaries in the then British Protectorate. Among them were one American, one English, one Scottish and three Irish women. This multi-national group find no easy historical home in any national missionary movement.

They left London on 3rd December 1902. They braved a free trip on the Lunatic Line from Mombasa to Kisumu in Kenya and had the distinction of being the first train to stay on the rail for the whole journey. By launch they crossed Lake Victoria and having footed the last seven miles they arrived at their destination Nsambya, Kampala on 15th January 1903. The were warmly welcomed by the Mill Hill Fathers and local people.

Tireless work years
Then began the work that was to make Mother Kevin’s name a household word in that vast territory. Kevina became synonymous with acts of charity and generosity. The would-be teacher started her first clinic under a mango tree near the convent, and in 1906 she saw the first hospital ward opened. The first seven years were particularly rough. Life in Buganda was at a very low ebb. Sleeping sickness ravaged the villages around Lake Victoria. Smallpox was endemic, and bubonic plaque sporadic. Tropical diseases such as Malaria and dysentery were rife, and due to lack of care infant mortality and maternal deaths were very high. Through all this, funds had to be found to keep going. In 1910 Mother Paul had to return home due to ill health and Sister Kevin was given the task of building up and directing the missionary work.

Mother Kevin spent 52 years working in Africa, founding several missions whose activities included primary and secondary education, Teacher Training Colleges, Nursing Training schools, clinics and hospitals, orphanages, a school for the blind and two centres for leprosy. Her two greatest qualities were perhaps Faith and Love, with a particular concern for those in need. She approached people of all classes and race with great respect and sensitivity. Mindful of the pain that religious division had brought in that area of Uganda she was very open and inclusive of people of other faiths. The Asian people also came to her for healing and called her “the woman of God”.

Fighting for justice
During the war years 1914-1918 Nsambya now a hospital, became a place where the Ugandan carrying Corps were attended. At times her sense of justice was outraged at the treatment given to the African Porters by their European Officers and she spoke out strongly against it. She upheld the rights of the African people caught up in this “white mans war”. On Christmas day, 1918 after the signing of the Armistice Mother Kevin was awarded the MBE for her services to the sick and wounded during the war years.

Rights of women
One of Mother Kevin’s greatest concerns was for the advancement of women. She wanted to create a wider and better world for them, and to help them overcome what oppressed them. She believed that women’s education was central to their advancement. She promoted the education of girls through primary and secondary schools, and then through establishing Teacher Training colleges, so that young African women could be teachers to their own people. Her contribution to Women’s education in Uganda is legendary. It says much for the success of her efforts that she lived to see one of her pupils receive the first Bachelor of Science degree in East Africa, and another became the first woman doctor.

She realised the urgent importance of the involvement of Catholic Laity and the Church’s missionary work. As early as 1920 she had persuaded a few zealous women from Ireland, England and Scotland to join the apostolate with her Sisters.

Efforts to study midwifery
Aware of the great hardship many women endured during childbearing, and of the high rate of infant mortality and maternal deaths, and resolved to do something about it. She approached Cardinal Bourne of Westminster with a request to study midwifery. Maternity work was still closed to religious, but Canon Law did not stop her pressing the boundaries. The good Bishop was horrified that a nun should study midwifery in Dublin, and forbade her to continue. She then attended a modified course in Obstetrics in Alcase in France. With the help of Dr Evelyn Connolly from Ireland, she launched a Catholic Nurses Training school in Nsambya. To date the motto of that training school is “Love and Service”.

Little sisters of St. Francis
Undoubtedly Mother Kevin’s greatest achievement was the establishment of the Little Sisters of St Francis in 1923 and her efforts to train them to the height of their abilities for leadership among their people. She faced much opposition and started with eight local girls. Today there are over 600 Professed Sisters serving the Church in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. The late Dr H Jowitt, formerly director of education in Uganda, said when speaking about the Congregation: “It is difficult to exaggerate the moral and social influence of the LSOSF in a land where, before the advent of Mother Kevin one met the almost total degradation of the women.”

Following long years of struggling to get Sisters for the Uganda Mission and aware of the need for a more specifically missionary training, Mother Kevin requested and got pennission from Rome to open a separate missionary novitiate. In 1929 she established a Novitiate House in Yorkshire specifically for missionary work in Africa. The sisters coming from the new Novitiate allowed her to establish many new foundations.

Leprosarium in Nyenga
In the early days leprosy was very prevalent and people were treated as outcasts. In 1932 Mother Kevin set up her first Leprosarium in Nyenga, near the source of the Nile, and some years later another at Buluba. In these camps the lives of the sufferers were revolutionised as they began to be trained, to work, to improve, to have therapy. They also became as self reliant as possible. Gradually the attitude of the people changed from prejudice to acceptance of the disease as another sickness – curable when given proper treatment in good time.

Superior General
It had long been evident that the Uganda Province needed to become a separate Congregation. In 1952 when the Franciscan Missionary Sisters for Africa came into being. Mother Kevin was appointed their first Superior General, a position she soon relinquished to younger hands. Mount Pleasant near Dundalk, opened as a receiving house in 1935 became Mount Oliver, the Motherhouse of the new Congregation.

Mother Kevin was a much decorated woman – the O.B.E. the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice from Pious XI and received the C.B.E. at the age of 80. She wrote little but when she spoke, people listened. She tuned in to the stirrings of the Spirit in her age for a more equal and just society and she brought the possibilities to a Continent she understood must take its place in the world.

Welcoming the ‘sister death’
On the morning of 17th October, 1957, after a night of appealing for missionary funds in Boston, Mother Kevin was found dead in her bed. Quietly and alone she had welcomed “Sister Death”. Perhaps the greatest honour of all was paid to her after her death. Her life-long friend and benefactor Cardinal Cushing of Boston, generously paid the expenses of sending her body to Ireland, where she was interred in the cemetery at Mount Oliver, but she only rested there for one month. The people of Uganda begged that her body should be returned to the country she loved and served so well. The movement to bring her body back was supported and financed by every section of the community. On December 3rd she was finally laid to rest at Nkokoenjeru among the people to whom she had given and received so much. 58 years had passed from the day she set out on her missionary journey, but what an achievement.

In summary:
A woman who pioneered the rights and dignity of women.
A woman who saw the importance of empowering people.
A woman of faith, of love, of courage.
A woman who gave and received love. A prophetic woman.

This article first appeared in IMU Report (Sept.-Nov., 2002), a publication of Irish Missionary Union.