By Sarah Mac Donald - 24 November, 2014
Bishop Michael Smith of Meath expressed his sadness over the departure of the Presentation Sisters from Mullingar after 190 years in a ceremony last Friday.
In his homily, the Bishop of Meath told the congregation of Presentation Sisters and those with associations to the order, while it was a day for giving thanks “for an honoured history of presence in this community there is also a sadness attached” to the celebration.
“One hundred and ninety years of presence has come to an end, a presence that enhanced the lives of generations of children over that time,” the bishop said.
He noted that at their peak, the Presentations Sisters’ schools were catering for 1,000 pupils in Mullingar.
Describing education as a great gift, Dr Smith said it is also a fundamental human right.
“Denial of education takes away from the young their dignity and the opportunity to develop their talents and capacities. Denial of education impoverishes society.”
Recalling the history of the Presentation Sisters in the town, he said that members of the order had travelled to India in the mid 1800s and later to Pakistan.
“The situation they encountered there would have been a replica of what they encountered when first they came to Mullingar – generations of youth denied an education,” Bishop Smith said.
In a warm tribute, Dr Smith said, “The development of education would not have been possible without the sacrifice of the Sisters. Spartan would not do justice to the lives they lived, giving all to the objective of offering education to as many children as possible.”
He said their presence inspired other developments in the parish such as the opening of the school in Gainstown which had begun in the chapel since there was no other accommodation available.
Walshestown, Glascorn and Ballinea followed within ten years and then in subsequent years the Christian Brothers and Loreto Sisters also provided schools and a new school was opened in Curraghmore.
In his homily at Friday’s Mass, the bishop said the ceremony was about giving recognition to that extraordinary story and the extraordinary giving by so many Sisters, from different parts of the country.
“They graced the lives of countless thousands over the past 190 years and enhanced the life of this community with their talents and giftedness.”
“Their physical presence may be ended but they leave a legacy and a heritage that one prays will continue to animate the schools into the future. That legacy is built on a central truth of our faith – every life is touched with the image and likeness of God.”
He added, “All, no matter how broken or disadvantaged they may be, belong to the family of God. The Sisters lived out this truth by their lives and their work. No words could ever express the debt of gratitude owed to them.”
Elsewhere in his homily, Bishop Smith outlined some of the one hundred and ninety-year history recalling that in the decades before the arrival of the Presentation Sisters education had been denied to the Catholic children of the country.
He said that policy was intended to keep in check a broken and impoverished people.
The late Fr John Brady, a diocesan historian, in his research in public archives here and especially in the library of the British Museum managed to unearth information on many small schools that existed in the parishes of Meath.
In most cases the premises were mud-walled cabins or even sometimes out in the open air.
Courageous teachers set up these schools often at serious risk to themselves and with minimal salary. This was provided by the students. They were only able to cater for a small percentage of the children seeking education.
In 1788, there were seven such small schools in Mullingar. These had increased to 14 by 1824, the year before the Presentation Sisters arrived.
Mullingar was blessed in having a few successful Catholic business people who managed to accumulate some wealth and who possessed a strong social conscience.
James Hevey was the most noted of these with his will of 1837 allowing the establishment of the Hevey Trust and the opening of new schools.
His generous bequest made possible the feeding of the people of this town during the worst years of the famine.
In 1822, a local successful catholic businessman, Thomas Lynch, left a very generous bequest that along with another generous gift from Eleanor Martin made it possible for Fr McCormick to invite the Presentation Sisters build a convent and schools.
“It was a remarkable period of development in years that experienced the terrible famine, mass emigration, rebellions and land wars,” Bishop Smith commented.
He added, “In our age of plenty with opportunities open to all to fulfil their full potential it is easy to overlook what the denial of education truly meant.”
Many who emigrated left Ireland unable to read or write.
“They couldn’t write back when they reached Britain, America or elsewhere to tell of their safe arrival. Family links and relationship were sundered, leaving those who remained to worry and anguish about the fate of those who had left.”
The hunger for education ran very deep in the people and once penal laws and other restrictions began to be lifted they were not to be denied, the Bishop said and added that without the sacrifice of the Sisters it would have been a much sadder history.
“That sacrifice was total. The Sisters gave their very lives, their most sacred and precious gift, so that many could have restored to them their dignity as human beings.”
The Presentation Sisters, or Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, were founded in Cork by Venerable Nano Nagle in 1775.