‘And do you not think you’d have had the tea ready, knowing these two were coming?’ says Sister Alphonsus, shaking her head testily.[i]
She is, by her own admission, the more formidable of the two. Forty-five years of teaching has instilled a brusque, no-nonsense outlook on life. But behind the curt words, her eyes roam playfully and she rolls her tongue behind her lower lip, awaiting reaction.
Sister Rita pays her no heed and continues to lay the table in a calm, gentle manner.
There can be few women who know each other better than Sister Alphonsus and Sister Rita. They have lived together for over seventy years.
It all began shortly before the Second World War when they both entered the Sisters of Mercy Convent in Athy, Co Kildare.[ii]
Sister Rita was the first to join. Her real name is Molly Cranny and she was born in Ballylynan, Co Laois, in 1918.[iii] Her father, Tom Cranny was a carpenter who relocated the family to Athy.[iv] In the early 1930s, her elder brother joined the Jesuits but contracted tuberculosis and died aged 19. When Molly came of age in 1938, she too chose the spiritual life and entered the Mercy Convent in Athy. She took the name ‘Rita’ after her mother, Marguerite. ‘When I went in I was very lonely’, she says, ‘and I wanted to come out straightaway’. But she held steady and, in 1941, she made her triennial vows as a Sister of Mercy.[v]
Sister Rita was the youngest of the sixty-five nuns in the convent when Julie Maher, a vigorous young woman from Limerick, entered in 1939. Known as ‘Fonzy’ by her great-nieces, ‘Sister Alphonsus’ was born in 1920 to a farming family from the parish of Dún Bleisce (Doon) on the Tipperary-Limerick border. The community was active during the War of Independence and from the mists of her infancy, she recalls the Black and Tans motoring past their home in a Crossley Tender, on the hunt for some rebels who just happened to be her cousins. Julie’s father died in 1928, leaving his wife and five small children to run the farm. ‘When we came home from school, you didn’t just come and eat your dinner and sit down’, says Sister Alphonsus. ‘There was a good lot of work to be done, milking cows, feeding pigs, picking potatoes off the ridges - big ones for the table, small ones for the pigs. It wasn’t hard but it was constant’.[vi]
Legend holds that Dún Bleisce means ‘the stronghold of immoral women’ but all three Maher girls did their best to disprove that theory by joining the Sisters of Mercy. The elder sister went south to the handsome convent in Skibbereen.[vii] When 17-year-old Julie originally voiced her intention of also ‘going to Skib’, she was advised to go elsewhere or there might be a personality clash. And so she went to Athy. She is not sure what to attribute her calling to save that, ‘at that hour of your life, you are perhaps not sure what you are doing’. She cannot imagine having taken any other course although she confesses she did have ‘a good fling’ before she entered. She adopted the name of a priest who helped her by name of ‘Father Alphonsus’.
The nuns slept in double rooms or dormitories and never left the convent except to visit sick and bereaved members of the community. ‘It was a very sheltered life’, says Sister Rita. ‘And it wasn’t always easy. But that was the way it was. You did whatever you had to do and there was plenty to be done’.
According to their daily horarium, or timetable, the Sisters arose every morning at 5:45 for the Angelus. By the time they sat down for an 8 o’clock breakfast of boiled eggs and toast, they had already got two hours of meditation, mass and prayer-time under their habits. After breakfast came the ‘appointed duties’, assigned on a rotation basis by the Reverend Mother.[viii] ‘Nobody was ever idle’, says Sister Alphonsus, ‘and there was a great camaraderie about’.
Sister Rita quickly became a champion of the laundry and kitchen.[ix] In the 1960s, she took charge of the House of Mercy, a domestic training school where young girls were instructed in the arts of washing, ironing, knitting, sewing and cooking. She was evidently a fine inspiration because when she celebrated her Diamond Jubilee in 2002, her past pupils organized a large surprise party for her. [x] ‘All I could do was break down and cry’, says Sister Rita, who had just returned from burying one of her sisters in England. ‘But I enjoyed it afterwards. There was a great turn out, no doubt about it, and they gave me a purse too’.
(‘And the purse wasn’t empty either’, adds Sister Alphonsus).
In 1945, 22-year-old Sister Alphonsus started teaching at Scoil Mhichil Naofa (St Michael’s School) where she remained until the school’s closure nearly half a century later. She has an incredible memory for the names of all those whom she taught. Indeed, one imagines there are women of all ages in Athy whose backs are wont to suddenly straighten on sight of Sister Alphonsus.
The number of novitiates entering the Sisters of Mercy went into decline from the 1950s onwards. Sister Alphonsus believes the slump was inevitable. ‘Things got easier for people. There were better opportunities to do things they couldn’t do in our time. And there was less of an interest in religion’.[xi] Slowly the Sisters responsibilities were reduced. Both the School and House of Mercy were closed. The Convent was sold in May 2000 and the fourteen remaining Sisters were relocated. Four went to the hospital at St Vincent’s. The other ten, including Sisters Rita and Alphonsus, moved into a pair of five-bedroom houses, connected by a conservatory, at Church Crescent on the immediate outskirts of Athy.[xii] In 2006, the Convent of Mercy reopened as the 4-star Carlton Abbey Hotel.[xiii]
‘I missed it a good deal’, says Sister Rita. ‘When we started off here first we were very lonely. We are further out of town here so we don’t have as many visitors’.
Nonetheless, Church Crescent seems to be a house of much merriment and mutual respect.[xiv] When Sister Alphonsus regards a photo of her lifelong friend beaming beneath her cap and veil, aged 18, she says: ‘I wouldn’t be living with her for 70 years if she didn’t smile like that’. When we suggest photographing Rita in this veil, the Sisters break into a loud shriek that has them literally crying with laughter. And when James takes Sister Alphonsus’s photo, she wants to know if she can use it on her mortuary card.
A nun’s life is a long one. Sisters Rita and Alphonsus are 91 and 88 years old respectively. And yet there’s two Sisters in the house who are even older than them. ‘But life is what you make it, isn’t it?’ counsels the woman formerly known as Julie Maher.
With thanks to Grainne Meyer.
[i] ‘And what is it ye two are here for?’ enquires Sister Alphonsus. Even though they have not left home for six weeks, for fear of catching the flu, the Sisters are in hearty form. Sister Rita took a tumble only a week ago and she’s still in mild shock. But spring is breaking though and the birds are singing.
[ii] The Sisters of Mercy were founded in 1831 by Catherine McCauley to care for the poor and the sick and to educate poor children of Dublin. The Sisters rapidly spread across Ireland and, in 1873, they opened a convent in Athy’s former Infirmary.
[iii] They lived close to the house where William Russell Grace, the first Roman Catholic Mayor of New York, was born in 1832.
[iv] Tom Cranny and his wife Marguerite had eight children, including the twins Molly (Sister Rita) and Nancy. Athy is just four miles from Ballylynan. Only two of the eight Cranny children are living today – Rita and a widowed sister living in Middlesex. Rita’s twin sister Nancy later married an Englishman who died young and the two remained close until Nancy’s passing in 2005.
[v] In 1943 she made her final vows of confession in a ceremony presided over by Canon McDonnell, the local parish priest.
[vi] The workload increased when her ‘delicate but brilliant’ brother Jimmy Maher contracted rheumatic fever during a hurling match that sentenced him to bed for several years and left him with a lifelong limp, although he somehow survived to be 79 years old.
[vii] The elder sister died in the Skibbereen convent in 2002, aged 91, shortly before it closed. A sister of the parish priest of Doon also went to the Sister of Mercy convent in Skibbereen.
[viii] Sometimes it was dealing with the laundry (‘very hard work … with washboards and dolly washers). Sometimes it was looking after the sick and infirm, both within and outside of the convent. There were some senior nuns who slept most of the day. In later years, they also looked after people who came in to be cared for’. Sometimes it was entertaining visitors in the parlour (now the hotel reception room). The duties were followed by vespers, dinner, recreation and evening matins. ‘Recreation’ generally consisted of strolling in the garden or reading the papers. In the evenings there were Matins, or Spiritual readings, before bed.
[ix] Sister Rita quickly became a champion of the laundry (‘very hard work … with washboards and dolly washers’) and the kitchen (‘making soda bread and brown bread, churning and separating the butter’). The milk was brought in by the Convent’s steward, Joe Bergin, who maintained a herd of six cattle in a nearby meadow at Greenhills. In
[x] A report prepared in 1932 on the occasion of the centenary of the Mercy Order claimed that approximately 480 young girls had been trained up to that time in Athy’s House of Mercy, all of whom had obtained work ‘according to their abilities’. See: Frank Taafe’s Eye on the Past, Thursday, December 6, 2007, ‘The Sisters of Mercy: at the heart of the town’.
[xi] The end began with the centralization of the order. ‘Athy used to be an independent republic’, she explains, ‘but we became part of the Dublin diocese and from that we became part of the province’.
[xii] The other sisters include Sister Carmel (93-years-old), Sister Oliver (92-years-old), Sister Anne, Sister Margaret, Sister Collette, Sister Rosario (who works with the travellers down in the school by the old convent. ‘They used to mend your saucepan and umbrellas and everything and they had charts all over the world … it’s all different now’.)
[xiii] The chapel where the Sisters prayed is now a bar. The organ gallery remains but the stained glass windows have gone. The chapel’s former role is recalled in a plaque to Patrick Meagher of Kilrush, Co Kildare, father of the woman who founded the Convent in 1852.
[xiv] Their sitting room comprises a series of two-seater sofas and armchairs centred upon a table with piles of The Irish Catholic resting on top. Images of the Blessed Virgin, Baby Jesus and Catherine McAulay adorn the wall, with a postcard of Lourdes. The two nuns went with the Wheelchairs to Lourdes in 2004. They have also made a week-long tour to the Holy Land in 1986. Sister Alphonsus concedes Bethlehem isn’t quite the picture it was 2000 years ago. ‘There’s a lot of trouble in the world’, she says. In recent years, they have been blessed with a television on which they watch ‘Coronation Street’, ‘Nationwide’ and the weekly Lotto draw. Sister Alphonsus is also addicted to the news and thinks Obama is the man for the job. ‘That was the most positive news in a long time’, agrees Alphonsus. ‘It’s just wonderful that he’s come from where he started.’ ‘I’d say he’ll be a good man’, adds Rita. ‘He’s going to change America anyway’.