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Sister Rita (1917-2013) & Sister Alphonsus (1920-2015)

Sister Rita, née Molly Cranny. Photo: James Fennell.

‘It was a very sheltered life, 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’. Two Sisters of Mercy in Athy, County Kildare, look back over the nine decades since their childhood, and explain how they fetched up in the order.

 

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‘And do you not think you’d have had the tea ready, knowing these two were coming?’ says Sister Alphonsus, shaking her head testily at Sister Rita, before turning her eyes on us. ‘And what is it ye two are here for?’

Sister Alphonsus 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 friskily, and she rolls her tongue behind her lower lip, awaiting reaction.

Sister Rita pays no heed to her remarks 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. Even though they have not left home for six weeks, for fear of catching the flu, the two nuns are in hearty form. Sister Rita took a tumble only a week ago and she is still in mild shock. But spring is breaking through, and the birds are singing.

It all began shortly before the Second World War when they both entered the Convent of the Sisters of Mercy in Athy, County Kildare. The Mercy order was founded in 1831 by Catherine McCauley to care for the poor and the sick and to educate poor children of Dublin. It rapidly spread across Ireland, with the Athy convent opening in the town’s former Infirmary in 1852.

Sister Rita was the first of the two to join. Her real name is Molly Cranny and she was born in Ballylynan, Co Laois, in 1918, close to the childhood home of William Russell Grace, the first Roman Catholic Mayor of New York.  Her father, Tom Cranny was a carpenter who relocated the family to Athy. [1] 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. Two years later, she made her final vows of confession in a ceremony presided over by Canon McDonnell, the local parish priest.

Sister Alphonsus, née Julie Meagher. Photo: James Fennell.

Sister Rita was the youngest of the sixty-five nuns in the convent when Julie Meagher, 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’.

The workload increased when her ‘delicate but brilliant’ brother Jimmy Meagher 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.

Legend holds that Dún Bleisce means ‘the stronghold of immoral women’ but all three Meagher 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, where she died in 2002, aged 91, shortly before it closed. [2]

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.

Sometimes it was dealing with mundane tasks like the laundry (‘very hard work … with washboards and dolly washers) or entertaining visitors in the parlour (now the hotel reception room). Other times they were assigned to look after the sick and infirm, both within and outside of the convent, including some senior nuns who slept most of the day. In later years, they also looked after people who ‘came in to be cared for’. ‘Nobody was ever idle’, says Sister Alphonsus, ‘and there was a great camaraderie about’.

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.

Sister Rita quickly became a champion of the laundry and kitchen. She recalls the laundry as a place of ‘very hard work … with washboards and dolly washers’ and the kitchen which was for ‘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 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. [3] 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. ‘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’. 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’.

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.  [4] In 2006, the Convent of Mercy reopened as the 4-star Carlton Abbey Hotel, which closed in 2012. [5] The hotel was boarded up and fenced off for a while but was due for a revamp in the summer of 2020, until Covid bit.

‘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. 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. In recent years, they have been blessed with a television on which they watch ‘Coronation Street’, ‘Nationwide’ and the weekly Lotto draw. Barack Obama had just won the 2008 presidential election when we visited and Sister Rita, who is addicted to the news, reckoned he was the right man for the job.

‘I’d say he’ll be a good man’, adds Rita. ‘He’s going to change America anyway’.

‘That was the most positive news in a long time’, agrees Alphonsus. ‘It’s just wonderful that he’s come from where he started.’

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’.  [6] 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 were 91 and 88 years old respectively when we visited. And yet there were two Sisters in the house who were even older than them. ‘But life is what you make it, isn’t it?’ counselled the woman formerly known as Julie Meagher.

 

With thanks to Grainne Meyer.

 

END-NOTES

 

[1] 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.

[2] A sister of the parish priest of Doon also went to the Sister of Mercy convent in Skibbereen.

[3] 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’. I might add that there are plenty who paint a much less rosy light on life in the House of Mercy, such as Maureen Sullivan.

[4] The other sisters included 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’.)

[5] The chapel where the Sisters prayed became 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.

[6] The two women went with the Wheelchairs to Lourdes in 2004, haing previously made a week-long tour to the Holy Land in 1986. (Sister Alphonsus concedes Bethlehem wasn’t quite the picture it was 2000 years ago. ‘There’s a lot of trouble in the world’, she says.)