I welcome you all to our celebration today. The primary aspect of course is to say a sincere “thank you” to the Sisters of Mercy for what they have done, what they meant and what they will continue to mean to the people of Ballyhaunis and the surrounding area for years to come. Our celebration is tinged with a certain sadness because we say farewell to the Sisters who were at the very heartbeat of this community over these years.
The preparation for the Celebration of the Jubilee Year of Mercy runs concurrently with the Year dedicated to the Consecrated Life. This by a coincidence or should I say more accurately by a divine plan happens at the same time of the Silver Jubilee of the Church’s recognition of Catherine McAulay’s holiness of life. Pope Francis in his letter to Consecrated persons for the Year of Consecrated Life quoted Pope John Paul II: “you not only have a great history to remember and recount, but also a great history still to be accomplished. Look to the future where the spirit is sending you in order to do even greater things”. The story of the Sisters of Mercy describes the high ideals and creative ways they were implemented, the difficulties faced and the creative manner in which these difficulties were overcome. It is a story of love and confidence, story of generosity and faithfulness, a story that reflects the mercy of God in various ways and far-flung places. Through the Gospel which they lived, their feminine genius, fidelity and determination, the Sisters of Mercy pioneered the vital aspect of the social fabric of Ireland through the years.
On the 27th August, 1898, four Sisters arrived from Westport upon the 2 p.m. train to Ballyhaunis. In my foreword to Canon Kieran Waldron’s book “Out of the Shadows” which dealt with emerging Secondary Schools in the Archdiocese of Tuam, I refer to “A Story of Visionary Pioneers”. These Mercy Sisters were people who put everything on the line in their determination to make hope a concrete thing and to make dreams come true. This is the story of the Sisters of Mercy here in Ballyhaunis. The Sisters taught for the first month in a small building. They took responsibility for the education of girls in the existing National School, known as St. Mary’s, which was located at the present Scoil Iosa. It consists of one spacious room, half of which was occupied by the boys. It has been acknowledged that the Sisters appointed to Ballyhaunis Convent were all young and active. In 1901 they moved into a beautiful new school.
The Department of Education Report testified to the high quality of the education provided by the Sisters. Two years later the first Mayo Feis was held in the convent school during Easter week. In 1926 an extract from the Inspector’s Report reads “the teachers’ methods are extremely skilful and the sincerity of their application to work merits high praise indeed. The normal progression took place in Ballyhaunis from a good primary school to the need for a Secondary education which was first addressed through a secondary top as far as the intermediate examination, then on to full secondary school. The dedication of the Sisters of Mercy, their educational expertise and the enormous sacrifices which they made was very much in evidence in this process and ensured the success of the project.
From the start the Sisters present here acted as a catalyst for goodness and hope. They taught, they visited, they supported, they consoled, they changed what they could and often, through faith in God’s goodness, they achieved a great deal more than might have ever been possible. They have given steady witness, in good times and in bad, to their unswerving loyalty and unfaltering faith. Their courage in the face of often intimidating odds contributed immeasurably to the formation of what Ballyhaunis is today. The story of the Sisters of `mercy in Ballyhaunis is a remarkable story against a background of poverty and disillusionment. The steady sinister haemorrhage of emigration was bleeding the west dry. Many of those leaving were almost without education and frighteningly vulnerable as a result. Above all there was little or no money. It was a situation which might have broken smaller people, but the Sisters of Mercy responded to the challenge with a physical, intellectual and above all, spiritual toughness which produced results both for those who emigrated and those who remained at home. The price, in terms of back-breaking work and endless worrying was one these remarkable Sisters could and did pay. These daughters of Catherine McAuley built up the school and showed generations of students how a dream can become a reality. They showed that the price of what we want need not break us if we have faith in the God who has already paid the price of all our betrayals and all our failures. They taught in the classroom, day in and day out. More importantly they taught in the living example of their lives.
What makes people give their lives for work like this? While their contribution through the years will be predominantly remembered in terms of education. They also extend it through the social services and social work, their care for all sectors of the community and particularly for the poor and needy. Today we live in a culture which holds wealth and worldly attainment in remarkable respect. Gradually, indeed over the last 30 years or so, our society has ceased to pay anything but lip-service to the ancient and socially crucial virtues of love, honour and self-sacrifice. The humanity of the charism of the Sisters of Mercy is God-given.
In some quarters today it has become fashionable to criticise people in consecrated life. The faults and sad betrayals of a few should not be allowed to obscure the greatness of the vision and the indisputable greatness of so many working visionaries. History I am convinced will regard their work as crucial. Outside the classroom the Sisters became involved in pastoral work, visiting homes, bringing comfort and consolation to the lonely and forgotten. The quiet work which they did in pastoral outreach and the confidential way in which they supported struggling families is known only to the Sisters themselves and the families they helped. People who were overwhelmed by troubles of one kind or another approached the Sisters for prayer and for help. These people were enormously comforted and strengthened by their visits. The Sisters had a special care for those who were poor or sick and in need. That care was provided courageously, with great courtesy and discretion. Their lives were based on loyalty, identification and participation, passionate with plenty of heart as well as head. It enabled them to reach out in faith to others and to the development of the society.
When the history of the Mercy Sisters comes to be written I feel confident that the enormous good done by them and done quietly, secretly, unselfishly, generously and constantly, by so many devoted and dedicated sisters will be highlighted. On behalf of the people of Ballyhaunis, on behalf of your Parish Priest, Fr. Stephen Farragher, the Pastoral Council and all who have been privileged to have come under the influence of the Sisters of Mercy, I say a deeply felt and sincere thank you to the Sisters of Mercy for all you have done for this area for almost 120 years. We thank God for the families of the Sisters of Mercy who inspired their vocations and we thank God for all those whose lives were touched, healed, enriched and educated by your presence, your prayers and your care. May God reward you for your goodness and may he abundantly shower his blessings on you in the future.
I leave the final word to our diocesan historian, himself a leader in Education and a native son of the Parish, Canon Kieran Waldron, speaking of the contribution of the Sisters of Mercy here in this parish he says “without their presence many generations of school-goers and the entire Ballyhaunis Community would have been poorer”