Bishop Michael Smith was joined by Archbishop Jude Okolo, Apostolic Nuncio, at a celebration of the bicentenary of the Presentation Sisters in Killina-Rahan, Co. Offaly on Sunday 1 October 2017.
Two hundred years ago, two Presentation Sisters travelled on the Grand Canal from Dublin to Killina. Their arrival heralded the beginning of a story of involvement with the community of Rahan and the wider area, which spanned the two centuries to the present day.
Here is the text of Bishop Smith’s homily for the occasion:
1. Renewed welcome to all, especially the members of the Presentation Communities. A particularly warm welcome to our Nuncio, Archbishop Okolo, on his first visit to Diocese since arriving among us in Ireland a few weeks ago. I welcome also Bishop Leo O’Reilly, Bishop of Kilmore, who has given a lifetime of service to Catholic education in Ireland. As well as the priests, teachers and laity who have joined us on this day of celebration.
2. An occasion like this, with its 200 year history, invites memory and indeed reflection. The book launched on Friday evening records much of that memory and history. We too are invited to reflect and ponder at the Providence at work over this 200 year history. The seed planted here in Killina put down deep roots that had a major impact on this area but also reached to the wider world of India, Australia and Pakistan. It is a story and a history that challenges all of us as we strive to the answer the call to walk in the way of Jesus Christ.
3. The great Renaissance historian, Caesare Baronio, described history as the teacher of life. The history we honour today certainly has much to teach us about life and faith, especially the witness to our faith in Jesus Christ.
4. It is right that as we gather in prayer to honour the Sisters we recall something of the extraordinary contribution the Sisters have made to the life of faith in this part of Offaly, and indeed around the world, over past 200 years.
5. One aspect that intrigues many is why the Sisters accepted the invitation from Maria O’Brien (who came to live in Rahan Lodge some years earlier) to come to Rahan in the first place, rather than stopping in Tullamore when they passed through it on the Canal. Rahan was not exactly high profile in the life of the country. I am sure they would have been welcomed by many communities Perhaps the arrival of the Jesuits two years earlier to Tullabeg – a couple of miles away – influenced their decision. It was the first house of female religious to be established in the Diocese, following the penal times.
6. Ireland was a sad place after the Act of Union with the horror of the 1798 rebellion still fresh in the memory. While the relaxation of the Penal laws was some relief, great poverty was still present in all communities. Catholics still suffered serious discrimination on many fronts not least in the area of education. That battle for education was fought over many decades with the hedge schools and schools in mud cabins. Education brings dignity to people lives.
7. There were ten small such schools in the parish when the Sisters opened their school in Killina in 1817. One was in the Church at Mucklagh, one in a small wretched house, another in a thatched cabin, another in a stable covered in sods etc. Many of them were supported by Miss Maria O’Brien of Rahan Lodge who became a great benefactor of the Sisters, eventually joining the Convent herself.
8. The Presentation Sisters, who also came to Mullingar eight years after they arrived in Rahan, were true Pioneers in providing education to people so long denied this basic fundamental right. Over the 19th century they had many imitators, especially, the Mercy and Loreto Sisters and the Christian and Presentation brothers. They were, as I have often said, the true revolutionaries in our country, their weapon being giving people a consciousness of their dignity as children of God. It is a history that many, pursuing their own agenda, would like to obliterate from public record in these times.
9. It is worth reading an excerpt from a letter to Bishop Patrick Plunkett, a great supporter, from one of the Sisters in the Convent, written in Nov. 27th, l817 a few weeks after their arrival. She wrote ‘We opened our school on the lst of Sept. A great number of children presented themselves on that day and before the end of the week we had more than one hundred…… we find the dispositions of the children very favourable; they were mild and docile. A greater number of women attend instructions on Sunday after Mass. We have to regret that our schoolroom is too small either for the children or for the women on Sundays’.
10. The five Sisters were up and running very quickly. It is interesting that Fr. Robert St. Leger, from the Jesuit College, was appointed superior of the Convent. The Sisters, however, quickly proved that they were well capable of looking after their own affairs.
11. The horizons and outreach of the Sisters extended far beyond Killina. Fifteen years after arriving in Rahan a member of the community, Sr. Xavier Curran, led a small party of Irish Presentation Sisters to open a school in Madras, now Chennai, in India. It was the first Presentation School in that part of the world. She went, as did those who followed her, knowing she was very unlikely to come back. The Suez Canal did not then exist so it was a long and difficult six month journey in a sailing ship. Three more sisters from Rahan also went to Madras, that community spreading from there into Pakistan.
12. Four Sisters, native of Rahan, – the Doyles and Fogartys – went to Australia to found schools. Listed in the book are the names of around 160 natives of the parish joined religious communities, including the Presentation Sisters, over the past two hundred years, an extraordinary contribution to the mission of the Church over the decade.
13. It is right that today we recall this commitment and this giving of lives. Their giving echoes those words of Jesus in our Gospel since they became mother and mentor to generations of young people in Rahan and around the world.
14. But not only do we remember we are also invited to reflect and ponder on the meaning of it all. Obviously our time is now experiencing major changes in religious life. The Presentation Sisters, like the Mercy Sisters, responded with the utmost generosity in meeting a great need in our country and elsewhere. It is easy to forget the debt our country owes to their sacrifice. They gave opportunity for education to generations of children at the time when the State was either unwilling to do so or, for decades after independence, lacked the resources to do so. It was a giving that arose out of a deep faith in Jesus Christ inspired by the comment of Jesus – as long as you did it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine you did it for Me. Truly they did it for God, giving their greatest gift, their very lives, for the sake of others. It is right we honour their memory. Their courage and extraordinary commitment of life give us all much to reflect upon in the context of faith and life, especially living that call to walk in the way of God, a call that comes to all of us in baptism.