Habits of a Lifetime

After 150 years the Sisters of Mercy are celebrating spirituality, writes Jenny Cathcart

Enniskillen's Sisters of Mercy nuns are enjoying a particularly special celebration, for 2006 marks 150 years since their order was established, in a former grain house on the site of the present Mount Lourdes convent and school.

The celebrations began in June, when 60 nuns returned to the convent, coming from all over Ireland and as far away as Florida, for a reunion of the Enniskillen Novitiate.

A special mass was said in the convent chapel, followed by lunch in the dining room, the afternoon passing in party mood with reminiscences, recitations and songs.

On September 16 Sister Elizabeth Fee’s book, Sisters of Mercy in Enniskillen 1856-2006, was officially launched. The convent chapel, once described as ‘a little gem of Irish architecture, perfectly unique among Irish conventual chapels’, was opened to visitors.

Over the next four days, 1,000 people came to admire the intimate place of prayer, which had been decorated with floral displays. On September 24, Mass was celebrated in St Michael’s chapel to mark the Feast of our Lady of Mercy.

Following this, the nuns were entertained by pupils from Mount Lourdes, St Francis, the Mill Street and Holy Trinity, Cornagrade schools.

In mid-19th century Dublin and at a time of great social need, The Sisters of Mercy Order was founded by Catherine McAuley, daughter of a wealthy businessman. Unmarried, she worked as a companion to a Quaker couple named O’Callaghan, who bequeathed their fortune to her when they died.

With the money, McAuley, then fifty years of age, decided to set up a house of mercy to cater for the needy and poor. The property, named ‘Kitty’s Folly’ by McAuley's brother, was located in the heart of the city on the corner of Baggot Street and Herbert Street.

The first Sisters of Mercy convent opened its doors in 1832 and were soon appearing all over Ireland; in Carlow, Westport, Sligo and Castleblaney, each dealing autonomously with the needs of their respective communities. In 1856, five nuns from Sligo came to Enniskillen to establish the present convent.

Tragedy struck when a post-Famine tuberculosis epidemic took the lives of ten Enniskillen sisters. The nuns drank Guinness to build their strength, and kept cows in the convent garden for fresh milk. In the 19th century, novices whose families could afford it paid a dowry of four or five hundred pounds to join the order.

During a period of expansion, the convent chapel was built in 1905. Designed by Dublin architect William A Scott, it boasts a combination of Hiberno, Romanesque and Byzantine styles, its interior remarkable for 23 stained glass windows, made in the Dublin workshop An Tur Gloine (The Tower of Glass).

The nuns established a primary school in 1887. Such was their zeal to educate, they would visit homes in the town early in the morning, urging parents to send their children to school.

In 1917, the sisters built The Mount Lourdes Grammar School for Girls, which eventually grew to a teaching staff of 40, drawn entirely from the Order. Sister Maureen is typical of the nuns who have found teaching rewarding.

Sister Maureen says that her love of children was one of the factors that had made her hesitate before taking the vows of celibacy.

‘At the age of eighteen, I was typically pious,' she confesses. 'I spent a long time deciding whether to accept the vocation. One day I made a bargain with myself - that day I would decide definitely yes or no, while secretly hoping the answer would be no. But I did decide to become a nun and I experienced a real sense of excitement once I had taken the decision.’

From the 1960s, Church reforms proposed by the Second Vatican Council offered opportunities for renewal, reform and ecumenism, causing a sea change in convent practice.

Whilst never a cloistered order, the Sisters of Mercy had lived under a strict regime, rising at 7.30 am, turning in at 9.00pm, observing reverential silence during the day. When these rules were relaxed, some of the older nuns became confused and irritable, but a majority of sisters embraced the possibility of new challenges and opportunities.

Gradually they set aside their habits. A group of four nuns left the convent to live on a Roman Catholic housing estate at Kilmacormick.

Sister Mary Daly was the driving force behind an outreach programme that offered counselling, meeting rooms, a crèche, bookshop, and café at both the Aisling Centre in Enniskillen and the Tara Centre in Omagh.

Sister Edel is a woman of remarkable intellect, with an abiding interest in history and heritage. Born Eileen Bannon in the Co Fermanagh townland of Boho, she sat her 'A' levels at Mount Lourdes and at 18 decided to follow the precepts of celibacy, poverty and obedience.

She says these principles have given her the freedom to move along her spiritual path - freedom from financial preoccupations and obligations of family life. At 21 she was a student in Geography, History and Religious Education at Queen's University, Belfast.

On one occassion, wearing her black habit and veil with starched coif and guimp, she climbed one of the many peaks of the Mourne Mountains, and went down the other side. Needless to say she sought dispensation to wear more comfortable clothes when it came to the next field trip to a Durham Coalfield.

Sister Edel recalls common ignorance about religious life and laughs remembering one of her fellow students, a Presbyterian girl, asking if nuns were married to priests.

Sister Edel taught for ‘eleven wonderful years’ at the Sister of Mercy co-ed school at Castleblaney, Co Monaghan. Continuing her spiritual quest, she spent a year studying Theology at Berklee College in Boston.

Having travelled widely, she is realistic about the challenges facing the Roman Catholic Church today. She knows there will never be large convents again. She believes it is possible to remain celibate when one has the support of a religious community who work and pray together, but understands how difficult it is for parish priests who live and work singly in the community, to uphold those vows.

Today, there are no nuns on the staff of the Mount Lourdes girls school. The last 15 nuns residing in the convent are getting on in years. The covent house itself seems caught in a time warp, with furniture from the 1960s, but it is pleasingly appointed with a large kitchen and spacious dining room.

In the living room, a row of comfortable armchairs with matching footstools face a large plasma TV, a 150-year anniversary gift from the schoolchildren.

Many of the remaining Sisters of Mercy continue to serve the community in a pastoral role as counsellors. Sister Elizabeth Fee is currently on a sabbatical, studying at the Irish College in Paris. In November 2006, a a young Craigavon woman made her final profession as the most recent and youngest member of the Sisters of Mercy Order.