Religious Life – Then and Now – Christmas 2001

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Religious Life is as old as the Church itself. From earliest times men and women of prayer went into deserts and lonely places to be alone with the Lord. Later on, great monastic orders were founded where prayer, work and silence were the order of the day. Later on again, holy people, seeing the plight of the poor and the helpless decided they could best serve God by doing something towards alleviating their sufferings. During penal times in Ireland one of the crying needs for the Catholic poor was education which was strictly forbidden by law.

Towards the end of the l8th. Century, Nano Nagle, a wealthy woman of great faith planned to consecrate her life to God by prayer and service to the poor, and at great risk to herself and her family, she defied the law and set up a school in Cove Lane, Cork for the instruction of poor girls and to teach them to work. Her plan also included visiting sick women in public infirmaries and administering to their spiritual and temporal relief.

With the permission of the bishop of Cork a small band of helpers came with her to live a consecrated life of prayer and work. Thus, the Presentation Order was founded. Their dress was that of the peasant women of the day and they were free to move about among the people. Following Nano Nagle’s death, the Sisters changed from a simple congregation to an enclosed order with Solemn Vows. With enclosure they lost the right of visiting the hospitals and going out and their work was now confined to education. Fortunately, other congregations, who became involved in the care of the sick, the homeless, and the unwanted sprang up and so the religious of Ireland can claim that their work was the small beginning on which the present state’s Education, Health and Social Services are based.

The Presentation order grew quickly and spread from Cork to many other dioceses. In 1835 Archbishop John McHale, suspicious of the Education Act of 1831, invited them to Tuam and in 1908 Athenry Convent was founded. Canon Canton vacated his house to accommodate them and two Sisters went to teach in the old National School in Abbey Row. The rule of enclosure was so strict that they travelled to school down Court Lane in a covered carriage with blinds drawn until a new Girls’ School was built at a cost of £830.

School numbers soon grew and extra sisters arrived. Bit by bit extra subjects were added to the curriculum. Music and commercial subjects were taught and pupils who remained on in 7th and 8th Grades were taught in a Secondary Top class where they were prepared and entered for Intermediate Certificate. This was long before the Secondary School proper was opened and education took a whole new direction.

Community Life in Presentation Convent, Athenry Pre-Vatican:

The rule of enclosure was strictly enforced. Sisters had no permission to go beyond the Convent grounds which included the Back Field, where Primary and Post-Primary schools now stand. Part of the Parish Church was curtained off and here the sisters attended Sunday Mass. The Holy Rule was all important and everything was done In common – Morning and Evening Prayer, recreation and meals were controlled by the sound of the bell. Silence was very important and there was very little Communication with the outside world. The convent was self-supporting. The Sisters kept cows and grew their own vegetables. Scoil Croí Naofa now stands on what was then the vegetable garden, the cow shed and the hen-run. The land originally owned by the Sisters has again gone back to becoming school sites and playing fields.

Religious Life and Vatican 11:

With the implementation of Vatican 2, vast changes took place[Finbarr O1]  in Religious Life. Religious were told to go back to their roots and look again at the charisma of their founders. Presentations saw education in a broader context, and not enclosure but going out to work with and for the needy and underprivileged was their remit. Some saw education in schools as a very vital part of their mission. Others became involved in justice groups, in social and pastoral work, school and prison chaplaincies and others still went to work for the poor in 3rd. World Countries. Sadly, too, came the exodus of members who found they were unsuited for the calling they had so willingly undertaken.

Presentation Convent, Athenry has experienced many changes, but the Sisters still live out their commitment to consecrated religious Life. Sisters still teach both at Primary and Post-Primary levels. Others are involved in school management, home-school liaison, pastoral care, social work and visiting the sick and hospitalized. The retired Sisters live out their lives in peace and prayer for the Church, local and world-wide. All trying to keep in mind the Charisma of Nano Nagle.

Presentation Sisters, Athenry, who have lived 50 years in Religious Life.

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About this record

Written by Presentation Sisters

Published here 10 Jul 2023 and originally published Christmas 2001

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