Congratulations to the people of South Kerry who, led by successive parish priests, embarked on the courageous journey of restoring the O’Connell Memorial Church and are on target to date with their plan of action.
Pope Francis declared 2015 as the ‘Year of Consecrated Life’ and the Cahersiveen Deanery marked the event on 28th August, combining it with the re-dedication of the Nun’s Chapel which was refurbished earlier in the year. The letter of invitation fro Canon Larry Kelly PP, states “The Mass forms a key part of our parish celebration for the ‘Year of the Religious’. It is also part of the annual Daniel O’Connell Summer School”. These events fit finely together as Daniel O’Connell is closely connected with the history of the Presentation Sisters in Cahersiveen and there are many Presentation past pupils who joined various Religious Congregations both in Ireland and abroad.
The Nun’s Chapel – The Upper Choir
I rejoice at the news that the Nun’s Chapel is now part of the Church and in use all year round. The refurbishment and re-dedication is serving a need for a comfortable and warm space for prayer and it also ensures that the memory of the Presentation Sisters in Cahersiveen will endure. It is our privilege and responsibility to pass on to the next generation, what we have received. Nowadays, availability of education is taken for granted but in the 19th and early part of the 20th century, Catholics were poor and uneducated and without means of redressing this situation. Nano Nagle founded the Presentation Sisters in 1775 in Cork and she imbued in each of them, her zeal for education and service of the poor. Mother Joseph O’ Mahoney, a relative of Daniel O’Connell, came with two other Sisters from the Presentation Community in Dingle and together with a fourth Sister from the Milltown Community, they founded the Cahersiveen Community and school in 1840. Within just weeks, there 458 pupils enrolled in the school.
At that time and up to Vatican II (1963-65), the Congregation was bound by the Rule of Enclosure which meant that the Sisters did not go outside the Convent grounds. They taught in the classrooms and had their own Chapel in the Convent where they prayed. There was no Chaplain so they had to attend the Parish Church for Mass but Enclosure demanded separation, hence the need for the space known to the Sisters as the ‘Upper Choir’. Here, behind the grate, the Sisters attended daily Mass and all Church services. The grate was opened only to give access to the priest to distribute Holy Communion and after Mass it would be locked again.
During my school years (1956-69) when I had the benefit of an excellent education on my doorstep in Presentation Primary and Secondary Schools, we never saw the sisters in the shops, library, pathways,graveyards or beaches apart from Ballinskelligs. (Just occasionally we would see them at a distance on Ballinskelligs beach where there was a retreat Convent for nuns to have a holiday in the summer). Neither could we see them in the church but we were very aware of their presence behind the grate. I imagined it to be a very mysterious place from where they could see us without being seen so I was surprised in later life to discover that in fact, they could see very little, not even the altar!
I remember processing through the Upper Choir on our First Communion Day but apart from the strangeness of the place and knowing it was the route to the Church beforehand and to the Communion Breakfast afterwards, little else remains in the way of memories. The other memory I have is as a secondary student being called upon to help with the dusting before special feast days. I have a clear memory of the glass ‘Connection’ full of colourful plants that led into the Upper Choir, the smell of polish in the Choir and the unusual wooden seats referred to as ‘stalls’ and the ‘prie dieu’ from where the Sisters received Holy Communion. We could talk in the Connection but had to be quiet in the Choir, emphasising that it was a holy place and the Sisters had a keen sense of the presence of God. We were rewarded with chocolate for our efforts at dusting.
I checked my memories with on the Sisters who lived in the Convent and she explained First Communicants and Helpers were exempt from the Enclosure boundary. Also, the Sister who accompanied school children could be present in the body of the Church so there were occasional glimpses of Sisters, outside of school hours. Of course the Sisters who came to Cahersiveen after the renewal era that followed Vatican II, have little association with the Upper Choir as they were free to enter the Church to participate in the Eucharist of whatever services they wished to attend.
Hope for the Future
In more recent years, I loved to visit the Christmas Crib which was artistically housed in the Choir but I remember the cold air and rough ground underfoot, now thankfully replaced with a beautifully tiled mosaic floor and a warm and welcoming atmosphere. The refurbishment combined with years of faith-filled and faithful presence will no doubt support all the future prayer and faith related activities.
When Pope Francis was setting out the aims of the Year of Consecrated Life, he called upon the exhortation which St. John Paul II proposed to the whole Church at the beginning of the Third Millennium The call from the Pope, suits the celebratory occasion in Cahersiveen on 28th August 2015, “You have not only a glorious 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.” (Vita Consecrata, no.110).
“Go maire solas na Toirbhirte in ár measc go deo.”
– Sister Mary Hoare, the Presentation Order. Native of Cahersiveen.