Homily of Bishop Michael Smith, 21 November 2014

Feast of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary

I welcome all who have come to join us this day, especially the many Presentation Sisters who have made the journey back to Mullingar, some of whom were part of the Presentation community in Mullingar.

While it is a day for giving thanks for an honoured history of presence in this community there is also a sadness attached to our celebration. One hundred and ninety years of presence has come to an end, a presence that enhanced the lives of generations of children over that time.

A little bit of history is in order. In the decades before the arrival of the Sisters education had been denied to the Catholic children of the country. It was to aid the objective of keeping in check a broken and impoverished people. The late Fr. John Brady, diocesan historian, in his research in public archives here and especially in the library of the British museum managed to unearth information on many small schools that existed in all the parishes. In most cases the premises were  mud-walled cabins or even sometimes out in the open air. Courageous teachers set up these schools often at serious risk to themselves and with minimal salary. This was provided by the students. They were only able to cater for a small percentage of the children seeking education.

In 1788 there were seven such small schools in Mullingar. These had increased to 14 by 1824, the year before the Sisters arrived. Mullingar was blessed in having a few successful Catholic business people who managed to accumulate some wealth and who possessed a strong social conscience. James Hevey was the most noted of these with his will of 1837 allowing the establishment of the Hevey Trust and the opening of new schools. His generous bequest made possible the feeding of the people of this town during the worst years of the famine.

However in the context of what we honour today – the presence of the Presentation Sisters – two other names must be recalled. In 1822 a local successful catholic businessman, Thomas Lynch, left a very generous bequest that along with another generous gift from Eleanor Martin made it possible for Fr. McCormick to invite the Sisters and build the Convent and schools. At their peak these schools were catering for 1000 pupils.

Education is a great gift. It is also a fundamental human right. Denial of education takes away from the young their dignity and the opportunity to develop their talents and capacities, Denial of education impoverishes society. Presentation Sisters from this town in later years travelled to India in mid 1800s and later to Pakistan. The situation they encountered there would have been a replica of what they encountered when first they came to Mullingar – generations of youth denied an education.

The development of education would not have been possible without the sacrifice of the Sisters. Spartan would not do justice to the lives they lived, giving all to the objective of offering education to as many children as possible. Their presence inspired other developments in the parish with the school in Gainstown opening eight years later – it began in the chapel since there was no other accommodation available. Walshestown, Glascorn and Ballinea followed within ten years. In subsequent years the Christian Brothers and Loreto Sisters also provided schools and a new school was opened in Curraghmore.

It was a remarkable period of development in years that experienced the terrible famine, mass emigration, rebellions and land wars. In our age of plenty with opportunities open to all to fulfil their full potential it is easy to overlook what the denial of education truly meant. Someone recently was able to highlight one small aspect of this. Many who emigrated – and very many did in the years before the famine – left unable to read or write. They couldn’t write back when they reached Britain, America or elsewhere to tell of their safe arrival. Family links and relationship were sundered, leaving those who remained to worry and anguish about the fate of those who had left.

The hunger for education ran very deep in the people and once penal laws and other restrictions began to be lifted they were not to be denied. It is a history worth recalling since it is easily ignored and forgotten. Without the sacrifice of the Sisters it would have been a much sadder history. That sacrifice was total. The Sisters gave their very lives, their most sacred and precious gift, so that many could have restored to them their dignity as human beings.

While circumstances changed with each passing decade that giving of their lives for the benefit of others remained a constant. Obviously their presence was not confined to just the teaching. They reached out in generosity and charity to countless families and individuals in the community in support. They didn’t keep a record of their countless silent acts of generosity and goodness that touched many a home and many an individual over all these years. It was all done for God, including their wider involvement with the parish and especially with the Cathedral.

In this ceremony today we seek to give recognition to that extraordinary story and the extraordinary giving by so many Sisters, from different parts of the country. They graced the lives of countless thousands over the past 190 years and enhanced the life of this community with their talents and giftedness.

Their physical presence may be ended but they leave a legacy and a heritage that one prays will continue to animate the schools into the future. That legacy is built on a central truth of our faith – every life is touched with the image and likeness of God. All, no matter how broken or disadvantaged they may be, belong to the family of God. The Sisters lived out this truth by their lives and their work. No words could ever express the debt of gratitude owed to them. May all their names be written in Heaven.