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Saturday 10 December 2016

Faded images from an era of sacrifice

The convents are dying, and with them a part of our own history, writes a nostalgic Florence Horsman Hogan

Published 07/08/2011 | 05:00

A broken statue of a saint stands towering high in the convent garden, bestowing its headless blessing to a community of nuns no longer there to receive them. Green moss and weeds adorn what was once a snow- white mantle.

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A once revered picture of a saint, now abandoned and waiting storage, the sunlight from a facing window casting an enthralling magnificence that no human artist could ever achieve. A picture of Catherine McAuley, founder of the Sisters of Mercy, remains over an empty fireplace. Peeling wallpaper and cobwebs give shadow memories to a glorious era of a community of women who'd sacrificed their lives to serve Irish society.

These are beautiful photographs sent to me of the convent and grounds that used to be my home. But the unutterable sadness I felt at the cruel desecration that time was ravishing on the place of my childhood was indescribable.

How the mighty are fallen; the once powerful symbol of the power of the Catholic Church -- the convent -- is in its death throes.

As a six-week-old baby, I was taken into care with the Sisters of Mercy in Ballinasloe

Co Galway. Sr John Scully, who ran the industrial school, was my friend, mother figure and confidante for many years after I'd left the home. When the school was closed down, the State abandoned many of us. I was cruelly taken from the only secure home I'd ever known and returned to parents who -- due to mental illness -- were unable to care for me, a five-year-old child.

My younger years were spent roaming the village with little or no supervision. But even then, the Sisters of Mercy living in my home village kept a watchful eye on me. Food when I was hungry, clothes when I was cold, and a cautionary word when rambling the streets late at night.

Early childhood memories flooded to me as I gazed at the pictures. Distant echoes of children laughing, crying and fighting. Of running around that garden. The Sisters took great pride in tending the lawns' riotously coloured flowerbeds. Over 50 of us charged around, getting in the way of the older Sisters, gardening, or trying to say their prayers quietly, seated in the tiny secluded gazebos.

As a teenager and then mother I returned to Sister John over the years. Sometimes we'd sit out in the garden watching my children run around, playing on the very same pathways my own childish feet had travelled.

I feel very privileged to have had the Sisters in my life. Like everything, there were the good and the bad. But for many of us growing up in Ireland in the Sixties, they were the only ones prepared to help those of us in such dire need.

Founded in 1831 in Dublin by the aforementioned Catherine McAuley, the Sisters of Mercy were at the height of their powers in the Fifties -- running schools, hospitals and so many community services. As their numbers declined over the years, many of the convents and institutions they ran have closed and others are now about to be handed over to the State. The empire that sheltered me and many like me is coming to an end.

Sunday Independent

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