Friday 23 March 2018

Catching up with a distant relative – Mother Superior

President Kennedy made an impromptu stop-off to meet Mother Superior Clement of Wexford's Loreto Convent
President Kennedy made an impromptu stop-off to meet Mother Superior Clement of Wexford's Loreto Convent

Graham Clifford

As the limousine slowed down, the nuns outside Wexford's Loreto Convent could not believe their eyes.

They had been granted special permission to come to the gates to witness President Kennedy's visit.

The door opened and out stepped JFK smiling from ear to ear. Mother Superior Clement – formerly Florrie Ward from West Cork – stepped forward to greet her distant cousin.

Secret service men looked at each other in dismay. The unscheduled visit came about with just a moment's warning and the building had not been previously vetted.

Andy Minihan, chairman of the New Ross Urban District Council, is reported to have informed President Kennedy of his connection with Mother Clement and set up the impromptu meeting.

Beaming nuns, shocked students, bewildered security agents and amused gardai gathered around as the devoutly Catholic President Kennedy clasped his cousin's hands.

"This is one of the greatest moments of my life," JFK stated before adding, "I am very glad to have met you, another member of the family."

President Kennedy signed the convent's visitors' book and spoke to the nuns as miniature American flags fluttered in the wind around them before he bid them adieu.

The Loreto convent annals from 1963 record the event: * "Wexford went gay, Loreto flew the Stars and Stripes with the Tricolour and the Papal flags. To the dismay of Mr Aiken (the Minister of External Affairs) and his security men, President Kennedy insisted on leaving his car and entering the Convent grounds where he chatted to the nuns and signed the visitors' book and any autographs that were presented to him. All were won by his warm personality and his attractiveness. Mother Superior presented the President with Irish linen for his mother and wife. Later, Mother Superior received most gracious letters of thanks from these two ladies."

Upwards of 30,000 people gathered in Wexford for the presidential visit.

On arrival, the president, who was dressed in a light blue suit, laid a wreath at the statue of Wexford's Commodore John Barry – considered to be the father of the US Navy.

He was welcomed to the town by Wexford Mayor Thomas F Byrne, a local Labour politician who had secured the mayorship just days before.

"It was by remarkable luck that he became mayor just in time for the visit," recalls local historian and writer Nicholas Furlong, who was a dairy farmer at the time.

Mayor Byrne behaved "impeccably", recalls Nicholas. "He was the manager of a grocer's, which was part of the Home and Colonial store chain. He was so elegant that day as he welcomed JFK to the podium."

Rising to his feet, President Kennedy spoke of his delight at being "back from whence I came" and initially he joked around with the crowd asking any Kennedys present to raise their hand.

Parts of his speech surprised some due to its political content. He spoke to the country people of Wexford about "these dangerous days when the struggle for freedom is worldwide against an armed doctrine".

* Source: Loreto Central & Irish Province Archives

Irish Independent

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