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Tuesday, 14 April 2015 09:16

Daring with holy boldness

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Sr Margaret Cannane pbvm 150Presentation Sister Margaret Cannane's address during the official opening of Presentation House in Lismore last year needs to be retold. Her words allow us to walk along its storied halls and hear the history of the Presentation Sisters' ministry from Ireland to Lismore NSW and their legacy of Catholic education, community life and commitment to the poor.

The story of the Presentation Sisters began with an amazing woman called Nano Nagle, who was named, in 2002, as the greatest Irish person and also as the Woman of the millennium, for her work as a faith-inspired activist on behalf of those made poor. Nano, who was born into a wealthy family in 1718, felt called by God to provide a catholic education for those made poor by unjust structures and the potato blight.

Under the rule of William III of England, legislation forbade Irish Catholics from practising their faith and catholic schools were suppressed. With the possibility of being thrown into gaol, Nano did not let fear prevent her from setting up hedge schools to educate the poor children, and to teach them about God. Many of these children were rough and streetwise but she loved them all.

She begged from her family and anyone else who would give her money, to care for and educate these children from the back lanes of Cork as well as care for their families whom she visited at night carrying her lantern.

An Indian Presentation sister describes Nano as ‘daring with holy boldness, with Love alone as her source, Courage as her shield and Compassion as her way’.

Over time, she gathered other willing women to help in her ministries and eventually formed a religious community to carry on her work. That community was called the Presentation Sisters.

In the 1880s, Dean Jeremiah Doyle, who later became Bishop Doyle, was not satisfied with the general standard of education in the Lismore area so set out on a search of Ireland for a religious community to set up a catholic school in Lismore. Eventually the Presentation Community in Lucan responded to his call and in 1886 on 8th June, three professed sisters, Mothers Stanislaus D’Arcy (aged 36), Berchmans Barnwall (34) and Ignatius Barnwall (31) left Ireland for Australia. They brought with them eight young ladies aged between sixteen and twenty two years who had volunteered for this mission.

When they reached Lismore on 6th August 1886, a week after a flood, there was a fully furnished convent set up for them from money generously donated by the people of Lismore. This building provided accommodation for 12 sisters and 20 boarders. All classes took place in this convent until 1898 when a new St Mary’s College was opened as an extension of the original building.

Sadly on 2nd January, 1905 St Mary’s Convent and College and St Carthage’s Pro- Cathedral were burnt to ashes in 20 minutes. While Bishop Doyle took responsibility for the debt incurred in building the new Cathedral, Mother Stanislaus took responsibility for the finance for the new convent and school. Once again the people of Lismore rallied to the cause by raising money for these buildings.

St Mary’s convent and school was opened on 17th March, 1907 and St Carthage’s Cathedral on 18th August of the same year.

About 200 Sisters have lived in this building over the years since 1886. On this occasion I would like to pay tribute to these women, many of whom were teachers in the Lismore and Sydney dioceses. They also worked after school and on Saturdays teaching music, secretarial studies and elocution to provide students with a broader education and thus more opportunities for employment. Our Sisters always made sure that children could come to school even if they could not pay fees and provided them with uniforms, books or whatever they needed in school. Other sisters taught music full time not only to those students in our schools but to students from other schools as well.

I also want to pay tribute to and thank those Sisters whose ministry was to care and provide for the community and boarders. We especially remember these women for the love, care and respect they showed to people who came to the door asking for food. They always provided them with lots of sandwiches and a big pot of tea! They did this in the spirit of Nano.

As the number of our Sisters living in this building declined to 8 or 9 older Sisters, it became obvious that we needed to move out of the Convent which was too big for so few and too costly to maintain.

In 2003 all our Sisters met on 13th and 14th September for two days of prayer, listening and sharing to discern what we wanted to do with the Convent. After considering a variety of options we unanimously decided that we wanted the building to be used for education. Trinity had the first option but did not have sufficient funds to convert the rooms into classrooms.

We are grateful that the Diocese later bought the building from us so that we had funds to build units in Oliver Street for our older Sisters. The Sisters moved out of this building and into these units in September, 2005. Sadly this building sat here empty for many years, only being used for a short time by St Carthage’s school classes. When the decision was made to refurbish the building for use by the Catholic Schools Office we felt that our discernment to use the building for educational purposes was at last coming to fruition.

We hope and pray that those who work in the Catholic Schools Office here in Presentation House and those who visit here will be reminded of Nano’s heritage:

  • to love and welcome all the children;
  • to treat them with dignity and respect;
  • to support students and their families especially in time of need;
  • to seek out and invite into the schools those who cannot afford fees and to provide for them as needed;
  • to help all students to know and experience God’s love;
  • and to develop strong citizens committed to justice for those made poor and those unjustly treated.

This edited article is an address given by Sr Margaret Cannane pbvm on the blessing and opening of Presentation House in Lismore at end of 2014. This was first published in the March 2015 issue of Catholic Life Journal, the quarterly publication of the Catholic Diocese of Lismore.