The Magnificent Nine:

The Convent of Mercy in Callan


Callan nuns blaze a trail down under


Callan’s Convent of Mercy is best known for its glittering academic achievements. For decades these have equalled and in many cases eclipsed those of many schools in Ireland.

Aside from the odd case of a pupil escaping through a skylight or window to meet one of the lads from the hard-pressed CBS, the girls burned the midnight oil to great effect under the tutelage and benign influence of the worthy nuns.

The Convent’s reputation for turning out bright and brilliant young women with brains to burn is widely acknowledged. Each autumn, it receives fresh accolades for its role as a centre of learning.

Less well known is the story of how nine dedicated and idealistic teaching nuns from the same convent made a massive contribution to education and the care of poverty stricken children in Australia.

In 1888, a small group of Callan-based nuns embarked on a journey across the globe that was to transform the lives of countless people down under.

Their story begins with the appointment of Bishop Patrick Moran of Ossory as Parish Priest of Callan by Papal Decree. He was assigned to that post in 1872 at the height of the infamous schism in the town.

Moran and the suspended Callan PP, Father O’ Keeffe became locked in a bitter struggle that was a continuation of a personally clash between the priest and Bishop’s Moran’s predecessor, who had stubbornly refused to allow a French order of nuns to take over Callan Lodge.

Within weeks of his appointment, Bishop Moran invited the Sisters of Mercy in Athy to establish a foundation in Callan. They gratefully accepted the offer and arrived in town on December 8th, 1872.

In 1884, Moran was transferred to Australia, where he was appointed Archbishop of Sydney. A year later, he was promoted to Cardinal. Shortly after assuming that enviable position, his thoughts wandered back to his adored Convent of Mercy in Callan.

He wrote to them, asking if the convent would consider sending over a few nuns to start a foundation in Sydney.

Never ones to duck a challenge, or a chance to elevate themselves in the sight of God, the Callan nuns agreed to accept the invitation. The Cardinal explained that their central house, should they decide to take on the great cross he held out to them, would be at Parramatta, about thirty miles from Sydney, which already had a small convent.

Parramatta had been associated with Catholic education in Australia since 1823. In 1838, Mary Xavier Williams of the Irish Sisters of Charity became the first official nun in Australia.

She made her vows of Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience in a cottage that had been converted into a makeshift convent. A number of other religious orders also made their mark in the district.

One of these, the Good Shepherd Sisters, had been banned from running an orphanage by the ruling Governor, for reasons unknown to present day historians and researchers.

In 1888, just days before the arrival of the Callan nuns, the Monte Sisters of Mercy, an English order, also left Parramatta in a hurry…again for reasons unknown.

So the brave nuns from the Town of the Ructions were understandably apprehensive about sailing half way across the world to face an uncertain and potentially unproductive future in the Land of the Kangaroo.

Cardinal Moran had great faith in the Callan sisters, and he left them in no doubt as to the vital importance of the mission he had in mind for them: The catholic community in the part of Australia concerned was growing at a fast rate, and had been deprived of state aid for education of its children.

The Cardinal believed the women from the Convent of Mercy could help to fill the vacuum created by this cruel blow inflicted by the secular authorities. The task that faced them was enormous: They had to find schools and teachers to ensure that the children were not deprived of the life opportunities that a sound basic education could offer them.

A highly portentous meeting of clerics set the ball rolling: The Bishop of Ossory, Dr. Brownrigg, and the Callan Convent’s Reverend Mother, M. Maher, entered into complex and lengthy deliberations. The Reverend Mother was a cousin of Cardinal Moran.

They decided to allocate nine of Callan’s most devout and toughest nuns to what, privately; they feared might be a “Mission Impossible.”

The elite women selected were: Mary Clare Dunphy (Superior); Alphonsus Shelly; Columba Woodcock; Alacocque Kavanagh; Agnes Kavanagh; Teresa Wall; Mary de Sales Shelly; Brigid Darby’ and a novice, J. O’ Callaghan.

Mary Clare hailed from Cullohill, County Laois. Her grandnieces, the Dunphys and Walshes of Cullohill were boarders at the Callan convent in the 1970s and 80s. Mary de Sales Shelly and Alphonsus Shelly were natives of Callan.

To be continued…

(My book Invaders tells the story of how a small band of men and women stood up to the most powerful army on earth. It’s available in all Kilkenny bookshops and from Amazon).

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