The 'Sisters of Antrim'

AND to think it all started with a call from Bishop Cathal Daly...

Back in 1984 he was a man on a mission. He had become aware of social problems in some of Antrim’s estates - and he knew the very people for the job.

The Sisters of Our Lady of the Missions had been founded in France back in 1861, and from the outset their focus had been firmly on women and children.

Down the years they had provided medical care services for the poor and organised medical camps and free school meals for less privileged youngsters.

And 28-years-ago they were Antrim bound, though few could have guessed the indelible mark they would leave on local life.

Historian Brendan Smith has chronicled their towering contribution in his masterful history of St Comgall’s and the Parish of Antrim, ‘Silent Night Holy Night’.

In total, five Sisters heeded the Bishop’s call to act, and later that year they took up residence in the town’s Rathenraw estate.

They were Sister Mary Clement Kelly, from Draperstown; Sister Josephine McAlea, from Belfast; Sister Teresa McGovern, from Fermanagh; Sister Mary Scullion, from Moneyglass; and Sister Helen Currie, from Scotland.

Another regular visitor was Sister Mary Kelly who, rather confusingly, was Sister Clement’s sister!

Both had heard the religious calling early in life.

When Sister Clement was just 10 her father died leaving her mother to bring up a family of three girls and seven boys.

During the summer of 1932 the Sisters of Our Lady of Missions from Limavady called at the Kelly family home.

Anne, who would later become Sister Mary Clement, was just 14 at the time - and she knew what she wanted to do with her life.

She asked her mother is she could become a boarder prior to entering the Novitiate at Hastings in England, and she agreed.

She crossed the Irish Sea two years later, and in March 1937 she made her first Profession as a Sister. In 1941, having trained as a teacher, she embarked on a teaching ministry that would span three decades. Along the way she became Head of Sacred Heart Primary School in Leeds before returning to Hastings in 1973 to be the Superior of a large community there.

But when the call ‘home’ came, she was ready. Yes, the work would be challenging - after all, Rathenraw at the time was blighted by high unemployment and problems associated with families ‘displaced by the Troubles’ - but she felt ‘privileged’ to be one of the founding members.

The Sisters took up residence at 1 Somerset Park, the first of five houses in a row. Very soon, however, they were keen to expand...

For while it was initially envisaged that their work on the estate would be Pastoral, hands on experience of the difficulties experienced by people on the ground sparked an altogether more ambitious plan.

Sister Mary Clement felt there was a need to create ‘a space’ where people could come together - so on October 6 1984 the Family Caring Centre was opened.

It started modestly enough, with a thrift shop in a caravan - but the Sisters knew they could achieve much more if they had a more permanent base.

And Sister Mary sought some divine intervention!

She quietly slipped Miraculous Medals over the fences of the other houses in the row and left it to the Lord to do the rest.

As each house became vacant she lobbied the Housing Executive to sign them over - and they did.

From those humble beginnings, the Caring Centre has gone on to offer an astonishing range of children’s services, adult services and programmes aimed at empowering local people. Better still, the services were ‘for all’ irrespective of age and creed - and it continues to thrive today.

It stands as a monument to one woman’s tenacity and vision - a truly remarkable achievement.

Away from the Centre, the Sisters continued to make their presence felt.

Sister Teresa ministered at St Comgall’s, and Sister Mary Scullion at St Macnissi’s in Randalstown.

Sister Helen Currie worked as a health visitor but in 1987 she was asked by the Congregation to go on mission to the Philippines, where she worked for several years in a mountainous region known as Kulaman. Later, Sister Helen was transferred to France.

For the rest, the work in Antrim continued - but, sadly, none were getting any younger.

Sister Teresa McGovern continued her missionary endeavours in Antrim until 2001 when her health began to fail. She died in 2008 and was laid to rest on October 7 - the feast of the Holy Rosary.

Accompanied by 11 of her nephews and nieces who came to say a fond, final farewell, Father Tony Devlin gave the homily celebrating a life well lived.

He said he had ‘quietly and unobtrusively’ visited people in need and offered care - often ‘tugging the tail of the St Vincent de Paul’ to get practical help.

“She was to be found wherever there was sorrow or suffering or want, her presence always quietly respectful and comforting.

“Humorously, Teresa is also remembered for her driving. When she was on the road people gave her space but they watched out for her too with genuine care.

“She was well loved by the people of Antrim.”

In 2002 Sister Mary Clement had handed over the management of the centre to experienced staff, taking on the role of President instead.

But by August 2008 she decided that her mission was over, and she moved to Dublin.

“As I approach my 90th birthday and reflect on my years that have gone by, I turn to God with deep gratitude - firstly for all the graces and blessings I have received, secondly for my parents and members of my natural family and very importantly for the Sisters of my religious family,” she said at the time.

“I pray to God to bless and reward all who have helped me on my way.”

But her ‘retirement’ was to be short-lived.

Just two years later she became sick and tests confirmed that she was terminally ill - a diagnosis she accepted with typical stoicism.

She passed at 5.30pm on November 5 2010.

It was said that she slipped away so peacefully that ‘it was difficult to know the moment’. She was laid to rest in Mount Venus Cemetery in Dublin.

Sister Mary Clement was a huge loss, but in her absence Sister Catherine Corrigan continued to minister in the Parish of Antrim.

Sister Mary Scullion served the Parish of Randalstown for many years too followed by Sister Veronica Kerrins and, latterly, by Sister Carmel Looby.

In July 2017, and with little fanfare, the congregation withdrew its presence from Antrim due to ‘lack of personnel and declining numbers’.

It was the end of an era, but the Sisters had left an enduring mark on the community they served.

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