A special word of thanks to Sr Therese Nwosu, Sr Celine Gallagher and the members of the Holy Rosary Congregation for their kind help.
For 60 years Killeshandra has been home to one of the world's greatest missionary
endeavors. For 60 years young women left Killeshandra to bring education, health care and,
most important of all, the Christian message to the African peoples. Through their
courage, their total commitment, their dedication, they have made an enormous contribution
to the development of many third world countries. The full extent of this contribution may
never be fully appreciated or recognized. For these brave women, their journey began in
Killeshandra. They were members of the Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary,
and their convent, the mother house of the order, was situated a few miles outside of the
town. At its peak the order was the largest missionary congregation for women in Ireland.
Throughout the length and breadth of Ireland the sisters were simply and affectionately
known as the 'Killeshandra nuns'. To tell their story is to tell the story of some
of the bravest and most dedicated women ever to leave these shores.
Their story begins on a verandah of a
mission house in Calabar, Nigeria. It was June 1922. Among the group was Bishop Joseph
Shanahan and among the concerns they discussed that evening was the fact that their
efforts to educate and bring religion to the people of Nigeria was only touching one half
of the population, the men. Women were not being adequately catered for by the missionary
movement. The bishop had approached various Societies without success. They were reluctant
to become involved. In those days Africa seemed far away, and life there was seen to be
crude and uncultured, not a fitting place for young Irish ladies. So the group came round
to the conclusion that the only answer was to form a new missionary congregation for
women. Shanahan moved fast and by the following October, at a meeting in St Mary's
College, Rathmines, Dublin, the enterprise was launched. The response was immediate and
enthusiastic. A small number of women volunteered to join. By October 1923 they had come
together as a community in the Dominican Convent, Cabra.
Among the members of that early community
was Agnes Ryan, the daughter of Dr Ryan of Bailieboro, Co. Cavan. She too had trained as a
doctor and had answered Bishop Shanahan's call for women to join the new congregation.
Bishop Shanahan then contacted the bishop of her native diocese, Bishop Finnegan of
Kilmore, and he readily offered the hospitality of his diocese. Drummully House, the
residence of the Lough family on the outskirts of Killeshandra, was bought for £6,000.
Shanahan then asked the Dominican Sisters in Cabra to undertake the training and formation
of the young ladies who had joined. On 25 February 1924 Dr Shanahan and a few Cabra
sisters arrived in the house and began to prepare it for its new role as a convent. On 7
March the first postulants arrived at the new convent. They were Agnes Ryan, later Sr
Therese (Bailieboro), Sr Brigid Ryan (Abbeyleix), Sr Peter Shannon (Enniskillen), Sr
Joseph Burns (Killeshandra) and Sr Dominic O'Dwyer (Loughrea). The Cabra Nuns who came to
train them were Mothers Xavier, Aquinas and Ursula.
Two priests, Fr Whitney and Fr Mellett, were given the task of raising funds for the
new congregation. They traversed the entire country preaching, giving lectures and making
appeals. It was largely through their efforts that Killeshandra became a household name
throughout the land.
The first group of missionary sisters leaving Killeshandra, Jan 1928
By 1928 the first members of the order arrived in Nigeria. Shanahan's dream had been
fulfilled. This would be but the beginning of a truly marvelous endeavor. The small group
of five sisters arrived at Onitsha where they began their mission by setting up a small
school. Not only did the sisters offer general and religious education but they also gave
classes in child welfare, in marriage training and in domestic science. The experience of
these early years would give the congregation a new insight into what was needed for the
missionary life. As a result, sisters who had not a profession before entering the convent
were sent to centres in Ireland, England and Scotland to be trained as teachers, doctors,
nurses, midwives - specialists in every branch of knowledge that would help to bring them
into touch with the day-today lives of the people among whom they worked. By the time the
order was celebrating the Silver Jubilee of its foundation there were seventy sisters
working in various parts of Nigeria. The one convent and school in Onitsha had multiplied
into a network of 11 convents, 102 schools attended by 17,000 children, 3 hospitals, 20
maternity homes, 30 dispensaries, 4 teacher-training centres. By that time the school in
Onitsha had a roll of almost 2,000. The sisters had also helped to establish a novitiate
for a new Nigerian congregation of sisters.
Their missionary work was not confined to Nigeria alone. In April 1940 a group of
sisters had arrived in the Transvaal region of South Africa, establishing their first
house and school at Edenvale. Another group did likewise at Vereeniging. By 1949 the
sisters had established a new 180 bed hospital at Edenvale.
In 1949 the Sisters celebrated the Silver Jubilee of the foundation of the order.
That first twenty-five years was an era of constant growth and success. In all there were
85 sisters working from 15 Holy Rosary convents in Africa. Eleven of these convents were
in Nigeria. There were two more in South Africa and another two in Sierra Leone. And as
the number of sisters grew the mother-house had been extended, first in 1929 and again in
The convent buildings had been extended twice during the first
The period from 1950 - 1966 marked an era of continued growth and expansion for the Congregation, not only in the countries where it was already established, but also in new territories. In 1951 the sisters moved into Northern Nigeria. In 1956 they were invited to enter the Cameroon where they ran a secondary school for girls as well as carrying out other missionary activities. The same year, they opened a hospital in a remote part of East Africa (Kenya), among the Pokot people. By the early 1960's the sisters had moved into Central Africa (Zambia) where they ran hospitals and schools. Then in 1965 their first mission in Brazil was opened for medical and catechetical work among the poor. The sisters had even set up an establishment in the USA in 1953 for promotion work and to foster vocations and, as a result, they later opened a novitiate there.
During this period new convents were founded and the Congregation was also involved in the formation of two indigenous Sisterhoods, one in Kenya and the other in the Cameroon. The first African, a native of Nigeria, joined the Congregation in 1953. This period also saw a huge increase in vocations and, as a result, a juniorate was opened at Castle Shanahan, Ireland. This juniorate remained open until 1968. New Formation Centres were also established in South Africa and Nigeria.
Sr. M Joseph Burns,
Sr M Joseph Therese Agbasiere,
Even though the congregation continued to expand, this period was marked by huge
Firstly, the Second Vatican Council had brought about a whole new understanding of the
Church and it's mission in the world. As a result, the sisters too had to discover a new
vision of their role as missionaries in the context of the modern world. And the changes
were to be seen in all aspects of their lives. The Generalate, the body that governs the
order, moved from Killeshandra to Dublin. In convent life the day-today regulations were
relaxed and the traditional long habits were replaced by more modern modes of dress.
Secondly, by 1967 civil war had broken out in Nigeria when the region of Biafra
attempted to declare its independence from the Nigerian state. This war lasted until 1970.
As a result of the war 23 convents were closed and 110 sisters had to leave the country.
Thirdly, throughout Europe and the USA these years saw the beginnings of a dramatic
drop in vocations to the religious life. While the Holy Rosary Sisters did not escape this
decline in vocations in Europe, it was more than balanced by a large rise in vocations in
In the meantime, the congregation continued to seek out new
missions. In the mid 1970's they had moved into Ethiopia and Ghana, working in hospitals,
in education and in social work. The first involvement of the sisters with refugee work
began in 1982 in Sudan. This was followed with work for refugees in Uganda and, more
recently, in Mozambique. Civil disturbance in Sierra Leone in 1994 meant that many of the
sisters had to leave that country. This resulted in a new opening in the Republic of
Guinea where the sisters work with refugees displaced from Sierra Leone. Their option for
work among the poor saw the sisters moving to Mexico in 1992 and establishing two
Today, the congregation works in seventeen countries. There are about 70 communities
with members from eleven different nationalities. African sisters now make up one quarter
of the whole congregation. There are two formation centres, one in Kenya and another in
Nigeria. For many years the sisters were mainly involved in educational and medical
institutions, but now they help in every area of need. They care for orphans and they work
among AIDS victims and drug addicts. In more recent times their work has expanded to
include caring for refugees in war-torn areas. In cooperation with the local churches they
collaborate in team ministry, promoting justice and helping to build a better world
especially for the poor and for women.
The Mother House, Killeshandra, prior to its closure in 1985
The dramatic decline in vocations had another major effect. With fewer
sisters to accommodate, the congregation had to find some way of making positive use of
the increasingly empty convent in Killeshandra. By 1976, it was decided that a part of the
convent should be opened as a retreat and conference centre, and this venture succeeded
for a number of years. But, as the numbers continued to decline, it became less and less
feasible to maintain the this very large convent for a small number of sisters. By 1980
the hard decision was made. The convent in Killeshandra, the Mother house of the
congregation, the 'House on the Hill', would have to close. In 1985, just over 60 years
after the first members of the congregation have moved to Killeshandra, the sisters left
it for the last time and moved to two new houses, one in Cavan town and another in Dublin.
It was a sad day for the sisters, it was a sad day for the many local people who worked
there and worshipped there, and it was a sad day for Killeshandra.
The new Holy Rosary Convent, Killeshandra House, Cavan
Today, the convent building, now unoccupied, still overlooks the town of Killeshandra. Its bell no longer calls the sisters to prayer, the cloisters no longer echo with the sound of Gregorian chant, the libraries are empty, the refectory silent. It may seem a sad end to a short, but glorious career. But the same spirit that brought Bishop Shanahan and the first sisters to Killeshandra in 1924 still inspires the congregation, and today its members continue to display the same courage and commitment in their endeavours to spread the Word of God in a rapidly changing world. The convent buildings may now lie empty, but for many in the developing nations of the world the name Killeshandra will always be synonymous with the ideals of justice and dignity given them as a result of the work, the care and the dedication of these sisters. What a wonderful legacy!
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