Irish nuns who spent lives on the missions had no homes to go to

Serving others for years, some nuns never provided for themselves

Sr Conchita McDonnell and Sr Monica Devine. They have spent their lives educating the poorest of women. Photograph: Eric Luke / The Irish Times

Sr Conchita McDonnell and Sr Monica Devine. They have spent their lives educating the poorest of women. Photograph: Eric Luke / The Irish Times

Tue, Aug 26, 2014, 01:00

Idealism, they say, dies with age. This was probably how that elderly former French prime minister Aristide Briand could say the person who wasn’t a socialist at 20 had no heart, but one who remained a socialist at 40 had no head.

It is rare to meet people in the seventh decade of life who remain undefeated by experience and still live close to the flame that inspired their youth. I met such a blessed trinity this week, three nuns in pursuit of a home.

It is a cliche to say that many of Ireland’s best vocations to the religious life went on the missions; however, time spent in the company of Sr Monica Devine, Sr Conchita McDonnell and Sr Mary Mullin would reinforce the view.

All are “Killeshandra nuns”, or Missionary Sisters of the Holy Rosary, once based at Killeshandra, Co Cavan. They were founded by Holy Ghost bishop Joseph Shanahan in 1924, when he realised that missionary efforts in Nigeria ignored women. The mission of the Killeshandra nuns is to empower women.

Srs Devine, McDonnell and Mullin have spent their adult lives educating the poorest of women, few of them Christian, mainly in Africa. Sr Monica, from Frenchpark in Roscommon, has spent most of her life with the Tiv people of Nigeria, teaching them science and maths. They were her people. “We were told, wherever you’re going, these are your people,” she said. Some have died with the people and those that did were buried where they died.

It meant that Sr Monica and Sr Conchita, from Ballina, Co Mayo, were at war once upon a time. Not an unusual situation where Roscommon and Mayo people are concerned, though usually it’s about football.

Sr Conchita was a teacher of English, history and religion with the Igbo people of southeastern Nigeria, who were farmers and traders, while Sr Monica was with the Tiv, mainly farmers, in the middle of Nigeria. The two groups went to war with each other.

Afterwards, Sr Monica was approached by a Tiv man who said he converted to Catholicism because “you knew trouble was coming and you stayed with us because of the God you believe in”.

Sr Conchita, on the other hand, was “surrounded by the local chief and the elders of our little village who assured me that I would be protected as one of their own”.

Then there is Sr Mary from Tuam in Galway. She is back from Liberia on a break since June and cannot return because of the Ebola epidemic there. It’s where she wants to be. She has been working with people displaced by war, mostly women who have suffered rape, gang rape and intense trauma.