Nuns take issue with comments regarding baptisms at Bessborough

Burial places of 859 children still unaccounted for

A plaque on a wall at  Bessborough commemorating babies who died in the former mother and baby home. File photograph: The Irish Times

A plaque on a wall at Bessborough commemorating babies who died in the former mother and baby home. File photograph: The Irish Times

 

Every child born in Bessborough mother and baby home in Cork was properly baptised within the rites of the Catholic Church, according to the order which ran the home.

Sr Mary Mangan of the congregation of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary rejected a suggestion made at a recent An Bord Pleanála hearing into a proposed apartment complex at Bessborough, that some children born at the home may not have been baptised.

In the course of a closing address on behalf of the Cork Survivors and Supporters Alliance, barrister David Dodd outlined why they believed no babies were buried in the nuns’ cemetery in Bessborough.

Mr Dodd quoted the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes report, which ruled out the possibility that the 859 babies, whose burial places are unknown, might be buried in the nuns’ cemetery.

“The commission thought it unlikely that all of the children who died in Bessborough were buried in the burial ground, the nuns’ graveyard, as it was not nearly large enough for the number of children involved,” said Mr Dodd.

The commission was also sceptical about such a thesis because it felt that it was “unlikely that children would be buried in the same burial ground as members of the congregation,” said Mr Dodd.

Mr Dodd said that the reason that joint burial did not take place in any mother and baby home in Ireland was due to the mindset at the time and how women who gave birth outside of marriage were regarded by the Catholic Church.

‘Fallen women’

“The idea a nun would be buried with what they termed ‘fallen women’ and illegitimate children – many of them hadn’t even been baptised – is an anathema to the Catholic Church and the views of the nuns,” he said.

But Sr Mangan has written to Mr Dodd to point out that every child born in Bessborough, which operated as a mother and baby home between 1922 and 1998, was baptised in line with Catholic doctrine.

“The congregation wishes to state categorically that all children born in Bessborough were baptised within the rites of the Catholic Church and canon law,” said Sr Mangan in the letter, which has been seen by The Irish Times.

Sr Mangan also pointed out in her letter that the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes had acknowledged that the order had recorded baptismal details for children born in Bessborough.

“The registers recorded a wealth of information including a child’s name, date of birth, date of baptism, mother’s name and address, name of the priest and godparent, date of discharge and discharge pathway and details of any subsequent marriage,” said Sr Mangan, quoting the commission report.

The sisters’ cemetery

Sr Mangan also reiterated the congregation’s position that there is no evidence of any burials of babies in the grounds of Bessborough other than “a baby buried with the sisters in what is referred to as ‘the sisters’ cemetery’.”

The congregational leader of the order, Sr Mangan, further pointed out in her letter to Mr Dodd that the congregation had made “a full submission to the commission on this critically important matter of burials”.

However, the commission of investigation noted in its final 2021 report that it could only establish the burial places of 64 of the 923 children who died at Bessborough, leaving the burial places of 859 children unaccounted for.

“The commission remains perplexed and concerned at the inability of any member of the congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary to identify the burial place of the children who died in Bessborough,” it said.

In its 2019 interim report, the commission noted that the order was unable to explain why there was no designated child burial ground in Bessborough, unlike at its other homes, in Castlepollard and Sean Ross.

In 2021, the commission again expressed the view that babies were very probably buried in Bessborough. “The commission recognised then [2019] and still recognises that it is highly likely that burials did take place in the grounds of Bessborough.”