Women of faith made history
Sir, – In the many listings of Irish women who have made significant contributions to society, no mention has been made of the founders of the various congregations of Irish women religious. While it is important to uncover and acknowledge the harm and suffering caused by religious run institutions such as the Magdalene laundries, it is equally important to acknowledge the invaluable contribution made by these orders to Ireland over a period of two centuries. Their founders, Mary Aikenhead, Catherine McAuley, Nano Nagle, Margaret Aylward, and others, were in no way responsible for the abuses that have now tarnished the reputation of religious orders. They were all women who sacrificed marriage, social status and considerable wealth to serve the poor especially in the fields of education and health. This work began in the 1800s long before the state accepted responsibility for such services. Their task was not easy. They themselves lived in extreme poverty and were strongly disapproved of by church authorities who considered that nuns should be cloistered in convents not out on the streets, living witnesses of Gospel values to ordinary people.
In the field of education alone their service laid one of the foundation blocks of modern Ireland. Girls were given a sound education and encouraged to sit Civil Service examinations and to train as teachers and nurses. Others were taught skills such as weaving and provided with the facilities needed to make it a viable industry. Safe accommodation was provided for those working away from home. Many of the women we acclaim today as role models were educated by nuns and inspired to be persons of vision and conviction in the service of others.
The women who founded these orders should be given their rightful place in Irish history. They were the prophets of their day. In appreciating their vision and courage, we too can be inspired to discern and remedy the problems of our time. – Yours, etc,