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The Nun’s Story: The Proud Callan Version

by John Fitzgerald

A Callan nun has written the story of one of Ireland’s most successful schools
Weaving a thread through the first 50 years is the enthralling history of the Sisters of Mercy in Callan.
Its author, Sister Assumpta Saunders was one of the dedicated nuns who brought the local convent to fêted national prominence as a centre of learning.
The Mercy Sisters arrived in Callan in 1872, a year fraught with tension and conflict as the notorious schism ripped the town apart.
Rebel PP Fr Robert O’Keeffe, a stubborn but forward-looking pastor, had, among other initiatives, tried to introduce a French Order of Nuns to Callan without the bishop’s approval.
The bishop, an equally stubborn and resolute cleric, thwarted his efforts and instead invited the Mercy Sisters to set up in town.
Mindful of the local sensitivities and the on-going faction fights in the town square and in the streets, the nuns steered clear of the hostilities and immediately set about kick-starting a school.
Up to then the girls of the district would be lucky to know their ABCs, as only wealthy families could afford education.
Within months of their arrival the nuns had made a big impact.

Aerial view of the Callan Convent of Mercy and girls’ school

They applied their highly developed artistic, cultural and musical skills to perfection, bequeathing the precious gift of learning to a town in dire need of it.
Parallel to this achievement they established a convent at Callan Workhouse, providing top-notch nursing at an otherwise forbidding institution, with its grim famine legacy.
Norah Saunders was 18 when she left her native Mullagh in County Clare in 1944 to join the convent in Callan.
She took the name Assumpta. From the day she arrived in the town she made her mark teaching English and Irish at the convent school.
She saw to it that every pupil received equal attention, in accordance with the time-honoured holistic philosophy of the Mercy Sisters who placed an intrinsic value on the wellbeing and intellectual development of the girls.
Exams were important, but not the only priority in preparing young minds for the challenges of the world beyond the classroom.
She later graduated with a Master of Arts and PhD in English at UCC.
Vocations to the Mercy Order seemed to run in the family as Assumpta’s two sisters, Mona and Marie Therese also joined.

Reunion day at St Brigid’s Girls’ School 1970. From left: Sister Virgilius, Sister Marie Therese, Rita O’Neill (teacher), Sister Betty Downey, Sister Annunciata, Sister Hannah Frisby

They gave decades of service to the order, and it was under the inspired direction of the late Sister Marie Therese that St Brigid’s College at the convent became one of the most successful second level schools in Ireland.
It was testament to her own dedication and that of the teachers, lay and religious.
Since her retirement Sister Assumpta has devoted much of her time to historical research into aspects of the Mercy Order and to recording the oral history of the Callan nuns and their long association with the district.
Her book deals with the first half century of the order in Callan, but will evoke memories for many former pupils of their own years in the classrooms and playgrounds.
The collection of old photographs in the book will tug at the heartstrings.
The stunning cover partly honours the memory of the great Sister Marie Therese availing of an embroidered design by her which shows a thread weaving gracefully through those 50 years referred to in the title.
Sister Assumpta previously co-authored a biography of the poet/nationalist Joseph Campbell, but her latest work will be of special interest to Callan people.
It’s available from Joe Lyons Fruit Shop, West Street and the local post office.

Book cover design

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