Because of Covid, the Ursuline Sisters are, are belatedly celebrating their 250th anniversary this year. John Scally traces the history of the order, from its foundation in Cork in 1771 to the present day, where they have ‘opened their hearts and their homes in love to those who are in need’.
The easing of Covid restrictions finally allow for a belated celebration of the 250th anniversary of the coming of the Ursuline Sisters to Ireland.
After some false dawns the Ursulines finally arrived in 1771 due to the intervention of Nano Nagle, the founder of the Irish Presentation Sisters. Margaret Butler, a cousin of Nano’s, had joined the Ursulines in France, being professed there at the age of forty-seven. In 1767 Nano joined her to enter religious life, learn French and to explore the idea of an Ursuline foundation in Ireland.
Having received permission from the Archbishop of Paris, Margaret and Nano travelled to Le Harve and boarded a ship for Cork but Margaret’s health went into decline and she returned to France after a year. Margaret was not in a cloistered state which created the hope that other Sisters would be allowed to follow in her that respect. With the money bequeathed to her by her uncle, and with help from her brother, Nano built a convent in Cove Lane, Cork, in preparation for the arrival of Ursuline Sisters.
The first group, accurately described as ‘contraband freight’, landed in Cork in May 1771. The works of God are wonderful, and more particularly for those who are in greatest need. Could they as Ursuline sisters bring good news to the poor? The first Ursuline convent in Ireland was opened on Ascension Thursday, May 9th, 1771.
Committing to a whole new way of life a ‘new Heaven and a new Earth’, eight months later they opened a boarding school, one of the first Irish Catholic secondary school for girls. They had twelve boarders and it was an instant success.
The Sisters opened their doors to rich and poor alike. Soon, they were receiving applications for their new school, not only locally but also from Dublin and various quarters and were obliged to adjust the numbers they had planned for. This Ursuline school had quickly become a badge of honour to a subjugated and disadvantaged people.
It even attracted international attention in the summer of 1842 after a famous visitor came to Blackrock. The acclaimed novelist William Makepeace Thackeray, author of Vanity Fair, was invited to visit the convent and wrote about it in his Irish Sketch Book. While he could not comprehend in his eyes their lonely and monotonous spiritual lives, yet he was impressed by the way they ‘effect extreme happiness and content with their condition; a smiling beatitude – declaring and proving their own extreme enjoyment of life’.
In 1887 the Bishop of Cork asked the Ursulines to open a Day school in the city.
The new school, which would become Saint Angelas, was built on the slope of Richmond Hill. It was an instant success in the local community. By the end of September 40 students had to be turned away because of lack of space.