“You do not know the many souls that will be saved because you are here today.”
The year was 1924, the speaker was Bishop Joseph Shanahan, addressing a small group of young women who had come together to form a missionary Congregation. They were the members of the Missionary Sisters of the Holy Rosary and their convent, the Motherhouse of the congregation, was situated in Killeshandra, Co Caven Ireland. Soon they became known throughout Ireland simply and affectionately as the “Killeshandra Nuns.” To tell their story is to tell the story of some of the bravest and most dedicated women ever to leave Ireland’s shore.
Joseph Shanahan C.S. Sp. was the bishop of the vast diocese of Onitsha in Nigeria. He realized that Christianity would never take root until Christian families were established, hence the urgent need for Sisters to educate and evangelize the women and children. It was to meet this need that he founded the Holy Rosary Sisters. Within a few short years the sisters were leaving home and family to bring the message of Christ to the women of Nigeria and subsequently to South Africa, Kenya, Zambia, Cameroon, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, Liberia as well as to Brazil and Mexico.
From the beginning the Sisters invested in the best professional and spiritual training. As a result they were able to pioneer and provide quality education for girls, health care in often remote and neglected areas, initiate catechetical and pastoral programs, provide leadership training, accompany refugees in refugee camps, be animators of Christian communities and engage in various forms of community development. Above all they brought the good news of God’s love. This was made possible by the generosity of Irish and American benefactors who shared in the mission by their prayers and donations.
The mission is still going on vibrantly in the hands of younger, mostly African Holy Rosary Sisters. Over the years Sisters died and were buried in Africa, but most recently, the older Irish Sisters, after forty or fifty years of service, have returned to Ireland. They have been with people in time of war and in painful post-war situations, they have overcome impossible difficulties and they have worked quietly and faithfully for long years in places few people have heard of. These women gave their lives without counting the cost.
Passion for mission was the driving force of their lives. As the various mission projects developed the Congregation’s goal was to pass their stewardship over to other groups of religious or laity, and in particular to the indigenous Religious congregations the Sisters had formed and trained to serve the local church. By passing on their convents while they themselves moved on to new areas of greater needs, they laid up no treasure for themselves on earth.
Now they must address some of their own needs, particularly the immediate need to provide a home and care for these returning, elderly missionaries. They seek nothing more than the simplest accommodation where they can live out their final years, in facilities appropriate to an aging demographic. As they continue to pray for the younger Sisters still on mission and for their benefactors in Ireland and the U.S. without whose support their mission would not have been possible.