Nano Nagle's remarkable journey towards sainthood

Srs Jo McCarthy, Anne Coffey, Una Burke and Patricia O'Shea in the grounds of the South Presentation Convent, with the tomb of Nano Nagle in the background. Pic Dan Linehan
Srs Jo McCarthy, Anne Coffey, Una Burke and Patricia O'Shea in the grounds of the South Presentation Convent, with the tomb of Nano Nagle in the background. Pic Dan Linehan

FROM the window of her bedroom in the South Presentation Convent, Sr Patricia O’Shea can see the wall of the original convent, which was built in 1777 by Nano Nagle, the founder of the order.

That view is very important to the woman, now in her 70s, who has lived here in Cork’s historic Douglas Street, for 50 years.

Nagle, who was recently declared venerable by the Pope, has, says O’Shea, been a life-long inspiration. “Nano said ‘love one another as you have hitherto done’ and also ‘love the poor.’ In my community life, I’ve been inspired by the first and, in my various ministries, I’ve been inspired by the second,” says the nun, and retired primary-school teacher.

Two centuries after her death, Nagle’s legacy is strong in the city where she worked on behalf of the poor and the vulnerable.

O’Shea’s vantage point has provided first-hand evidence of the dedication of local people to Nagle. “People love to come and touch the wall, because it brings them very close to Nano. I see them touching the wall and reading the two plaques commemorating the wall and the site of the first convent she built in 1777.”

People remember Nagle, and not just in Cork. In 2005, Nagle, born the eldest of seven in Ballygriffin, in the parish of Kilavullen, near Mallow, in 1718, was voted Ireland’s greatest woman, despite the fact that “people like Mary Robinson” were on the list of nominees.

“When we celebrated the 225th anniversary of her death in 2009, the then Lord Mayor of Cork, Brian Bermingham, put a special plaque on the Nano Nagle bridge, near the Grand Parade, in recognition of the work done by the Presentation Sisters in Cork,” she says, adding that the Nano Nagle Cup is presented each year to the victorious intermediate camogie team.

“This year, Carrigaline won it. I always present the cup and give the children a talk about Nano and a booklet on her life,” Sr O’Shea says.

Local people are still so enthusiastic about Nano Nagle that, on hearing of the special Mass to celebrate her elevation to venerable on Presentation Day, (Thursday, Nov 21 at St Finbarr’s South parish church) a group raised money for a new carpet for the church sanctuary. The deputy Lord Mayor of Cork, Lorraine Kingston, led the fundraising walk.

Despite an early life of leisure and luxury, Nagle was a formidable lady, says Sr Una Burke, of the Presentation Convent in Midleton.

Burke, who has spent years in Ireland and abroad studying the life and work of Nagle, points to the tremendous personal sacrifices Nagle made — much of her work with the poor was blatantly illegal and very risky, and could have earned her a harsh punishment.

In 1752, Nagle set up a school for Catholic children in Cork, when the penal laws made it illegal for Catholics to teach, or to run schools.

A legacy from an uncle allowed her to expand her operations, and by the late 1750s Nano was running seven schools, with 400 pupils, across the city, paying for teachers, and rent and food for the children, out of her own purse.

She later set up an alms house for elderly women.

In the mid-1770s, she founded what is today the Presentation Order, and built a convent on Douglas Street, on the site of the current Presentation Convent.

When she died on Monday, Apr 26 1784 aged 65, the numbers in the order were still very small — but the order now has 1,145 sisters working worldwide.

“Members of the public are welcome to visit Nano’s grave at any time, in the grounds of South Presentation Convent at Douglas street, and to pray through Nano’s intercession for a miracle for her beatification,” says Sr Burke, who says that the announcement of Nano Nagle as venerable is the second of four stages in the canonisation process.

Nano’s legacy, says Sr Josephine McCarthy, of the South Presentation Centre at Evergreen Street, and director of the Cork Migrant Centre, is a very special one.

“Nano’s legacy is one of empowering people through education. That is very relevant today, and we perpetuate her vision in a number of ways, through education and through reaching out to the vulnerable and excluded, including Ireland’s new migrant population.”

People of all ages and backgrounds in Cork City are keenly aware of that legacy, says Sr Anne Coffey, who is based at South Presentation Centre on Evergreen Street, and has been working for several years with the successful community initiative, ‘We Made This’.

“People see that the initiative is very much in line with the legacy of Nano Nagle and that the initiative is a present day expression of what Nano Nagle would be doing,” says Sr Coffey.

Before setting up the initiative, she says, the sisters consulted widely, with different age groups across the city.

“They all understood the link to Nano. She crosses the boundaries of time, because her only agenda was that of the needs of the people she worked with.”

* The Presentation congregation is having a celebratory Mass for their sisters, friends and associates on Thursday in St Finbarr’s (South) parish church, Cork.

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