After the Mass on Saturday, Grace Harkin, Sister Ann Brady (Provincial of the Sisters of Mercy for the Northern Province), Sister Mary O'Donavan, Treasa Kelly, Jenny Kelly and Bridget Dillion.
It was beautiful and bittersweet at St. Eunan’s Cathedral in Letterkenny on Saturday as people came to celebrate the work of the Sisters of Mercy in the area in the wake of the closure of the Windyhall convent.
Men and women from around the county gathered for a Mass of Thanksgiving, and the reception of tea and refreshments that followed, to thank the sisters they had known for so long. There were warm hugs and words of gratitude, laughter and shared memories.
Sister Mary O’Donovan acknowledged the sadness of leaving. “It is the beginning of an end of something that was beautiful,” she said.
Still, she referred to the homily from Father Eamonn Kelly, administrator of St. Eunan’s and principal celebrant of the Mass: “But as Father Kelly said, he said to live the moment. And we bloom where we’re planted.”
The convent closed last month. The last sisters there were Sister Mary, now in Donegal town, and Sister Susan Evangelist, now in Ballyshannon. There are five other Mercy sisters in Donegal town and 15 in Ballyshanon. Mercy Sisters first came to Letterkenny in the 1920s.
Sister Mary, a native of Kinsale, Cork, entered the convent in Ballyshannon, following her first cousin, Sister Concepta, who had entered the convent five years earlier. Sister Mary arrived in Letterkenny fresh from earning a master’s degree in family ministry from Fordham University in New York.
She taught primary and secondary school for 19 years and loved teaching, but when she studied family ministry she knew that was what she wanted to do.
“In those days, when you were young, you knew you had something you could give, and a lot more to learn, with God’s help and the help of many others,” Sister Mary said. The bishop asked her to set up a family life ministry and she did.
Sister Mary still works in counselling and safeguarding children training. She still offers a listening ear. “Time is moving on, and we move with it,” she said.
Windyhall was an open convent - people were always coming to the door, some seeking financial help but many coming simply to tell their story, in search of consolation or out of friendship.
They ran programmes at Windyhall and priests from St. Eunan’s said daily Mass there. The convent was also home to the DeFoucauld prayer and scripture group that has met monthly for more than 50 years.
Windyhall based them near Letterkenny University Hospital, where many sisters worked, though they also worked in the community, the Pastoral Centre, schools and out among the people
Sister Mary said her time in Letterkenny has meant the world to her. “It has opened its arms to me, opened the town to me,” she said. “It’s been wonderful.”
Sister Susan Evangelist called Saturday a day of mixed emotions. She served 20 years at the Mount Carmel House of Prayer in Drumkeen and still ran the house of prayer when she came to live in Letterkenny.
“The motto in Drumkeen was ‘Loving listening, compassionate caring and simple sharing',” Sister Susan said. “And broken, suffering people from all arts and parts came to that place.” She said there are people who are still sad there is no longer a centre like that in the area.
Originally from Pettigo, Sister Susan joined the Mercy Sisters in Ballyshannon and was among the first Mercy sisters sent to Montana in the States, where she served for 17 years before returning to Donegal. She frequently visits schools and has a special love for young people.
Sister Susan said she still has a lot of resources in Letterkenny and expects to be in and out of the town. She is also involved with the House of Prayer in Grange.
“Loving listening is very important when people are broken,” she said. “I work with the dignity of every human person and it doesn’t matter whether it’s the man working the road or the surgeon - it makes no difference.
“My motto is we’re all God’s sons and daughters, brothers and sisters of Jesus,” Sister Susan said. She also started the prayer group Cursillo, whose motto is, “Make a friend, be a friend and bring a friend to Jesus”.
Whenever Sister Susan meets someone, she greets them and gives them one of her prayer cards: She has about 1,000 cards made every few months for distribution.
“I have a great love for the Church and see the Church as the family of God,” she said. She added, “We need to be welcomed and we need to be led back to the God of love, but through each other.
“That’s the beauty,” Sister Susan said.