The Brigidine Sisters in Ireland, America, Australia and New Zealand, 1807 – 1922
by Ann Power (Four Courts Press, €60.00)
In this comprehensive study Dr Ann Power discusses all aspects of the lives and ministry of the Brigidine nuns and in doing so tells us a great deal about the making of modern Ireland.
Bishop Daniel Delany (1747-1814) is generally regarded as the founder of the Brigidines also known as the Sisters of St Brigid. He set up the first convent in Tullow, Co. Carlow, in 1807 and the second at Mountrath, Co. Laois, in 1809. (In between those years he established the Patrician Brothers).
Those two convents emerged from a grave pastoral requirement – namely the need to catechise the children of the poor. To this end Delany had recruited generous young women and some of these as Brigidines dedicated their lives to that task.
They concentrated on providing primary education for the children of the poor and secondary education for those of middle-class families. The author describes the Sisters daily horarium which was divided into periods of work, prayer and relaxation.
The diet in the convents, especially in the early years and later on the foreign missions, was frugal. The Sisters strictly observed days of fast and abstinence in accordance with liturgical norms. And a few in the early years practised ‘the discipline’ – submitting themselves to physical pain, which was a cause of concern to Bishop Delany.
The Brigidines did not manage the extraordinary expansion achieved by the Mercy and Presentation Sisters. This was mainly owing to the fact that they were an ‘enclosed congregation’. Thereby they were confined to teaching and were not able to take part in other parish pastoral activities, such as visiting and assisting the poor and the sick in their homes and in hospitals.
The diet in the convents, especially in the early years and later on the foreign missions, was frugal. The Sisters strictly observed days of fast and abstinence”
Their expansion began with a foundation in Roscrea in 1823. However, the Sisters in the convent opted to join the Society of the Sacred Heart in 1842. Another foundation in Cashel in 1827 became a Presentation convent in 1829, as did a foundation in Castlecomer, also in 1829. Subsequently there were more successful and permanent foundations: Abbeyleix in 1842, Goresbridge in 1858 and Ballyroan, Co Laois, in 1877.
Judith Browne of Castlebrown, near Clane in Co. Kildare, had a central role in the early years of the Brigidines and could be considered a co-foundress of the congregation.
She financed their projects and at one period was, in effect, their mistress of novices. Although never joining the congregation, she involved herself in all its activities. She was admonished by Bishop Delany for even attempting to become involved in matters pertaining to the ‘internal forum’. She ended her life residing in the convent in Tullow.
The Brigidines made a number of foundations in the US between 1851 and 1869. There were in parishes at Kenosha (Wisconsin), Buffalo (New York), Medina (New York), Grand Rapids (Detroit) and Titusville (Pennsylvania). The parishes were extensive with diverse populations, which included German, Irish, French and Native American Catholics, all with their own priorities.
Apart from the usual physical and financial challenges, the Sisters had to cope with anti-Catholic bigotry, clerical infighting and the various groups insisting on their priorities. Thus none of the foundations survived beyond 1869.
In contrast to the disappointing conclusion to their missionary outreach in the US the Brigidine foundations in Australia and New Zealand flourished.
Besides the foundation in Sydney there were four others in New South Wales. Ten were established in Victoria, including one in Melbourne. And from 1899 onwards four were established in New Zealand.
Ann Power concludes this magnificent study with a prosopography of 700 nuns (1807-1922), which in effect is a roll-call to honour those Brigidines who heroically spent their lives in the faithful service of ‘their neighbour’.