Sisters of St John of God’s compassion will never be forgotten

Sisters of St John of God’s compassion will never be forgotten

Dear Sr Lelia, You will be surprised to see this letter which is almost 50 years too late but please bear with me. Last week I participated in a beautiful celebration to mark the 150th anniversary of your congregation, the Sisters of St John of God. This celebration has brought me into something of a reflective space and I realise that for 35 years as a priest and for many years before, my life has been touched, blessed and enriched by the St John of God sisters.

I’m addressing this letter to you, Lelia, because you were the first one I met back in 1974. I was a frightened, unhappy and homesick 12-year-old boy beginning my life in the boarding school where you worked as the infirmarian. There were many days I turned up at your door with some excuse of a physical illness when the real pain was of a different kind that I could not even articulate. In an all-male environment that could be sometimes cruel for those that did not always fit in, you, with your gleaming white uniform and veil and your knowing smile, could see beyond the ‘presenting illness’ recognising that what was needed was tenderness and compassion and sometimes just a listening ear. Thank you.

Through you Lelia, that ‘thank you’ stretches out to so many more of your colleagues in the ‘little flock’ as you were known in Wexford 150 years ago. Through my remaining years in secondary school and seminary I was to come to know and witness the earthiness, and practicality, the humanity and holiness and always the kindness of the St John of God sisters. Your influence in the lives and formation of generations of Irish priests is incalculable and certainly not acknowledged enough.


Your foundress, Brigid Clancy, later known as Mother Visitation, was born in Ballyouskill, Durrow, Co. Laois in 1842. In 1861 she entered the Sisters of Bon Secours in Paris. A meeting with Bishop Furlong of Ferns was to change not only her life but the lives of so many others as well. At the bishop’s invitation and with his full support, Mother Visitation and six companions headed to Wexford to begin a community which would primarily care for the sick and the poor in their own homes. From very small beginnings in those difficult post famine decades of poverty and deprivation, the congregation of the St John of God Sisters began to grow and flourish. New ministries in care of the sick, education and social work, spiritual formation and direction all brought new challenges.

When she was close to death, Mother Visitation spoke some prophetic words: “My death will leave an empty place in the community, but do not fear-no one is necessary. My place, can be supplied when God wishes, by someone more worthy to fill the vacancy. The institute will go on. If it were my work, it would die with me, but it is God’s work.”

Through the last 150 years more than 1,600 women have followed in Visitation’s footsteps. From Ennis to Enniscorthy, Bristol to Balgo in the Australian Outback, Perth to Pakistan, New Zealand to Tzaneen in South Africa, Kilkenny to Cameroon and so many other points on the planet, the lives of countless individuals and communities have been touched, enriched and blessed by St John of God sisters.


Lelia, many of your sisters continue to work in communities and parishes throughout the world. However, your congregation is on a ‘journey of completion’. This 150th celebration will most likely be your last significant jubilee to celebrate together. All the more reason for those of us who have been and continue to be enriched and encouraged by your congregation’s ministry to say thank you. At the conclusion of his homily at the recent Mass of celebration, Bishop Ger Nash of Ferns quoted from the American poet Maya Angelo: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Together with millions around the world, my twelve year old self and indeed my adult self knows the truth of those words of the poet.

Yours sincerely,



Regular customer returns to the bar

A man is drinking in a bar when a nun harasses him about drinking. In self-defence the man says, “Who told you that drinking is bad?” The nun says, “Mother Superior told me.” To which the man asks, “So, have you ever tried it?” The nun replies, “No, I haven’t ever taken a drink of hard liquor.” The man says, “Well then, don’t criticise me if you haven’t tried it. I’ll tell you what if you try it and don’t like it, I’ll give up drinking for life.” The nun agrees, “Okay but bring it in a tea cup. I don’t want people thinking I’m drinking.” The man goes up to the bartender and says, “Bring me a couple of shots of vodka but bring one of them in a tea cup.” The bartender looks at the man and says, “Is that nun in here again?”


The prophetic ministry of religious life

“The women and men who dedicate their lives to the call of the Gospel are at the heart of life of our Church. Without their service, without the presence of their communities, our Church would be a very different Church. They have been at the forefront of renewal in the Church, taking bold initiatives, and making significant sacrifices, putting flesh on the hope that was within them. This is not a mission that belongs to the past. In another age, they were at the forefront of addressing the educational, social, and health of those who risked being left behind. Today they continue their prophetic ministry in the service of those whom our society might prefer not to see.” – Archbishop Dermot Farrell