Last week in Cork city women from all over the world gathered to celebrate the birth of a woman who inspired each one of them to become a Presentation Sister. This is their founding story …
Three hundred years ago in 1718 a valiant woman was born in north Cork. She was born to a wealthy Catholic landowning family at a time when to be wealthy and Catholic was a difficult position. The Penal Laws, which had been introduced at the end of the 17th century, had the express intention of dismantling the Irish Catholic power base. Under these laws Catholics would become too poor and too ignorant to present any challenge to the status quo in an Ireland now ruled by the Protestant ascendancy.
Nano’s family sent her away to school on the continent (an act that at the time was itself illegal). When Nano returned home to Ireland after twenty years abroad she was horrified by the ignorance and poverty of the Catholic underclass. She made up her mind to make a difference and secretly opened a Catholic school near her home on Douglas Street, in the South Parish of Cork City. Thanks to her determination and the backing of her family she was soon running seven schools across Cork City, unusually for the time, five of these schools were for girls. Nano was empowering the women of Cork through education to practice their religion with pride and better their lives through skilled work.
In 1775 Nano founded a new and quite radical religious order to continue her work, the Sisters of Charitable Instruction of the Sacred Heart, later the Presentation Sisters. Their first convent was on Douglas Street, where a Presentation Convent still stands today. This religious order was tasked with educating poor children across the city of Cork and tending the needs of the poor, just as Nano ‘the Lady with the Lantern’ had done for many years. Nano’s sisters were not ‘enclosed’, they could leave the convent to perform their works of education and charity. Nano’s order at first struggled, but in the years after Nano’s death her congregation went on to found convents and schools across Ireland and across the world.
Last week, sisters from New Zealand to Zambia, India, Rhode Island and Manchester among many other places made their way to Cork. In a sense they came home, to where the story of the Presentation Sisters began. They visited the newly regenerated buildings of the South Presentation Convent and schools, now called Nano Nagle Place, a beautiful heritage, education and spiritual oasis in the heart of Cork City. They visited the many charitable projects that the Presentation Sisters are still engaged in across the city.
On Wednesday 25th April Cork’s North Cathedral was brought alive with the story of Nano by children from Presentation Schools. The sisters then set out across the city led by a beautiful lantern. They walked in the footsteps of Nano as she made her daily journey across the city to visit her schools. The sisters stopped along the way to reflect on Nano, at Nano Nagle Bridge, at St. Finbarre’s South, Nano’s parish church. The walk culminated in the beautiful Goldie Chapel at Nano Nagle Place were more Presentation students celebrated the work of the order throughout the world
It was a week of emotion, devotion, reflection and remembrance. It will live on in the memories of all those who were a part of this special celebration.