Homily of Bishop Kevin for 250th Anniversary of Ursulines in Ireland

If you walk in any direction from Sligo Cathedral, you will find an Ursuline presence within two Kilometres. To the West you will find the Ursuline College, to the East you will find a community of retired sisters who, between them have given hundreds of years in the service of young people. On Strandhill Road, you will find Scoil Ursula, Primary School, and over beside St. Joseph’s Church, there is there is the Brescia community. Less than fifteen minutes away, on the shores of Lough Gill, you will find St. Angela’s College, established by the sisters in 1950. All of this is very important to us in Sligo, but it is also part of a much bigger picture.
The story of the Ursuline Sisters begins with a young woman called Angela Merici, who grew up on the shores of Lake Garda in the North of Italy. To make a long story short, she had a number of visions as a result of which she understood that God was calling her to dedicate her life to the education and faith formation of young women, helping them to develop their God-given gifts, to become well integrated human-beings and disciples of Christ.
Those who joined her initially, lived in their own homes, but worked together in schools that they established. They had a simple rule of life. It was only in later years that the structure of a cloistered religious life, with its solemn vows, was added. Many religious congregations began in the same way, as communities of disciples. That is how the Church itself began. Whatever structures are subsequently put in place should be to facilitate the charism and the mission of the community.
If a young woman, who had lost both her parents and her sister, came to me, today, and said she had to establish a community of consecrated women, because she had seen vision of angels and young women singing, I wonder how I would respond. I think I would probably have been very cautious. The art of discernment does require that we pay attention to what is practically possible; what seems to make sense. But it also requires that we are open to the working of the Holy Spirit, who “blows where he wills”. As our first reading reminds us: “We are indeed in his hand, we ourselves and our words” (Wis.7:16). Too often, perhaps, we are suspicious of religious experience and, in the name of prudence, we get in the way of the Holy Spirit. That Ursuline tradition seems to have always left room for the Spirit to work.
So it was that, 250 years ago, towards the end of the penal law period, the Ursuline Sisters responded with similar faith to an appeal from Nano Nagle, that they would come to Cork to help with the running of some schools for Catholic girls that she was supporting. They came quite willingly but, thanks to the restrictions associated with being a cloistered community, the project did not turn out as originally planned. In the final analysis, the Irish Church and Irish Education benefitted by having both the Ursuline Sisters and the Presentation Sisters, established by Nano Nagle. It was always about communion, and never about never about competition.
From Cork the Sisters went, sowing their seeds, like the Sower in the Gospel (Mark 4:1-20). They sowed generously, sparing nothing including themselves. They shared in the sacrifice and the struggle which came with the famine, with the war of independence and the civil war. One of the fascinating features of Irish Church history is the spirit of mission and the generosity which came in the years immediately follow the famine. As in the parable, some of the seed sown by the Sisters fell of thorny ground and some seed fell on rich soil. God gave the growth. As we heard earlier: “It is He who gave me unerring knowledge of what exists, to know the structure of the world and the activity of the elements; the beginning and end and middle of times ….. for wisdom, the fashioner of all things, taught me”. (Wis. 7:17-1, 22)
Thurles, Waterford, Limerick, Ennis, Galway, Athlone, Sligo, (and Dublin too). Some foundations failed, others flourished for a time, and some experienced active resistance, but the Sisters never seemed to lose heart. I was fascinated to read that an attempt to establish a community in Limerick ended up here in Sligo, having passed through Ennis and Galway on the way. The Sisters first came into the Diocese of Elphin at Summerhill, Athlone. Providentially today, on the same site, we have just taken possession of a brand new school building for our recently established Diocesan College, Coláiste Chiaráin. The fruits of today are built on the sacrifices of yesterday.
I mentioned earlier that we are joined this morning by Sisters from Wales and from as far away as Kenya. Just as the Parish community responded generously to the invitation of Nano Nagle, so the Irish communities, beginning in the height of the famine, established missions in Guyana, Georgia Wales, Canada and, just over sixty years ago, in Kenya. It is a reminder to us that a living Church is always a missionary Church. One of the fruits of a more individualistic society is the belief that we are responsible only for ourselves and only to ourselves. Such a world-view leaves no room for mission.
The Ursulines have been an integral part of the fabric of Church and civil society here in Sligo for 120 years. Literally thousands of young women have benefitted from an Ursuline inspired education in and around this city. The spirit of Angela Merici has also had a unique contribution to make to third level education. I first visited St. Angela’s College in the early 1980’s, and even since then I have seen its growth, not only in size and numbers, but in the development of its mission, with a particular focus on forming teachers and nurses in a context of faith.
Communion was always an essential ingredient of the Ursuline charism, even before the establishment of formal communities. It is not surprising, therefore that the different communities in Ireland eventually experienced the call to become one, with the establishment of the Irish Ursuline Union in 1978. As often happens, then, the local communion became the inspiration for a more universal communion when the Irish Union became part of the Ursuline Roman Union in 2018. Just as the waves breaking on the shore all around the coast of Co. Sligo have to go out in order to come in, so the Ursuline story is one of going out but always coming back to the centre, represented by St. Angela Merici and, most of all by faith in Jesus Christ, who is at the origin and the end of every Christian calling.
Bishop Kevin Doran, 27th January 2021, Sligo Cathedral – Feast of St Angela Merici, founder of the Ursuline Sisters and 250th Anniversary of the Ursulines Sisters in Ireland.