Kylemore Abbey: 100 years in Ireland

By John Scally

It is not an easy time to be a nun in Ireland today. Writing in the Irish Times the noted Patrick Kavanagh scholar, Sr. Una Agnew, captured the feelings of many religious: “The derision with which the word ‘nun’ . . . has been spoken on Irish television has cut to the heart of many who have put their lives on the line for values that are foundational to human flourishing.”

Inevitably against such a backdrop many religious sisters experience feelings of diminished energy and even demoralisation. To many nuns it seems that increasingly faith in Ireland has become like smoking – relegated to the private sphere.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the arrival of the Benedictine Nuns at Kylemore Abbey. They fled Belgium during World War 1, were rescued by the Royal Munster Fusiliers, before eventually finding their home in Kylemore in 1920.

Vatican II had called for everyone to read the signs of the times. A striking feature of the book is that the sisters saw that in this fast-changing world there needed to be a different construction of religious life. The Sisters individually and communally discerned: Where are we being called to? This led to an eruption of the collective consciousness. This changed the key task. They were no longer simply preoccupied with the question: who am I? Instead increasingly they asked: who are we? Spirituality was increasingly understood as the experience of consciously striving to integrate one’s life in terms not of isolation and self-absorption but of self-transcendence toward the ultimate value the Sisters perceived.

This reflected the new understanding of both spiritualities and ministries that had emerged in the wake of Vatican II. A commitment to the spiritual life and to nourish the soul requires not just prayer but a stretching of the mind and heart and being open to people who are different and to carry a sense of openness. It involves a capacity to connect on a human level and to be at home in the world of reality while feeling the spark of God being lit within.

This made it necessary for the Sisters to confront concerns about what was happening on the ground. To take one example: from the 1980s onwards there were ongoing issues raised about difficulties that were emerging in family life. This was impacting on the Sisters’ ministry in a variety of ways. The increasing lack of faith in the homes is creating difficulties in the primary schools in particular in areas such as sacramental preparation. The effects of the increasing prevalence of marriage breakdown was also evident in the school and elsewhere. The economic difficulties facing families were greatly accentuated by recession and economic downturns.

The Sisters were trying hard to be proactive and shape events rather than simply react to them. However, they were not able to insulate themselves from outside influences. From the 1990s onwards their work took place against the backdrop of the dark times in the Irish Church which cast a dark shadow on all aspects of religious life and the institution of the Church as a whole. It was a time when many people felt shaken in their sense of faith, their sense of meaning and their trust in the Church. In many ways it was the Church’s version of Yeats’ assertion: ‘Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.’

A feature of the Sisters is that they have consistently made their own, the exhortation of Pope John Paul II to religious orders: ‘You must be courageous in your apostolic undertakings, not letting difficulties, shortage of personnel, insecurity for the future, deter or depress you.’

The community in Kylemore are in tune with the philosophy of their Benedictine Sister colleague Joan Chittister:

‘In all my years of travelling around the world, one thing has been present in every region, everywhere. One thing has stood out and convinced me of the certain triumph of the great human gamble on equality and justice. It is the unwavering faith, the open hearts, and the piercing courage of people from every level of every society that carries us through every major social breakdown to the emergence again of the humanization of humanity. In every region, everywhere, they are the unsung but mighty voices of community, high-mindedness, and deep resolve. They are the prophets of each era who prod the rest of the world into seeing newly what it means to be fully alive, personally, nationally, and spiritually. . . .

‘Our task is to be obedient all our lives to the Will of God [which is Love] for the world. And therein lies the difference between being good for nothing and good for something. Between religion for show and religion for real. . . . The quality of life we create around us as “followers of Jesus” is meant to seed new life, new hope, new dynamism, the very essence of a new world community.’

Now more than ever our increasingly fear-filled world craves good news. Through their mission and their unique service of word, worship and witness, the Kylemore Sisters have been and continue to be a good news story – for the Church and the world. They can stand tall knowing that they have made and continue to make a significant contribution to the advancement of society. They have done so without fanfare but in a quiet way, often hidden from the eyes of the world.

Across the infinity between the living and the dead the Kylemore Sisters are incarnations of messages of hope and new beginnings. They are living their mission by building God’s Kingdom and collaborating with laity, other religious, other faith communities and groups of civil society. They are anchored by their encounter with God’s presence dwelling within them and by a shared commitment to living the Gospel.

The Sisters celebrate the 100th anniversary of their coming to Ireland with pride. Two qualities have marked their ministry: sacrifice and dedication. The composer, Gustav Mahler noted that tradition is not the worship of ashes but the preservation of fire. The sisters are a keeper of a unique flame. They are women of good-will, who have journeyed together in comradeship, compassion, courage, loyalty, humility and generousity.