By Sean Ryan
A Mercy nun who founded vital addiction and rehabilitation centres, that still treat thousands of people for over half a century, has been awarded the fifth Oireachtas Human Dignity Award.
Sr Consilio Fitzgerald (82), founder of Cuan Mhuire, was presented the award in Leinster House in December by the Oireachtas Human Dignity Group.
The annual award is presented to “a person or group whose commitment to the promotion of human dignity has been exemplary”. The award comes 53 years after Sr Consilio began her work from a small room in the Convent of Mercy in Athy.
As a young Mercy Sister, who had trained as a nurse and midwife, she was moved by the plight of the ‘men of the road’ who came to seek a night’s lodgings in St Vincent’s Hospital, Athy, where she was working. To cope with the growing numbers seeking her assistance, she opened a facility in the Mercy convent’s dairy. There are now five treatment centres, including in Newry and a women-only facility in Cork, and seven transition facilities.
Speaking ahead of the presentation, Ceann Comhairle and Kildare South TD, Seán Ó Fearghail said, “Sr Consilio has built something of national importance and lasting significance.”
“In her own words, Sr Consilio’s work is based on the belief that each human person ‘has eternal value’ and is capable of ‘human and spiritual wholeness’. This belief in human dignity is Sr Consilio’s ‘secret recipe’. It’s what has transformed countless lives and it’s why Sr Consilio and Cuan Mhuire are worthy recipients of the 5th Human Dignity Award,” he said.
Presenting the award, Dáil deputy chairman Pat ‘The Cope’ Gallagher said “belief in the inherent dignity of each person is what drives (her) work”.
Senator Rónán Mullen of the Oireachtas Human Dignity Group said it was latest in a long series of awards received by Sr Consilio and her team showing “we greatly value you for what you’ve done for us. And we want you to keep going because your work is more important than ever”.
He added ‘’From humble beginnings, Cuan Mhuire now has five treatment centres, including a women-only facility in Cork, as well as seven transition facilities throughout the country which provide services to over 3,000 people every year. This makes Cuan Mhuire the largest voluntary producer of addiction treatment services and residential rehabilitation’’.
Sr Consilio vowed to “keep going”. “The challenges are great. Demand for our service far exceeds our capacity to help people. But we trust in the Lord and in the great people who support our work every day.”
Previous recipients of the Human Dignity Award are Barney Curley, founder of Direct Aid For Africa; Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow, founder of Mary’s Meals; Gina Heraty of Our Little Brothers and Sisters Orphanage in Haiti; and Br Kevin Crowley of the Capuchin Day Centre.
Sr Consilio (Eileen) Fitzgerald was born and grew up in the village of Knockaclarig near Brosna on the Kerry/Cork border. She trained as a nurse at the North Infirmary, Cork. After her training she joined the Sisters of Mercy in Athy.
She later did Midwifery training at St Finbarr’s Hospital, Cork. As a young nun she worked as a nurse in St Vincent’s Hospital, Athy which was then a ‘County Home’. Here she came in contact with the ‘men of the road’ who often came for a night’s lodgings.
She was greatly moved by their struggles and came to realise that many were homeless because of addiction to alcohol. She started Cuan Mhuire in 1966 in a room in the Convent of Mercy, Athy. In 1972, the first purpose built Cuan Mhuire was developed by Sr Consilio and the men she had helped, located on a 50 acre farm near Athy.
In 1977, a second Cuan Mhuire Centre was established in Bruree, Co. Limerick and later centres were opened in Newry, Coolarne, (Co Galway) and a specialised service for women began in Cork. In addition to the above treatment centres, Cuan Mhuire now has seven transition facilities throughout the country in Dublin, Monaghan, Galway, Limerick and Cork.
Sr. Consilio has received numerous awards at home and abroad for her work, including an MBE from Queen Elizabeth II in 2011.