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Newfoundland Pilgrimage to Ireland - Following the Footsteps of Nano Nagle



On the night of 11 August 2018, a group of Presentation Sisters, Associates, two Christian Brothers, two Mercy Sisters and Archbishop Martin Currie left St John’s, Newfoundland to fly to Ireland to follow in the footsteps of Nano. Sr Roisin Gannon, pbvm gives an account of the journey:

The four and half hour direct flight left at 11.15pm and arrived in Dublin on Sunday 12 August at 7.15am. Having cleared customs and collected our luggage we made our way to our coach which would carry us to all our destinations. It was a sunny morning. We were headed for Mount St Anne’s, where we would stay for two nights. 

The countryside was beautiful...40 shades of green were clearly visible. Cattle, sheep and horses dotted the fields. We were here at last – our excitement was high. This would be a pilgrimage of all pilgrimages – such a privilege and a joy! 

Our road journey took about an hour and eventually we arrived at Mount St Anne’s. We were touched by the warm welcome afforded us by the Presentation Community there and their staff. Breakfast was ready, and we enjoyed our first full Irish brunch. The chat, the laughter, meeting ‘old’ friends in such beautiful surroundings was just wonderful. Mount St Anne’s is a Presentation Retreat House and Conference Centre (located at Killenard, Portarlington, Co Laois). The house is over 200 years old, having been the residence of Skeffington Smyth, a landlord during the occupation by England.

Our Opening Ritual took place at 5pm. This was a profound experience – light and symbols and Nano! The Paschal Candle was carried leading us in procession from the Chapel to Nano Nagle Hall. The song ‘Woman of Welcoming Heart’ was played and sung as we reflectively processed. The Paschal Candle representing resurrection was placed in the centre of the Sacred Space. We sat in a circle. One of our Sisters in the stance of Nano carrying her lantern came and walked and danced among us. The leader led us in reflection on the core of the pilgrimage. Why had we come...to celebrate 300 years since the birth of Nano. The following symbols, related to the history of Nano, were carried meditatively one by one and by different people to the Sacred Space, while the commentary was spoken by the leader.  

The Rock:

Newfoundland and Labrador is the easternmost province in Canada and affectionately known by many as “the rock” since it is an island situated well out in the North Atlantic. But this is no small island – in fact it is one of the largest in the world. 

In Ireland there are many Mass Rocks. These were places where Mass was celebrated in secret hidden places. Lookouts were on duty to watch for the English soldiers. On seeing the Red Coats coming, word was circulated among the gathered crowd and everybody ran for safety. Oftentimes the priest did not make it and he was hung. 

We make the connection between Ireland and Newfoundland from one rock to another. 

The Noose:

The noose is a rope that is tied with a fisherman’s knot and put around the neck of an individual to hang the person. This form of punishment was common in Ireland during the time of the Penal Laws...punishment for being a papist or in our language a Catholic. Many priests, teachers and leaders were hung for continuing to profess their faith. 

The Acorn:

Acorns are nuts that form on mature oak trees. The older the tree, the more acorns produced, and trees that are 70 or 80 years old can potentially produce thousands of these tree nuts. 

The Acorn has become known over the many years as a symbol of the Presentation Congregation. It symbolises the great growth from a single small seed...Nano’s small cottage in Cove Lane to all over the world. 

The Oak Tree:

The oak is considered a cosmic storehouse of wisdom embodied within its towering strength. Ancient Celts observed the oak’s massive growth and impressive expanse. They took this as a clear sign that the oak was to be honoured for its endurance and noble presence. The Oak Tree is strong and grows from such a small seed. The Oak has also become a symbol of Presentation...symbolizing the unique small clandestine planting and then the strong growth and expanse. 

The Earth ball:

The Earth Ball is symbolic of the Universe. The Universe is everything we can touch, feel, sense, measure or detect. It includes living things, planets, stars, galaxies, dust clouds, light and even time. The Universe contains billions of galaxies, each containing millions or billions of stars. The space between the stars and galaxies is largely empty. We are part of this Universe. We are all interconnected. 

Then ‘Nano’ talked with us and affirmed our efforts to share her charism and to do all we could in the service of each other and the disregarded. 

‘Nano’ presented each pilgrim with a lighting lantern telling us to carry it with us not only for ourselves but go wherever we are needed. While doing this we sang ‘Take Down your Lantern’. ‘Nano’ left us then to continue her work of love, peace and justice. We had focused our pilgrimage – Nano and the spread of her lantern flame. 

We continued our celebration with a beautifully cooked and presented dinner. A visit to the Visitors’ Centre on the Campus told us visually and digitally the history of the spread of the Congregation globally. We were proud and touched to see the story of Newfoundland feature so clearly, we were the first foundation outside of Ireland. 

Our next day, after another full Irish breakfast, we were on our way to visit St Brigid’s Well in Kildare. Our leader walked us through the history and spirituality of Brigid, Muire na nGael. We enjoyed a packed lunch on the Curragh, provided for us by Mount St Anne’s. That night after a substantial dinner we sang our hearts out and went to bed tired but very satisfied. 

The following morning after being nourished by another wonderful Irish breakfast we bade farewell to Mount St Anne’s, the Sisters and staff. We were on the road to visit our roots in Galway, the home of the first four Sisters who came to Newfoundland in 1833. On our way we stopped in Clonmacnoise and had a guided tour of the sacred site of St Ciarán’s monastery, founded in the 5th century. A famous and much acclaimed University developed there, and students came from all over Europe to study. This site is beautifully situated on the Shannon, the longest river in Ireland, making it easily accessible by boat. Celtic crosses with scriptural carvings connected us to the Good News story and the Cosmos. 

Our continuing journey brought us to Athlone where we helped the economy of the town by shopping! Many new items and gifts were proudly shown later in the evening. We stayed in the Hodson Bay hotel that night. 

Our next journey brought us to the National Shrine of Our Lady in Knock. Our own Archbishop Currie celebrated Mass for us here. We visited the actual spot where Our Lady appeared to some local people in 1879. 

The next day we boarded our bus and set our sights on Galway – our roots. This was a reflective journey, reflecting on the four Sisters – Bernard Kirwan, Magdalen O’Shaughnessy, Xavier Maloney and Xaverius Lynch, whose faith and commitment brought them on an arduous journey to St John’s in September 1833 with the goal of educating the poor children. They certainly gave their all to fulfill this mission as their legacy still remains in the music and education of the Newfoundlanders. I was reminded of a quote by Amelia Earhart: “A single act of kindness – courage – throws out roots in all directions and the roots spring up and make new trees”. And that is the story in Newfoundland – actually it is the story of any new foundation. The Galway Sisters were out waiting to welcome us and no one can deny that both groups were deeply moved to be together on the home ground of these four great women. We were treated so generously and warmly. A prayerful ritual in the Chapel brought to mind the prayer for and the missioning of these four founding Sisters back in 1833. Many questions flooded our minds. How did they feel? Did they even know where Newfoundland was? Were they lonely? Did they realise they would not see their families again? What urged them forward? What/who gave them courage? Still in our reflective mode we made our way through the garden and along by the river, source of life, (at the end of the garden) to the Convent Cemetery where Mother John, the organiser of the Sisters, is buried. What a moment! A deep profound silence pervaded the whole group. The sun shone making us realise our Ancestors were still caring for us. A short sing-song closed our time in this hallowed house – the roots of our Newfoundland Congregation. We were then graciously treated to dinner in a hotel right on the bay of Galway, bringing to mind the song with which we are all so familiar. We boarded our bus knowing that we had stood on ‘holy ground’ and that we had breathed in the air and sea breezes that our four Founding Sisters breathed. Tears of joy and reverence were close to all eyes. At dinner in our hotel that night the conversation revolved around our Galway roots, the generosity of the four Sisters who came and to whom we are forever indebted. What a privileged day! 

Our next stop was Ballygriffin. Again, hallowed ground! After a welcome cup of tea Bishop Currie celebrated Eucharist with us. We sang and played music during the celebration. To walk the ground Nano walked, to breathe her native air, was just so special. How could we not be moved? It was a natural progression to continue to Nano Nagle Place where Nano lived out her mission of teaching the poor children and visiting their families in Cork City. 

Thurles is the ancestral home of Nano’s maternal side of the family, the Mathews. It was such a profound experience to visit the actual house where Nano would have visited when she was a child – to walk the grounds, to tour the house of her great grandmother – this will remain with me as one of the highlights of the pilgrimage. It is a known fact that the Nagles themselves were wealthy, and very wealthy, but so too was the Matthews family. Nano renounced such wealth and accompanying lifestyle for the sake of the poor Irish. 

Our pilgrimage brought us to Kilkenny – mother of the Galway Presentation foundation and therefore grandmother to Newfoundland. It was such a joy and privilege to walk on this holy ground, to mingle and pray with the Sisters. Kilkenny was such a fertile mother, founding many convents within Ireland and abroad. 

We spent some time in Waterford where Edmund Rice lived, worked and founded the Christian Brothers Congregation, including the Presentation Brothers. We had a prayerful ritual at the tomb of Edmund and a tour of the Heritage Centre. Edmund was greatly influenced by Nano. 

Catherine McAuley, foundress of the Mercy Sisters, also featured strongly in our pilgrimage. Catherine made her novitiate in Presentation Convent, George’s Hill, Dublin. The connection between the Mercy and Presentation Sisters is strong. We headed for Mercy International Centre, Baggot Street and there prayed and reflected on the lived story of Catherine. The welcome afforded us by the Mercy Sisters was warm and heartfelt. 

In George’s Hill, we saw and held the letters written by Nano to her friend, Teresa Mulally, the founder of the school here in 1766. Teresa never became a Sister but stayed in close contact with Nano and was instrumental in bringing the Presentation Sisters here in 1794. Teresa is often referred to as ‘the Nano of Dublin’. We saw among the vaults here the burial place of Teresa. 

We had truly walked in the footsteps of Nano and all those connected with her. Our final ritual encouraged us to carry our lanterns and spread the Good News. What a rich charism and legacy Nano has left us. What a story of commitment, self-effacement, generosity and joy we have inherited. May Nano walk with us and guide us as we try to live our Presentation Way of Life in keeping with Gospel Values. 

“With the help of God we can do great things”

Submitted by: Sr Roisin Gannon, pbvm