Clare Champion, Friday, March 21, 2003
The Riches of Clare exhibition at the local authority-run Clare Museum charts the county’s history over 6,000 years using authentic artifacts. In this article, John Rattigan, writes about the Sisters of Mercy, who first established a convent in Ennis in 1854.
When Catherine Mc Auley opened a house in Baggot Street, Dublin, on September 24, 1827, the feast of Our Lady of Mercy, the house became the first Home of Mercy to provide healthcare, education, and training to poor women and children. Her success led to a request from the Archbishop of Dublin to found a religious community with the women who had begun to help her in Baggot Street. As a result, Catherine and two companions professed their vows in 1831 and founded the Sisters of Mercy congregation.
The first Convent founded by the Sisters was in Tullamore, County Offaly, with five more established shortly after, including a house in Limerick. It was from Limerick that, at the request of Parish Priest Dean John Kenny, the Sisters came to Ennis to establish a convent on May 29, 1854. Row House, on the site of the present Temple Gate Hotel, was adapted initially for the use of the Sisters when they arrived in Ennis. A former occupant of Row House was Charles O’Connell and his cousin, Daniel O’Connell, often visited the house during his 1820’s campaign for Catholic Emancipation. The sisters quickly became involved in teaching and visiting the sick. A new convent was built in 1861 to accommodate the growing number of sisters, and Row House was incorporated into it. The section that has become Clare Museum was constructed as a primary school in 1865, and the final portion, the main convent complex, a chapel and classrooms was erected in 1869.
As well as schools, the congregation ran an orphanage and several small industries. Once established in Ennis, the congregation expanded to a number that allowed Sisters from the Ennis Convent to establish Branch Houses in Killaloe and Spanish Point, and in 1860 Colaiste Muire, in Ennis was built. Some 23 girls were enrolled when the Sisters of Mercy School at Ennistymon opened in 1872. Although mostly associated with education, in keeping with the example of their foundress, the Sisters also worked with the poor, and were involved as administrators and nurses in the workhouses in Ennis, Kilrush, Corofin and Roscrea. From Ennis also, the congregation also branched out overseas.
As early as 1859, sisters from Ennis had followed the emigrant trail to the USA and established a foundation in California, with other convents established in Connecticut in 1872, and Maitland, New South Wales, Australia in 1875, a place where many Clare emigrants had settled. Mother Claver Ryan and nine companions left Ennis in 1878 to establish a foundation in Hokitika, in the diocese of Christchurch, New Zealand. In 1918, she also founded the only Sisters of Mercy convent on the South Island of that country. The Sisters entered the twentieth century a vibrant and growing community.
Analysis of the 1901 Census, available on the Clare Library website, tells us that there were 49 Sisters of Mercy in St Xavier’s convent in Ennis, all under the guidance of a Sr. Catherine Murray who was listed as “Head of the Family”. Other data recorded tells us that the community had a broad age profile, with an average age of 42 years. The youngest member of the community was Sr.Anna Frost who was only 20 years old, while the oldest was Sr. Margaret Mc Mahon, aged 64. Although, the majority of the Sisters came from Clare and neighbouring counties, a Sister Laura Von Troll, came from Austria. The congregation continued to serve Ennis in the 20th Century, and established the Holy Family School in 1962.
The design of this school was to be very advanced for its time, being based on a Californian model, with classrooms facing south, each self-contained with bathroom and cloakroom. In a further connection with that American state, Sisters from Ennis established a school at Arroyo Grande in 1963, a school that thrives to this day.
In 1995, the original convent in Ennis, which had been suffering from dry rot for many years, was sold, and the sisters moved to more suitable accommodation nearby, where they still involve themselves in community work. Part of the original building was demolished to make way for a hotel, while the remainder, now occupied by Clare Museum, was purchased by Ennis Urban District Council.