The Sisters Of Mercy - St Joseph’s Convent, Kinsale
On 19 April 1844, the convent in Kinsale was founded from Limerick. The foundress Mother Mary Ann Burke was accompanied by Mother Francis Bridgeman, (who had worked in the Crimea during the war), Srs. Xavier Daly and Mary Martha. By July of that same year, the foundation stones of schools and part of the convent were laid. On the opening day of the school 700 children enrolled with only 6 sisters to teach them. Along with catering for their educational needs, the sisters supplied food to the children twice daily.
The 1840s were a time of great hardship for most parts of Ireland and Kinsale was not any different. As well as providing education for the children, the sisters provided food and medical aid for those in the town in greatest need, and they served in the local workhouse. They also provided some employment in the town, establishing net-making rope making for the fishermen, and lace making and embroidery for the women. The lace making industry in Kinsale later gained world renown.
The Building Specification
The site comprises the complex of vacant convent and industrial school and school buildings at St Joseph’s Convent and its existing attendant grounds on the western ridge that overlooks the town pier and harbour below O’Connell Street within Kinsale.
The buildings are on the eastern section of the site facing onto “The Ramparts” and extend a short distance along “Rampart Lane” to the north. The former national school is located at the northern end along Rampart Lane, the original convent building and chapel adjoin this tructure with the former industrial school and further orphanage and some ancillary buildings being located to the south side of these buildings.
Further ancillary buildings are located directly at the rear around a small courtyard. The orchard is located in the southern section of the site. Rubble stone wall, approximately 1.8 metres in height is located along the boundary of the orchard with the Ramparts in which there is one opening, at present fenced off.
The attendant grounds are former gardens, with some steps a gazebo, one remaining glass house and a tower structure at the north western corner. There are two convent burial grounds, walling with ancillary buildings are located in the northern section of the site.
The existing buildings on the site of the original house on the Ramparts are understood to have been donated to the Sisters of Mercy in 1844. The original dwelling on the site built in the early nineteenth century that was converted into the
original convent which became known as “The Infirmary” was given to the Sisters of Mercy in the mid nineteenth century. This dwelling is the earliest building on site and adjoins the chapel and choir. The chapel and choir are linked but were divided by a timber screen that has been removed. Nineteenth century additions to the main convent building include a new wing, kitchen and dining accommodation, chapel and
school buildings, laundry and other structures such as the glass house and several other outbuildings including two cottages and summerhouse ruins. Most of the buildings are shown on the 1883 Ordnance Survey.
The gardens include a former rose garden, are overgrown, have steps and paths and would appear to have originally had a formal layout. These are accessible from cast iron balustrading, stairs and railings at the main buildings. Hard surface tennis courts are laid out within the upper section of the grounds.
The buildings range from one to four storeys in height and on the basis of an external visual inspection are relatively intact and retain most of the original features. The interiors of most of the main buildings, with the exception of the former industrial
school buildings at the southern are substantially intact although there are problems of water ingress. Of particular note are the joinery, floor tiles, staircase, fenestration,
and in the chapel and choir, the decorative plasterwork. The industrial school buildings are in poor condition but most original features have survived. The industrial school buildings were vacated in the 1980s.
The site is on an elevated ridge overlooking the town and harbour from the west. The existing buildings by reason of the location and their scale and height are visually
dominant and conspicuous on the northern and eastern approaches to the town and from the town centre in the vicinity of the harbour area.
Renowned, Mother Francis Bridgeman, St Joseph’s Convent
Joanna Bridgeman later Sister Jane Francis - became Mother Superior
A Sisters of Mercy nun and a nursing pioneer, Joanna Bridgeman was born in Ballagh, County Clare around 1812. Joanna was one of a family of two boys and two girls but her mother died in childbirth in 1818. Following her father’s remarriage, Joanna went to live with her aunt, firstly in Scariff, and then in Limerick. In Clark Street in Limerick her aunt, Mary Anne Burke, founded the Magdalen Asylum for destitute girls. Mary Anne would later join the Sisters of Mercy and help establish a convent in San Francisco. In 1832 during a cholera outbreak in Limerick Joanna helped her with nursing the sick.
The newly-formed Sisters of Mercy opened a convent in Limerick and Joanna became a postulant there in 1838. Following a very short noviceship she was professed in 1839 by the founder of the order, Catherine McAuley. She was now known as Sister Jane Francis. In 1844, as Mother superior, she went to Kinsale in County Cork, and with a group of other nuns from Limerick set up Saint Joseph’s convent.
She worked with the sick and the poor there, receiving some financial assistance from Rome, America and from the Quakers. During the famine years they ran a soup kitchen and a school. An orphanage and an Industrial school was opened which catered for one hundred and fifty girls. During a cholera outbreak in 1849 the nuns were asked to take over the running of Kinsale Workhouse. It housed over two thousand people at the time.
It was in the Crimean War that Mother Jane Francis made her mark on history. Florence Nightingale and her nurses needed help in the Crimea and an appeal was made to the Irish Sisters of Mercy. Mother Bridgeman volunteered and took fifteen of her Mercy order colleagues with her. They nursed the wounded and dying during the year-long siege of Sevastopol and the battles of Inkerman and Balaclava. Their final six months were spent at the Crimean front. Here, it seems that some conflict developed between Florence and Mother Jane Francis, in particular on the issue of the vow of obedience that the nuns had to their religious superior. Difficulties were resolved through the intervention of hospital doctors and chaplains and their work continued. The Sisters were instrumental in introducing a system of management and nursing that was later adopted by Florence Nightingale. This scheme for military nursing was later submitted by Florence to the War Office but Mother Bridgeman and her nuns were never officially acknowledged by the British Government. In recent years, however, their input to modern nursing has been recognised internationally.
Mother Bridgeman’s Sisters Of Mercy Nursing In The Crimean War
Mthr M Francis Bridgeman Kinsale
Sr M Joseph Lynch Kinsale
Sr M Clare Keane Kinsale
Sr M Agnes Whitty St. Catherine’s Baggot St, Dublin
Sr M Elizabeth Hersey St. Catherine’s Baggot St, Dublin
Sr M Joseph Croke Charleville
Sr M Clare Lalor Charleville
Sr M Aloysius Doyle Carlow
Sr M Stanislaus Heyfron Carlow
Sr M Paula Rice St. Maries of the Isle, Cork
Sr M Aloysius Hurley St. Maries of the Isle, Cork
Sr Winifred Sprey Liverpool
Sr M Elizabeth Butler Liverpool
Sr M Magdalen Alcock Liverpool
Sr M Bernard Dixon Chelsea, Lon
Mother Jane Francis returned to Kinsale where she remained for the rest of her life. The school continued to flourish with a thousand children receiving free education, and school meals during the winter months. She directed the establishment of daughter houses in Ireland at Clonakilty, Skibbereen, Newry, Doon, and Ballyshannon. She also set up houses in Derby, England and in San Francisco and Cincinnati, USA. She wrote God in His Works, a textbook used widely in Sisters of Mercy primary schools. Mother Jane Francis Bridgeman died on February 11th, 1888 at the convent in Kinsale.
Mother Mary Baptist Russell Sisters of Mercy
San Francisco, California
Mother Frances Bridgeman, superior of the Sisters of Mercy in Kinsale, Ireland, had nursed with Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War. Hers was not a sheltered life. But when a priest asked her for recruits to go to San Francisco, California, in 1854, she hesitated. "She was afraid they'd get scalped," said Sr. Mary Katherine Doyle, who is writing a book on Mother Mary Baptist Russell.
Despite San Francisco's reputation as a lawless city, 29 Irish Sisters of Mercy volunteered to serve there. From that group, Mother Frances chose eight. She selected Sr. Mary Baptist Russell, 26 years old, as the group's leader.
They arrived there on December 8, 1854. What the sisters found was jarring. Following the discovery of gold in 1848, "gold fever" had hit San Francisco. Many men went off to seek their fortunes, leaving their wives and children to fend for themselves. The exploitation and sale of women were common practices when the Sisters of Mercy arrived. The aged and infirm fared little better.
Although primarily a teacher, Mother Baptist Russell responded to the needs of the times. She was determined to help the suffering, and one of her first works was to create a safe haven for women. Under her leadership, the Sisters of Mercy began taking in abandoned wives and mothers, prostitutes, and naive young girls. They also took in the elderly and began visiting the sick in their homes.
Less than a month after their arrival, the sisters were asked to visit a woman who had just died. Recounted Doyle: "While kneeling to pray for the woman, they realized she was not dead. After sending for the priest, they revived the woman and sent her to the county hospital. Mary Baptist deliberately rented a house near the hospital. Daily the sisters visited the sick, bringing what comfort they could to the patients."
At that time, "people who went into the hospital rarely left alive," explained Doyle. They "were left all night in the dark, with no water and no one attending them. They had no linen or pillows—they were expected to bring their own if they had any. The nurses were people who were not employable anywhere else."
In September 1855, cholera struck San Francisco. The Sisters of Mercy went to work as nurses in the county hospital. The Daily News described the sisters' labors during the health crisis: "A more horrible and ghastly sight we have seldom witnessed. In the midst of this scene of sorrow, pain, anguish, and danger were ministering angels who disregarded everything to aid their distressed fellow creatures. The Sisters of Mercy . . . did not stop to inquire whether the poor sufferers were Protestants or Catholics, Americans or foreigners, but with the noblest devotion applied themselves to their relief. . . The idea of danger never seems to have occurred to these noble women; they needed nothing of the kind."
As a result of their nursing during the cholera epidemic, the sisters were asked to take charge of the county hospital. Mother Baptist agreed, but after months or caring for the indigent at the sisters' expense, she told the county it would have to meet its obligation to the sisters. She ended up buying the hospital for $14,000, and when the county built a new hospital, Mother Baptist opened Saint Mary's in 1857, the first Catholic hospital on the West Coast.
Commented Doyle: "Oftentimes today we have so much strategic planning and long range everything, but Baptist Russell didn't plan what she was going to do. She experienced reality and then began to build. So she didn't necessarily plan to build a home for the aged, but when someone came and asked for shelter and there was no place to put her, that began the whole sheltering of the infirm aged. That was her passion, an absolute passion."
Not the least of the sisters' challenges was anti-Catholic bigotry. When an ardent anti-Catholic writer waged a campaign accusing the Sisters of Mercy of mismanaging the hospital and abusing patients, Mother Baptist urged a grand jury investigation of his allegations. The grand jury lauded the hospital as one of three outstanding institutions of San Francisco, along with the schools and the fire department.
"What you see in the early foundresses and certainly in Mother Baptist Russell was a high degree of flexibility, adaptation, creativity, and risk," noted Doyle. "Her reliance upon the providence of God prompted her to respond first and worry about financing the project later, prompting a bishop to comment that her heart was bigger than her purse.'"
In 1868, smallpox hit the city. So contagious was the disease that, according to Doyle, "even ministers would not visit their dying parishioners." City officials opened pesthouses for those inflicted with the disease. Nurses worked only during the day, leaving victims of smallpox unattended in the darkness from dusk until dawn.
Sr. Mary Baptist received permission for the sisters to work in the pest houses, and for 10 months they lived among the smallpox victims. She nursed alongside the sisters until the bishop demanded that she return to the convent. Eventually he gave in, and Mother Baptist went back to the pesthouses. Commented a writer of the period: "Those devoted Sisters of Mercy willingly presented themselves and entered on a mission of charity from which all others shrink in dismay . . . . Their fearless, self-sacrificing love is an honor to their church and to their order."
The sisters' acts of mercy helped assuage the anti-Catholic bigotry. According to Doyle, Mother Baptist set the tone for reaching out to persons of all backgrounds and language groups. "She worked with atheists, agnostics, bigots, criminals, murderers. There was no disease too gruesome and no person beyond the realm of transformation." She loved to help people—especially the poor—and in so doing, she became a legend. She provided wedding dresses for brides too poor to purchase them. She visited men in prisons. She stole from the hospital linen supply to give to the poor. Legend has it that Mother Baptist would pull up her petticoat and wrap the hospital bed linens around her waist and stuff them in her sleeves. When she reached the home of a needy family, she would pull the linen out and make the beds. She did this so often that the sisters put locks on the linen closets. One time, she pulled her own mattress down the stairs to give it to a poor man.
But, according to Doyle, Mother Baptist's world was always bigger than her immediate environment. She sent money to Ireland to help during the potato famine and money to Japan to help a leper settlement there.
"She didn't think in terms of great projects," said Doyle, "she thought in terms of people. She wouldn't accept anyone into the community who didn't have a passion for those who were poor. The only thing she would not give an inch on was love for the poor."
When Mother Baptist Russell died in August 1898, thousands came to her funeral. Fr. R.E. Kenna, a Jesuit priest, summed up her life in a letter to the bereaved sisters:
"Gentle as a little child, she was brave and resolute as a crusader. Prudence itself, yet she was fearless in doing good to the needy. . . . All who met her were forced to admire; and those who knew her best loved her most."