Uganda: Irish Missionary Nun on the way to canonisation

  • Matt Moran

One of the lesser known Irish candidates being considered for canonisation is Sr Teresa Kearney from Co Wicklow. Sr Teresa was better known by her religious name, Mother Kevin, and spent most of her religious life in Uganda where she is buried and is fondly remembered. In 2016, she was declared Servant of God by Pope Francis - the first step in the process of canonisation.

On 17 November, the final work on closing the diocesan phase of the investigations into the life of heroic virtues and intercessory powers of Mother Kevin was completed at Lugazi Cathedral in Uganda and submitted to the Vatican. Commenting on it, Sr Miriam Duggan FMSA said: "All we can do now is pray and wait."

So, who was Sr Teresa Kearney? What was special about her? She was born in Knockenrahan near Arklow on 27 April 1875, and was the third daughter of Michael and Teresa Kearney. Her father had died three months earlier in an accident. Her mother remarried and had three more children. When Teresa was ten years old her mother died, so she was raised at Curranstown, Co Wicklow by her maternal grandmother who guided her youth and handed on her own deep faith and spiritual outlook on life.

The Kearney girls attended the national school run by the Sisters of Mercy in Arklow until she was 14. She wanted to be a teacher but funding was not available, so she became a JAM or junior assistant mistress - a band of untrained teachers who made up the bulk of the profession at that time. When she was 17, her grandmother died suddenly.

After teaching for a few years in Arklow and in Dublin, at 18 she emigrated to England and taught in a school in Essex run by the Sisters of Charity. With a growing conviction that God was calling her to be a nun, she applied and was accepted in 1895 by the Franciscan Sisters at St Mary's Abbey, Mill Hill, London. On 21 April 1898, she made her perpetual vows as Sr Mary Kevin. Her wish was to serve the missions in Africa or South America, but when the call to foreign mission came, it was from Africa.

In 1902, a Mill Hill priest, Bishop Henry Hanlon, approached the Franciscan Sisters at Mill Hill requesting sisters for Uganda. Having seen the crying needs of women and children there and the high infant mortality rate, he was convinced that it was necessary to have sisters engaged in health care and education ministries. Sr Kevin was one of six sisters who volunteered to go to Uganda along with one American, one English, one Scottish and two Irish women. Leaving London on 3 December 1902, they arrived in Uganda on 15 January 1903 after a treacherous journey across sea, land and Lake Victoria.

Sr. Kevin started her first clinic under a mango tree near their convent. The first seven years of missionary work were tough for the sisters. Various diseases, from smallpox to malaria, ravaged Buganda. The infant mortality rate was also relatively high due to the high frequency of maternal deaths.

In 1906, she expanded the mission and set up a hospital in Nagalama, 23 miles away. In 1910, she was appointed the leader of the convent, and in 1913, three more sisters arrived which allowed her to establish a third station in Kamuli, Busoga. All three of these missions focused on medicine and education for the local populations. At the missions, she set up primary and secondary education, trained nurses, and set up clinics, hospitals and orphanages.

A part of the legacy of Irish missionaries that generally goes un-noticed is the local congregations that they founded in Africa and in India. These diocesan congregations are now doing the pastoral and development work that the Irish have done for decades and continue to do but in small and declining numbers.

In 1923, Mother Kevin founded the Little Sisters of St Francis of Assisi (LSoSF) who currently have about 600 members. She opened Mount Oliver Convent in Dundalk in 1935 to receive Irish postulants. Then, in 1952 with growing numbers she founded the Irish congregation, the Franciscan Missionary Sisters for Africa (FMSA). These two congregations have worked closely together, and in 2003 they celebrated 100 years in Africa. As part of prudent succession planning and empowerment by FMSA, they have handed over many of their schools, hospitals, and leprosarium to LSoSF.

One of Mother Kevin's greatest concerns was for the advancement of women. She wanted to create a wider and better world for them, and to help them overcome what oppressed them. She believed that women's education was central to their advancement. She promoted the education of girls through primary and secondary schools, and then through establishing teacher training colleges, so that young African women could be teachers to their own people. Her contribution to women's education in Uganda is legendary. It says much for the success of her efforts that she lived to see one of her pupils receive the first Bachelor of Science degree in East Africa, and another became the first woman doctor.

Aware of the great hardship many women endured during childbearing, and of the high rate of infant mortality and maternal deaths, she resolved to do something about it. She approached Cardinal Bourne of Westminster with a request to study midwifery. Maternity work was still closed to religious, but canon law did not stop her pressing the boundaries. The bishop was horrified that a nun should study midwifery in Dublin, and forbade her to continue. She then attended a modified course in obstetrics in Alcase in France. With the help of Dr Evelyn Connolly - an Irish lay missionary - she launched a Catholic nurses' training school in Nsambya. Today, the motto of that training school remains 'Love and Service'.

Mother Kevin Postgraduate Medical School of Nsambya offers a three-year full-time postgraduate programme leading to the award of a Master of Medicine degree in the disciplines of emergency medicine, internal medicine, obstetrics and gynaecology, paediatrics, and surgery. The degrees are awarded by Uganda Martyrs University.

Mother Kevin is greatly remembered in Uganda for her love of the vulnerable and marginalised persons in society, the many schools and hospitals she established, plus her special concern for the care of lepers who were neglected, and her work to raise the status of women and the girl child. When she died un-expectantly on 17 October 1957 at Brighton in Boston, Cardinal Cushing paid for her remains to be brought to Ireland for burial. Soon, the cry of her beloved people in Uganda became so great to have her interred amongst them that she was exhumed and their wish was granted when, on 3 December, she was buried at Nkokoenjeru among the people to whom she had given and received so much.

Not only is the spirit of Mother Kevin still made manifest through the works of the Little Sisters of St Francis and the Franciscan Missionary Sisters for Africa, but the President of Uganda, Yoweri Museveni named her among the gold medallists during the 52nd Independence celebration of Uganda held on 9 October 2014 for "her contribution towards the development of the country".

That national recognition of her legacy is well deserved when it is considered that today the LSoSF are engaged in medical units in five hospitals in Uganda and three in Kenya, nine dispensaries in Uganda, six in Kenya, and one in Tanzania, one community based health centre each in Uganda and Kenya, two nurse training schools, and 2 leprosarium hospitals in Uganda.

They also run seven nursery schools in Kenya, 14 primary schools in Kenya and 24 in Uganda, three secondary schools in Kenya, seven in Kenya, and one in Tanzania, two teaching training colleges each in Kenya and Uganda, two domestic science schools in Uganda and one in Kenya, one special school each in Uganda and Kenya, and have an associate professor and a counsellor working at Kenyatta University. Additionally, they have an extensive social work apostolate.

The late Dr H Jowitt, formerly Director of Education in Uganda, said when speaking about the congregation: "It is difficult to exaggerate the moral and social influence of the LSOSF in a land where, before the advent of Mother Kevin one met the almost total degradation of the women."

The FMSA sisters are working in Uganda, Kenya, Zambia, Zimbabwe, South Sudan, the USA, Ireland, Scotland and England. Their ministries include addressing the HIV/AIDS pandemic and care of those affected by it through home-based care programmes, Education for Life and Youth Alive programmes, care of orphans, life-skills training programmes and bereavement and loss programmes. They are also engaged in prison ministry, school chaplaincy, care of the elderly, community leadership training, development projects, spirituality development, counselling and much more.

After the signing of the armistice on Christmas Day 1918, Mother Kevin was awarded an MBE in recognition of the work of LSoSF in caring for African soldiers returning from World War 1 in Europe to Kisumu in Kenya. In 1955, she was awarded a CBE. In the same year, she also received the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice (Decoration of Honour) from Pius XI in recognition of her outstanding service to the Church in Uganda.

From an early age Mother Kevin came to realize the need to trust in Divine Providence. This was evident in her youth and became all-embracing in her life as a missionary and trail-blazer in Africa. Perhaps her early encounter with family tragedy helped to prepare her for her great mission of bringing love and solace to sick and suffering people. She closely resembled St Francis in her love for the poor and to the people of Uganda, she became known as 'Mama Kevina'.

Her bigness of heart and mind endeared her to many, but it also challenged injustice and exploitation wherever she found it. So much did she become associated with healing and providing that, in the war years, the Buganda soldiers in Burma called the plane which brought their provisions 'The Mama Kevina'. Her gift of an all-loving heart and mind which could not settle for half measures sometimes brought mis-understandings and hardships. She accepted each struggle with patience understanding where the other was coming from. Truly these are the signs of a saint-in-the-making.

Mother Kevin showed herself to be prophetic and forward thinking - in many ways a woman ahead of her time. Her missionary initiatives encompassed both educational and medical programmes. She fought for the right of education for African women. The Director of Education in Uganda described her work as: "Potentially the most productive that I ever knew, a real source of inspiration for anyone who believed in the spiritual values in education…"

In the treatment of leprosy, she understood the fear that the disease inspired and saw it as a grave social problem as well as a medical one. She founded leprosaria where the lives of sufferers were transformed as treatment and rehabilitation took place and attitudes began to change from dread to acceptance.

For Christians the spiritual journey is two-fold. We begin our journey by living with God as we follow the Gospel message and hold Jesus as a model in our Christian living. Later as we become more united with God (we are now not two but one) the journey changes from with God to in God. Surely, Mother Kevin lived these two journeys as she became more and more united with God, so that in the end there was only one-heart-and-one-mind.

The Vatican congregation for the causes of saints will now open up their own investigation into the life of Mother Kevin. Meanwhile, as she is on the first step to canonisation, Franciscan Missionary Sisters for Africa and Little Sisters of St Francis journey on in her spirit to support the poor and marginalised … exactly as she did during her life on this earth.

(Matt Moran is a writer and the author of book - The Legacy of Irish Missionaries Lives On - which is available from and from Amazon)

Tags: Uganda, Matt Moran, Franciscan Missionary Sisters for Africa, Little Sisters of St Francis, Sr Teresa Kearney, Mother Kevin

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