The visit of Pope Francis to the World Meeting of Families in Ireland last August generated a lot of media coverage, but one significant historical connection he had with Ireland was overlooked, except for a brief comment on it by Fr Dermod McCarthy during the Papal Mass televised by RTE. That connection was with an Irish missionary nun from Co Cavan - a member of the Little Sisters of the Assumption.
The Little Sisters of the Assumption were founded in France in 1865 by Fr Etienne Pernet and lay-woman, Antoinette Fage, in an effort to ease the misery of urban impoverishment among poor and working class families.
The sisters arrived in Buenos Aires in 1910, and from there spread out to other countries in Latin America. In 1932, a second community was established in Flores which was comprised of working families and many immigrants. One of these families was the couple, Jose Bergoglio and Regina Maria Sivori who were Italian immigrants. When their first child - Jorge Mario (now Pope Francis) - was due to be born on 17 December 1936, they sought the help of the Little Sisters. That help was provided by Sr Oliva Maria who stayed with the family for a week caring for the mother and her baby boy. She could not have imagined then that the baby boy would grow up to be the Pope and Leader of the Catholic Church which she had chosen to serve far away from her family.
Sr. Oliva Maria was born Susan Cusack on 1st January 1889 to Philip and Ellen Cusack (nee Donohue) in the parish of Crosserlough near Kilnaleck in south Co Cavan. She was one of four girls - Mary, Ellen and Kate - and two boys - Thomas and Phil - in the family who lived on a small farm. She was baptised in Crosserlough's St Mary's Church which had opened in November 1888, and attended St Mary's National School which opened in 1886.
Susan joined the Little Sisters of the Assumption at Grenelle in Paris on 30 October 1909, and was professed on 23 May 1912. She served in Reims and Saint Etienne until 1923 when she was assigned to South America ministering first in Buenos Aires. In 1933, she moved to Flores where she encountered the Bergoglio family. In 1963, she moved to Rosario for one year, and then to Montevideo for four years. She spent her final seven years in Muniz, near Buenos Aires, where she died on 31 October 1975 aged 86, and is buried there. A number of her relatives still live in Co Cavan. Sr Oliva was mentioned briefly in 'Crosserlough through the Ages' - a book on local history which was published in 2013 by Crosserlough Historical & Heritage Society.
When a girl was born to the Bergoglio couple in 1937, Argentinan, Sr Antonia Ariceta cared for the mother and baby and the then one-year old toddler, Jorge Mario. The parents and grandmother were active members of The Fraternity and of The Daughters of St Monica - a support groups of laity that were very dynamic with the sisters in the Flores community. Men joined The Fraternity and women joined The Daughters of St Monica. In the context of today's discussion about involvement of women and laity in general in Church activities, it is noteworthy how this and many other congregations have had such very active involvement for centuries. Today in Ireland, the LSA Sisters have a significant number of lay volunteers supporting their missions in South America.
"My father and my mother talked to us about the Little Sisters" Pope Francis said. "They used to go zealously to houses where there was a woman who needed to be helped with the housework, prepare the children to go to school, etc., a poor woman who could not pay for this help. Servants, poor servants who used to make a deep impression on me always … from time to time my father or my mother, but more often my father, used to take us to visit them in the Calle Junta. When it rained heavily this street used to be flooded and we had to cross over by a bridge. In the district, they were called 'the Little Sisters of the bridge' because of this bridge that had to be crossed."
Pope Francis kept up close contact with the sisters and, after he was appointed Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he used to visit Sr Antonia and the La Inmaculada community regularly, keeping up a fraternal contact. When Sr Antonia celebrated her diamond jubilee in January 1999, he celebrated the Eucharist in the community's house. As archbishop and later as cardinal, he was well known for using public transport to get around the city of Buenos Aires.
He often visited some sisters who worked in the hospital for infectious diseases. His pastoral or spontaneous visits to the families were marked by special attention to the sick, especially the poorest and weakest. On 15 August 2010, he presided at the celebration for the centenary of the arrival of the Little Sisters in Argentina which was also attended by an Irish representative of the congregation.
Jorge Mario kept, as something very precious, the cross that used to be given to the 'Monicas' and which had belonged to his grandmother. On one occasion he mentioned that he kept it beside his bed saying "it is the first thing I see when I wake up."
Sr Annette Allain, LSA Coordinator in the USA stated during the Papal visit to their community in East Harlem, New York in September 2015: "Pope Francis has a first-hand appreciation of our mission and spirituality from an early age due to receiving home care services from the Little Sisters of the Assumption and also from the involvement of his parents and grandparents in our support groups. It is my belief that his sensitivity to the poor and immigrant population grew from his own personal familial experience. We have been called to become family among the very people Pope Francis loves - those living on the margins of society. This is a privileged encounter of mutuality, believing that the power of growth is in relationship. There is no greater gift than Pope Francis' visit to East Harlem as the Little Sisters of the Assumption celebrate our 150th anniversary."
In his Foreword to the book - 'Il Vangelo guancia a guancia' (The Cheek to Cheek Gospel) - published in March 2018 by journalist, Paola Bergamini, that tells the life of Fr Stefano Pernet, Pope Francis wrote: "I have many memories tied to these religious women who, as silent angels enter the homes of those in need, work patiently, look after, help, and then silently return to their convent. They follow their rule, pray and then go out to reach the homes of those in difficulty, becoming nurses and governesses, they accompany children to school and prepare meals for them."
Today, the sisters say: "We like to share with friends and supporters the bonds that unite us to this priest who grew up in a family that shared the charism and the spirituality of our congregation and who now, by the will of God, is our Pope Francis."
In 1880, the first community of the Little Sisters outside France was established in London at the request of Cardinal Manning. In early 1891, a community was established in New York, and was followed quickly by one in Dublin on 4 April 1891 at the invitation of Monsignor Kennedy, Chancellor of the Dublin Archdiocese. Eight years later, the congregation established a house at Grenville Place in Cork on 28 May 1899, and they still have a presence in Cork.
The sisters arrived in an Ireland where there was great poverty, little or no state aid, poor housing and widespread disease. The concept of social welfare, where the State assumes responsibility for the needy, had not yet developed and the vast majority of the poor depended for survival on the existence of charitable bodies and individuals: hospitals and schools set up and run by religious, and proportionally, though to a lesser extent, by the Church of Ireland and the Quakers. Minimal state aid took the shape of the dreaded workhouses which were regarded as the absolute last resort by destitute people.
In 2016, to mark their 125th anniversary, Carol Dorgan wrote a history of the Little Sisters in Ireland - To Tell Our Story is to Praise God. The book, which can be downloaded at: www.littlesistersoftheassumption.org/celebrating-125-years-in-ireland/, gives an account of the sisters' arrival and the development of their work throughout Ireland and in the different places to which Irish sisters went.
It is a social history of the Ireland to which the Catholic Church and religious communities, especially nuns in very large numbers, contributed so much to the education, health, and well-being of many generations of families when the state under British and later national rule could not provide such social services for citizens. Sadly, many Irish politicians of today choose to ignore or deny that contribution - significant parts of which continue to this day - as they rush to banish religion from public discourse in the guise of the separation of church and state.
On 8 August 2015, the Dublin communities of the Little Sisters of the Assumption gathered in Rowlagh Parish Church in the city to celebrate 150 years since the founding of the congregation. They can be proud of their contribution to Irish society since their arrival in those bleak days of 1891. Their number in Ireland is now just under 70 sisters.
The beatification of the Algerian Martyrs on 8 December last had a special significance for the congregation because one of their members - Sr Paul Helene from Paris - was one of the martyrs having given her life in the service of Muslim youth in Algiers on 8 May 1994.
(Matt Moran is a writer living in Cork City. He is author of book - The Legacy of Irish Missionaries Lives On - which is available from www.onstream.ie and from Amazon. He served as Chairman of the Board of Misean Cara and is currently a member of the Board of Management of Nano Nagle Birthplace - www.nanonaglebirthplace.ie )
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