This is an auspicious week in our family as it is the week in which we remember the centenary of the birth of our Aunt May.Our grandmother, Mary Friel, as was the tradition, made the trip back from Glenswilly to her parents home in Pollaid, Fanad, to give birth to her first child, Mary Isabella. (known as May) We know from the birth certificate that Mary’s sister Susan was present at the birth, and later that day, Thursday, May 17, 1917, we can tell from the baptismal record that her brother Francis and another sister Annie, made their way with the newborn baby to St Columba’s Church in Massmount to act as sponsors at her Baptism.
She told me that it was her wish to join the Sisters of Nazareth and to become a nurse. She had planned to enter the religious life at age 18. However, it was not until 1938, when she was 21 years old, that she made the journey to the Novitiate of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur in Ashdown Park, in Sussex where she was no longer Mary Isabella Gallagher, but rather Sister Patricia Mary.Corpus Christ Procession in 1939. Aunt May would have taken part in this procession.
It must have been very worrying for her family knowing that she was near to London after the outbreak of the Second World War but she was evacuated to Birkdale Lancashire in 1940 where she stayed for 10 years. Far from the nursing career that she had wished to follow, her duties included being sacristan and sewing work which must have been a terrible disappointment for her, but without doubt, she accepted her lot as ‘God’s will’.
Her father was planning a visit to her in 1944 and went so far as to have a photograph taken for his passport/travel permit. However, it was not to be, as he died in November 1944 having contracted Typhoid Fever. Aunt May said that she was in Retreat at the time and she did not therefore receive the news of his death until well after the event. She was undoubtedly very close to her father and her siblings seemed to have had a more distant relationship with him. After their mother died she saw to it that they had all they needed. It was hard on them emotionally when she left to join the nuns, never to be home again, as was the rule at that time.
After her return to Ashdown Park, set in hundreds of acres of Ashdown Forest, (and home of Winnie the Pooh) she was in charge of the novitiate where novices learned the ropes. Now too her youngest brother James (Seamus, Jim) had moved to London and was within visiting distance of her. His frequent visits to Ashdown to visit her must have made a big difference to her life, having endured life so far away from her family. He and his family made frequent trips to Ashdown and in time her sister Eileen too would visit.
Post Vatican 2, rules were relaxed and she was now free to travel although she initially had to stay in a convent. Her first trip back to Carrigart was after her Silver Jubilee. Our house was thronged from morning to night with people coming to visit her. The visit of a nun was quite an event so not only did she have visits from people who knew her, but also from people who had never met her before. I think by the end of her visit she had received a lot of ‘offerings’ in envelopes!Vatican 2 allowed for changes in the nun’s habit. Gradually, the long heavy serge skirt, the long black Rosary hanging from the waist and the wimpole were replaced by much more practical clothing. Over a period of a few years most members of her congregation were wearing ‘ordinary’ clothes.
In 1969 the convent in Ashdown was sold and Aunt May began a new career at the teacher training college run by her order in Bearsden, outside Glasgow. The change would have been very dramatic as she left behind a life of good China cups and silver and embroidery and deer walking across the lawn . After 23 years enjoying the rolling parklands and forests of Sussex and the quiet life of a convent, the hustle and bustle of irreverent students in what was something of a concrete jungle was a complete shock to her system. On the upside, she was now near her sister Eileen and they exchanged visits frequently. As College Bursar she made great friends with the students and as she was such a talented Flower Arranger she was often asked to arrange wedding flowers for them. One of the highlights of her life was the visit of Pope JOHN Paul II to the college at the end of May 1982. She was Sacristan and had charge of preparing the convent chapel for the visit. A truly great honour for her.
A large gathering of family and friends helped her celebrate her Golden Jubilee in 1990. Brother arrived from the USA, another brother from England and a smattering of nieces and nephews and their families made for a great occasion for her.
Normally religious sisters are buried with their bronze cross in the coffin. In her case it was overlooked and the Sisters very kindly asked me to take it in remembrance of her. She wore it daily for over 40 years. It travels everywhere with me and I am very proud to own it.
As we remember her on the centenary of her birth, it is an honour to place this memorial to her on the World Wide Web. Aunt May Gallagher/ Sr Patricia Mary may have led an unremarkable life, but she lived it well. She was truly a remarkable woman. I miss her still.
Note: The Convent of Notre Dame at Ashdown Park is now a leading luxury hotel. You can see some images of the house and the beautiful Harry Clarke stained glass windows, including one that has 35 shades of blue, which were installed by the nuns on their website. Click here