Oughterard and the "The Faithful Companions of Jesus"
By Mary Kyne
Dr Kirwan preaches in London
In the autumn of 1841 Fr. Joseph Kirwan A.D., the learned Parish Priest of Oughterard, preached a series of sermons in London for the purpose of gathering money to re-roof and to refurbish the church at Oughterard which had suffered severe damage on the night of the big wind.6th January 1839. Rev. Dr Kirwan was a famous preacher and he had on many occasions previously preached in England, where many wealthy Landlords sojourned. Through his sermons he collected funds for the relief of the destitute in this area. Many glowing tributes of his eloquence appeared in the London papers of those years.
So well was Dr Kirwan known in the literary and cultural life if that city that in 1841 the “London City Catholic Library” elected him a patron and considered itself very honoured when he humbly accepted? In the winter of 1841 Dr Kirwan visited two convents in London, Somerstown and Isleworth, which had just been opened by the foundress of a new religious society, Madame d’Houet.
Madame d’Houet and The Faithful Companion of Jesus.
Madame d’Houet was born in the north of France in 1781 and was christened Madeline de Benjy. In 1804 she married Antoine Joseph d’ Houet. Her husband died in 1805, just before their son was born. Madame now devoted all the spare time she had to helping the poor, both spiritually and materially. Gradually it was brought home to her that if there was to be any permanence in her work, any lasting fruit from her actions, that his could only be achieved by forming a society for this purpose. As is usual in the case of idealists, Madame was subject o buffeting and misunderstanding, but she boldly clung to her ideals and founded an order of nuns in 1820. Gradually the order spread over the north of France and Italy, taking the title “ Les Fideles Compagnes de Jesus”. When the order spread to England in 1835, it became known under the English translation of its name – ‘ The Faithful Companions of Jesus”.
Invitation to Oughterard
Rev. Dr. Kirwan was very impressed by the work of the sisters in London. Their system of education, their spiritual outlook, their concern for the poor and down trodden brought home to him the wonderful advantages that would accrue from getting these sisters to come to the village of Oughterard. His main concern was to bring education to his poor people, who were subjected to the enticements and influences of soup kitchens. Here he seemed to have the answer to his problems. Mother Julie Guillemet was in charge of the convent in Somerstown and it was to her that Rev. Dr. Kirwan appealed for help. Mother Julie consulted straight away with Madame d’Houet. Madame was thrilled with the opportunity offered to work in the “ Island of Saints”. “You know full well”, that I am an Irish woman at heart”, she said
Mother Julie Arrives in Oughterard
After a correspondence ranging over a few months Madame d’Houet consented to come to Oughterard in October 1842. Madame found herself too ill in Nantes in France to attempt the journey, so she sent Mere Julie to settle all the details with Dr. Kirwan of setting up a place of residence in Oughterard. An Irish sister who knew the Irish language and Irish customs accompanied Mother Julie. On their arrival in Galway, after their long and tiresome journey, they were warmly welcomed, by Bishop Brown and Dr. Kirwan. Rev. Dr. Kirwan had come in from Ougterard to escort them to the last part of their journey to what Mother Julie afterwards called, “The great town of Oughterard, situated 18miles from Galway, in Connacht, not far from the picturesque mountains of Connemara”.
Before long Mother Julie, having rented a house, suggested to Madame d’ Houet that the foundation might serve as a double purpose, a school for the poor children and a noviciate to receive postulants promised by Dr. Kirwan. Madame d’Houet agreed wholeheartedly with her and dispatched three other nuns form London to help Mother Julie. Rev. Dr. Kirwan then bought a large house near the church as a convent for the nuns. It had formerly belonged to Dr. Davies, and was large enough for a small community.
Opening Ceremony – 2nd February 1843
It was on the 2nd of February 1843, by which time four companions had joined Mother Julie and nine postulants from Oughterard had presented themselves, that the opening ceremony took place. The occasion was a joyous one, long remembered by the people of Oughterard. Emerging as they were from the darkness of penal times and totally unfamiliar with religious ceremonial, they were impressed beyond measure by the simple beauty of the liturgy, presided over by the Bishop of Galway, assisted by forty of his priests.
The reception of the postulants at a High Mass at which Fr. Lawerence O Donnell, (a native of Oughterard and later Bishop of Galway) was the celebrant was a wonderful occasion. Fr. B. Roche preached an eloquent sermon and the Rev. Dr. Kirwan chanted. It was estimated that up to 2,000 people were present to witness the beautiful liturgy.
“ May all your works praise you, O Lord, and all your saints bless you. The land that was desolate is filled with joy.” On this jubilant note the local papers recorded the day’s events. Celebrations continued well into the night with bonfires lighting up the countryside. People sung and danced around them. Rush lights emblazoned the windows of the poor cabins. All were eager to celebrate an historical occasion and to show the world that they were true to their faith and loyal to their bishops. The dark nights were no more and a great feeling of hope took possession of the people. “The desert has been turned into a land of joy, everything will burst into flower”.
Madame d’ Houet Visits Oughterard.
The young sister left at Oughterard to prepare the postulants for full entry into the order, soon won the hearts of her exuberant and happy charges but she was incapable of initiating them into the religious practice normally adopted for postulants in the society. This was the cause of great concern for the Foundress. “You must make the postulants observe the ordinary regulation. Do not permit them to fail in religious silence, and correct them with gentleness. In any perplexity, say “The Veni Creator” before Our Lady’s statue and then act as seems best to you” Madame d’Houet once wrote.
Madame d’Houet instructs the Postulants
On her arrival in Oughterard in May 1843, she immediately gave herself to the task of the proper formation of her postulants. Very Soon, these young people were full of admiration for the care and understanding shown by their mother about whom they had heard so much and whom they had been longing to meet. Once their hearts and confidence had been won, she judged the time to introduce them to the more regular observance intended for them. She began by enforcing such points at the rising at affixed hour, the keeping of silence, and the making of conversation in recreation time general. These generous young people joyfully accepted the adjustments to their lives and by the 2nd of July 1843 were sufficiently prepared to receive the habit.
Account from the Early Annals
The early annals of the Community record that Bishop Brown presided at the ceremony and was moved to tears at witnessing the fervour and happiness of the novices. On this occasion, he had a long and serious conversation with Madame d’Houet. Since this was his first meeting he had regarded the countess, as he always called her, with the utmost veneration. Clearly, he was deeply appreciative of her holiness and his own good fortune in her coming to his diocese. The Bishop shared both Mother Julie’s and Madame d’Houet’s concern regarding the difficulty of maintaining a community in a place so deprived of resources. It would be at a cost of continual financial sacrifice, which could only be justified by the assurance of numerous vocations. In spite of Dr. Kirwan’s promises, these were not forthcoming. In the following months the strange delays and second thoughts on the part of many families suggested that deliberate interference was keeping candidates away.
First Communion 1844
In the meantime, Dr Brown urged Madame d’Houet to do all she could for the poor children of the area. She responded by opening a school for the poor children of the area. The school prospered steadily reaching an intake of 300 pupils by summer 1844. That same year, 40 children were prepared for First Holy Communion, which took place on the Feast of Corpus Christi. The sisters found the children very eager to learn their catechism and highly intelligent. It was a difficult task to have them neatly dressed for First Holy Communion morning, but the sisters succeeded. For this important occasion, the poorest amongst them were dressed with a touch of French good taste – “All wore tulle bonnets tiedwith blue ribbon”. One of the sisters gives a detailed account of that First Communion morning:
“ All the chosen children gathered at the school on good time and then, dressed in their newly made clothes, they marched in procession to the church …”. For the local population this was a day to remember. Everyone was out to enjoy this unique religious festival. The proud parents were delighted and happy to know that their children were prepared. They were so thrilled to see them so neatly dressed and in their opinion even elegantly attired for their great day.
It must be remembered that in the country districts of Ireland at this time, religious ceremonies were rare. Churches were used only for Mass, sermons and instructions.
Vespers were never said in them and it was very seldom that Benediction took place. In Penal times baptisms and marriages took place in private homes as did the Sacrament of Penance and the Blessed Eucharist. Twice a year the priests visited the villages in the parish and held the “Stations”. These Stations took place at Easter and at Christmas. The priest heard the confessions of the people in the Station House. They said Mass in the most suitable house in the village, where the congregation received Holy Communion. It was thus quite unusual to have children receive First Holy Communion in a public church. Thus Corpus Christi 1844 was a great day for Oughterard.
The Sisters’ Departure
For three years the sisters in Oughterard did trojan work for education both in the school and in the church on Sundays, where they taught catechism after last Mass. As the years passed, it became clear to Mother Julie and Madame d’Houet that Oughterard was unsuitable for their foundation of The Faithful Companions of Jesus. It was too remote and off the beaten track to provide a site suitable for a school serving the middle or upper classes.
Madame regretted having to give up the work so dear to her, of instructing the poor, but it was the question of sacrificing one good for the greater good! She was a hard-headed business woman and what she resolved to do, she did no matter how reluctantly. In an attempt to lighten the blow of withdrawal, Madame decided to withdraw the sisters one by one and to do it secretly. However the news of the first departure leaked the evening before it took place. It was rapidly whispered around that a carriage had been hired to take a group of sisters to Galway where they would board Bianconi’s coach for Limerick.
When the people realized that the sisters were really going to desert them they placed a watch in front of the convent to ensure that the sister wouldn’t leave. The children spent all night on the road watching to see if their teacher would secretly. The following day a carriage arrived from Galway to take the sisters away. At the sight of the sisters entering the carriage, the people set up a keening that tore at the heart of everyone. Their keening was so loud that it was heard clearly in the neighbouring parish of Killannin. The children ran after the departing carriage as far as their little legs would carry them appealing and imploring the sisters to stay with them but it was all in vain. Some children are said to have followed the carriage for two miles but then lost sight of the departing nuns.
Not all of the sisters left Oughterard on that sorrowful morning. Some remained for a few months longer to pack the nuns’ belongings and to leave the convent spick and span. When they finally departed, the distress and the heartbreak of the previous departure was repeated weeks later. It was a time of mourning for all and especially for Dr. Kirwan. He agreed with Madame d’Houet and even counseled her to establish her society more centrally. Perhaps he did not realize that such a step would necessitate the withdrawal of its members from the little convent of Oughterard. Be this as it may, the fact remains that he was inconsolable because of the loss of his beloved parishioners. The high hopes of 1843 were now dashed.
Final Move to Limerick
In 1845 the order moved to Limerick to set up a fee paying school as plans to establish a pay school, from which the nuns could support themselves, in Oughterard had come to nothing because there were hardly any prospective paying pupils in the area. In Limerick they started building a three-story convent and school out of their own resources, almost as soon as they had obtained permission from the bishop to establish a convent in the diocese. This school became know as Laurel Hill School.
In 1857 the first Sisters of Mercy arrived in Oughterard.
P.S. My gratitude to Sean Monahan for supplying information for this article on “The Faithful Companions of Jesus”