St. Helen’s Convent, Blarney

By John Mulcahy

The Convent

By the will of Nicholas Mahony, his nephews Martin and Edmund Roynane, were appointed trustees of a sum of £5000 to be spent in establishing a convent of Sisters of Charity in Blarney. Their first task was to approach the mother house in Milltown and extend an invitation to the Sisters to come to Blarney. This was graciously accepted.

Sanction had to be sought from the Bishop of Cloyne for establishing this, the first community of the Sisters in the Diocese of Cloyne. This was quickly granted by Dr. McCarthy. Last, and by no means least, a suitable premises had to be purchased and fitted out for occupation by the Sisters.

Fortunately such a building was available and close to hand. A large Georgian house named ‘Laurel Hill’ stood opposite the Mill. Once the residence of the district medical officer, it was unoccupied for over eight years and was in a dilapidated condition. Rev. Mother came from Dublin to inspect it and passed it as suitable. Mother Anastasia of St. Vincent’s was put in charge to see that the necessary repairs and renovations were carried out.

St. Helen’s Convent was consecrated on July 14th 1892. On the previous night it was occupied by the new community. The consecration ceremony and benediction took place in the convent chapel.

The Hall

The Parish Church in Waterloo was two miles distant from the main centre of population in Blarney village and this meant that the old and infirm were unable to attend Sunday Mass, especially in winter. This was long a cause of concern to the late Mrs. Ellen Mahony who saw in the hall adjoining the Convent a suitable chapel of ease. After some delay, Canon Parker P.P. gave his consent. An altar was sent down from Dublin by the Mother General and was erected by one of the carpenters from the mill. The first Mass was celebrated there in November 1893. Many of the attendance had not heard Mass for a long time and were most grateful for the opportunity.

Thanks mainly to the generous gifts and bequests from the Mahony family; the new church was consecrated in September 1894. The Sisters then attended Sunday Mass in the small choir screened off from the public part of the church at the request of the late Mrs. Mahony.

Daily Mass continued to be celebrated in the convent hall until #September 1896 when in order not to deprive the people of daily Mass, it was transferred to the new Parish Church. However, a salary of £40 per year was still paid to the convent chaplain.

In February 1935, Fr. Browne asked for the use of the hall for a church while the Parish Church was being painted. This was willingly granted and the Blessed Sacrament was installed and daily Mass celebrated. The Holy Week ceremonies were held and a temporary altar of repose was erected.

The Oratory

While the hall was used for public occasions such as Sodality meetings, the Sisters used one of the main rooms in the front of the house as their own oratory. Many gifts were made for the furbishment of the Oratory. In 1895, Mrs. T. Mahony gave a harmonium and in 1904 a sanctuary lamp. From November 1915 the altar wine and sanctuary oil was supplied from the Parish Church, thanks to Canon Higgins P.P. In 1921 a set of Stations of the Cross was presented to the Convent by Mr. John Williams, of the famous Tullamore Distilling family. His sister was member of the community at the time.

The Convent Chapel was painted and decorated in September 1934. New brass Communion rails were installed, six new priedieus, a new red and green carpet with altar covers to match. It was a complete transformation when completed and much admired. Following the major liturgical changes introduced by the Second Vatican Council, and after much prayer and planning, a new altar, ambo and surrounds were installed in the Chapel. It was blessed by Canon Cusack on the 6th December 1972 and Mass was celebrated on it for the first time the following day.

The Dispensary

The main mission of the Sisters was the treatment of the sick poor. Although regular visits were paid to houses there were by now so many calling to the convent that a special room was fitted out. This became known as St. Martin’s. Night classes were now being given regularly in the Convent Hall. When Canon Lynch P.P. died in 1911, he left £50 to the Sisters which used to construct a passage and stairs from St. Martin’s to the hall/classroom. At the same time a properly equipped dispensary was installed to treat the accident cases from the mill.

The Convent was equipped with electric lighting in 1913, thanks to a bequest of £1000 from Miss Breen. Following the death of Mrs. Frank Mahony in 1926, the decision was made to convert St. Helen’s, the old family home of the Mahoney’s, into the offices for the Mills. Much of the furniture was presented to the convent.

The Garden

The Convent was blessed with a spacious garden, carefully maintained and attractively laid out. It was the scene of May processions for many years, and for the childrens treat on the occasion of their First Holy Communion. It was extended in 1928 when Mahonys gave the adjoining plot of land at a rent of one shilling a year. A door was opened in the garden wall opposite the Church to ease the hard climb up the hill to the main door.

A number of statues were placed in the garden. Between 1938 and 1940 a crucifixion and statues of Our Lady and St. Joseph were replaced. A large statue of the Sacred Heart, which was illuminated at night, was erected over the porch facing the Mill.

Special mention is made in the Annals, of Paddy Leary, the carpenter, who did many of the odd jobs in maintaining the Convent; and of Dinny Lynch, known for services as ‘Dinny the Nun’ who kept the garden for a period of 53 years. He it was who collected the very first Sisters at the station and brought them to the Convent in 1892 in his pony and trap. Another stalwart helper was lost in 1951 when the annals record the death of Kate Heffernan, ‘convent messenger and Aide-de-Camp for many years’.

Dry Rot

The passing years had taken their toll on the convent which was never free from cold and dampness. An architect was consulted in 1950 and detected signs of dry rot. Considerable repairs were effected but the problem was not eradicated. The combat the causes, central heating was installed in the house and hall.

At this time also the need for more space around the dispensary was felt and an extra room was added on. It served the purpose of a waiting room, and could also be used as a dressing room for concerts as it adjoined the hall. Other repairs were carried out about this time also to the roof and chimney. In 1957 the Sacristy was enlarged.

In 1958 the dry rot problem reared its head again. The parlour, the adjoining corridor, and even the Oratory were infected. This called for a major repair job. The cost of renovation was so great that a major fund raising effort was needed to pay for it.

An energetic fund raising committee was set up to organise functions and it was decided to have a massive Bazaar. This was very well supported and the Emer was thronged on the 11th and 12th December. The then gigantic sum of £1150 was raised and presented to the Sisters. Other donations were received, including £300 from Ernest Mahony, and Canon Sheehan was most generous.

However it took numerous other fund raising efforts over the next few years to finally clear the debt. The various Sodalities all did their bit in organising a sale of work and a big raffle was held.

In December 1950 the small statue of Our Lady was erected over the Convent hall door in a niche with an electric light above. In 1962 a grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes was built in the garden and blessed by Canon Sheehan on February 11th, the Feast of the Apparitions.

The great storm that wreaked havoc over the country in February 1957 passed harmlessly over St. Helen’s, the only casualty being the framework and glass of the greenhouse.

Modern conveniences were installed in the Convent from time to time so as to make life more comfortable. A new central heating system was installed in August 1951. This system was replaced by oil convection heating in 1968 which made a big improvement as the old system was inefficient and wasteful. It really proved its worth during the long cold spell at the beginning of 1972. Hot and cold water was installed in all rooms in 1977.

Nuns on Wheels

In the early days the Sisters performed their visitations on foot with the occasional use of hired transport when they had to visit the outlying parts for school visits and Sodality meetings.

In 1914 a pony and trap was presented to the Convent by the Williams family who owned the Tullamore Distillery. This proved a great boon to the mission.

On the death of Canon Kenefick in November 1947, it was learnt that he had bequeathed his car to the Sisters along with £100 for the poor. However it was decided a year later to give the car to the Bishop as it was proving too expensive to run. As the Canon had stipulated in his will that it should be used for parochial purposes, it could not be sold.

Many years passed before a sister sat behind the wheel again. In 1963, a Mini Minor was presented to the community by Paul Duggan. This time the question of expenses was overcome as Canon Sheehan offered to pay the insurance and Canon Ronayne P.P. Inniscarra paid the road tax. Mahonys gave £5 a month for petrol and maintenance. Shortly afterwards the Mini was traded in, in favour of a new Morris 1000.

The above excerpt was taken from Special Edition No 2 Old Blarney Journal (1990) which was dedicated to the Sisters of Charity, St. Helens, Blarney, and written by John Mulcahy.

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