The St Joseph of Cluny community pictured in 1996 for the convent’s centenary. Sr Declan Murphy, Sr Joseph Fallon, Sr Nivard McGrath, Sr Magdalen (Maura Egan), Sr Benedict Behan and Sr Madeleine O’Hanlon.

End of an era as nuns move out of Ferbane convent

When three sisters from the Order of St Joseph of Cluny first arrived in Ferbane in May of 1896 to work in the local parish primary school, little did they envisage that over a century later the final curtain would come down on their involvement in the day-to-day life of the local community.

It was truly the end of an era in Ferbane last week when the last three sisters who were living in Ferbane convent, Sr Benedict, Sr Joseph and Sr Helena, said farewell to their familiar surroundings to make way for an exciting new future for the St Joseph of Cluny Convent.

Sr Benedict from Kildare, Sr Joseph from Cornafulla and Sr Helena from Lumcloon, have moved to their new home on the Athlone Road in Ferbane, from where they plan to retain the strong links they have built up over a lifetime of living and working with families and individuals in Ferbane and its hinterland.

The Provincial Superior of the Order of St. Joseph of Cluny, Sr Maeve Guinan, who hails from nearby Clonfanlough, admitted that, while it was “sad” to see the last three sisters move out of the convent in Ferbane, it is also “exciting to hand on the work started by the order to new people”.

“It is always hard to have to pull up your boots and go,” said Sr Maeve, “but we are delighted to see that the convent properties in Ferbane will continue to serve the community long into the future, just as they did in the past”.

While St Joseph of Cluny Convent was always synonymous with education in Ferbane, the move to sell off part of the building began in 2010 when the establishment of Gallen Community School meant that the classrooms in the Convent building were no longer needed.

Sr Maeve said one of the biggest “stumbling blocks” to the order being able to sell the classrooms was the fact that the convent was a listed building. They managed to have the listing removed, but it was to be another ten years before the order was again approached by a prospective buyer due to the economic downturn.

Offaly County Council expressed an interest in purchasing the convent and put forward a promising Development Plan for the building and, even though they were only in a position to offer “less than half of the market value,” according to Sr Maeve Guinan, the sale was eventually agreed as the order was anxious to “give something back to the people of Ferbane” after over a century of involvement with the local community.

A view of the convent building in Ferbane.

As part of the new arrangement for the iconic building, Offaly County Council plans to enter into a long-term lease arrangement of the property to the local community in Ferbane. A limited company called An Siolán, has been created to facilitate the lease arrangement and a number of possibilities have been explored for the site with St Hilda’s Services being one of the first organisations to express an interest in having a base in the convent buildings.

Other possibilities being examined are remote working hubs; a training base for Laois Offaly Education and Training Board (LOETB); the establishment of tourist accommodation and the development of a public space within the gardens of the convent with access to riverbank walks and sports fields.

Sr Maeve Guinan said many of the sisters who were based in Ferbane over more than a century “contributed hugely” to both the educational and economic life, not just of the local area, but across the world.

“Our sisters set up schools, businesses, hospitals and refuges for the poor all over the world,” she said. “And much of the good work that was carried out went under the radar, as indeed it should.”

An example of the good work carried out locally on the economic front by the Order of St. Joseph of Cluny was the establishment of Ferbane Credit Union, which was instigated by Sr Nivard McGrath, when she was the Principal of the local primary school in Ferbane. “She saw the need for such a facility in the community so she got the ball rolling on it, and thankfully it has been a great success ever since,” remarked Sr Maeve. Sr. Nivard is now retired and living in the the Order’s Provincialate in Mount Sackville in Dublin.

Sr Helena from Lumcloon, who was one of the last three sisters to move out of the Ferbane Convent building, spent many years working in India where she established a very successful school which has educated thousands of young Indian girls.

“We firmly believe that education is empowerment , especially among poorer communities,” said Sr Maeve, who added that while “the public face” of the sisters in Ferbane was always in the area of primary and secondary education, they also provided a lot of help to poorer families in the area.

“For example, our kitchen was always an open house where people could just drop in if they were in need of a bite to eat, or some other help, so our sisters did a lot of other good work in the community apart from on the education front.”

While she acknowledged that the Order of St Joseph of Cluny has “great difficulties” in attracting new vocations in Ireland, Sr Maeve says there is “no shortage of vocations” from abroad. Many of the girls who received their education from sisters who have worked abroad have expressed an interest in joining the Order in Ireland, and have said they would like to take care of the sisters who worked so hard to ensure that they got an education, so that is very encouraging.”

As they move on to a new chapter in their lives, the last three sisters to leave Ferbane Convent leave behind a lasting legacy of commitment and care for the local community which began when Canon Sheridan invited the first three Sisters from the Order of St Joseph of Cluny to come to the Midlands all of 126 years ago!