Sr. Ann Gray recalls the foundation of the Missionary Sisters of St. Columban 100 years ago this year and the vision of co-founders, Fr. John Blowick and Lady Frances Moloney, for the congregation. This article was first published in the January/February 2024 issue of the Far East Magazine.

In these early days of 2024, Columban Sisters throughout the world find our thoughts and our hearts turning back one hundred years towards our first Sisters. The Missionary Sisters of St. Columban came into being because two people in particular, Fr. John Blowick and Lady Frances Moloney, shared a vision for a new missionary congregation and a group of women took a huge risk and answered the call to step into this unknown journey with them.

In December 1917, in his address to the Catholic Truth Society of Ireland in the Mansion House in Dublin, Fr. John Blowick first spoke officially of including women Religious in the new mission venture of the Columban Fathers in China. He foresaw great difficulties with regard to nurses and doctors for the mission because of the attitudes prevalent in China at the time. He realised that the doctors would have to be women doctors and that because of the demands of the missionary apostolate, they would have to be Religious. This would require a new Congregation of nuns whose vow would be the medical care of the sick and whose members would be properly qualified in medicine, surgery and midwifery.

Co-founder of the Missionary Sisters of St Columban Lady Frances Moloney and Fr. John Blowick, co-founder of the Missionary Sisters of St. Columban and co-founder of the Missionary Society of St. Columban
Co-founder of the Missionary Sisters of St. Columban Lady Frances Moloney (left) and Fr. John Blowick, co-founder of the Missionary Sisters of St. Columban and co-founder of the Missionary Society of St. Columban (right)

Over the subsequent three years, Fr. Blowick’s initial idea of a missionary sisterhood underwent many changes until he envisaged a missionary congregation of Sisters who would be engaged not only in the medical apostolate, but also in any apostolate which would be of service in China. To prepare for this, Fr. Blowick invited the Irish Sisters of Charity to send a small group of Sisters to train the early postulants and novices. They were deeply committed to keeping the missionary nature of the new Congregation to the fore and what would be required for mission. The Irish Sisters of Charity are a part of our history and our heritage and we never forget our debt of gratitude to them.

In February 1922, the first group of postulants came together in Cahiracon, Co Clare to a house prepared for them by the Columban Fathers. In those early days, the women drawn to Cahiracon came from Ireland and Australia and from a wide variety of life and work experiences including teaching, nursing, secretarial work and farming, as well as from city and country life. Some also had had exposure to the Independence movement in Ireland at the time. What united all of them was deep faith and a concern for the poor.

The first 10 postulants of the Missionary Sisters of St. Columban in 1922
The first 10 postulants of the Missionary Sisters of St. Columban in 1922 (back row) N Collins, B McSwiney, V Lees, Fr. P Blowick; (middle row) K Brennan, P McDonnell, B Walshe, E McKey, E Dalton; (front row) Fr. Harris, F Moloney, T McCollum, Fr. O'Connell

In the years that followed, the Sisters would find themselves dealing with victims of floods, epidemics, hunger and war. The fledgling Congregation continued to attract other like-minded women who, as foundation members, would set an example and inspiration for those of us who would follow them.

Since St. Brigid’s, our first house in Cahiracon, was also within walking distance of the Columban Fathers seminary, St. Senan’s College, the priests were available to the Sisters for daily Mass as well as for religious instruction and preparation for mission in China. Lectures, informal conversations and stories of life in the far away land of China gave the postulants and novices a sense of high adventure and dedication to a great cause.

Fr. Blowick, for his part, challenged these women to be real missionary religious and not “toy nuns”. He did not want them to be over pious or too demanding of themselves and he was against their becoming as a community like a “string of sausages” where each one looked the same and acted in the same manner. Above all, he encouraged and inspired them to develop a spirit of charity as the special sign of disciples of Jesus because, “By this shall all know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another.”

St. Brigid's, Cahiracon
St. Brigid's, Cahiracon

In September of this year, the Columban Sisters will be remembering in a special way our initial group of Sisters who professed their First Vows on the Feast of St. Michael the Archangel in 1924. Surely wonder and trepidation filled the hearts of those young women as they heard Bishop Fogarty remind them that the lot of the missionary was: “to live in exile, to endure manifold labours and privations, to suffer much distress and tribulation of spirit, to encounter, it may be, the perils of persecution, to sacrifice, even life itself.” At the same time, they must also have been deeply inspired by the conviction of Fr. Blowick: “The work is God’s work not yours or mine. We happen to be the instruments – God is behind the whole thing and He will see it through.”

In the early days of the Congregation, a Columban Father noted that “the beginnings were hard, full of challenges. They – the Sisters – were characterised by a spirit of adventure. There was no knowing what was coming; they faced a total unknown. They began in real poverty but they had great faith and they were always good-humoured.” In our very different world of today, we Columban Sisters strive to keep alive that spirit of adventure, faith and good humour as we face the unknown and respond to the continuing call of mission. We not only look back in remembrance, we also celebrate and give thanks for the support of so many people and the faithfulness of God’s eternal love towards us as a Congregation throughout these past 100 years.

The first novices doing some field work
The first novices doing some field work

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