Arrival of Presentation Sisters in India
The history of the Catholic Church in Madras, in the 18th century and how the Presentation Sisters in Kildare, Ireland became part of the mission is very interesting not only now but also over the past 165 years. When Dr. Fennelly, a professor of Theology at Maynooth College, Ireland was named Vicar Apostolic of Madras in 1840 the Catholic mission was greatly in need of religious education. Among the most neglected were the children of the catholic garrison troops, mostly Irish at Fort St. George, Madras. Propaganda Fide appointed Dr. J. Fennelly, the new Vicar Apostolic. When he arrived in Madras he was put in charge of the Cathedral of St. Mary’s of the Angels, which had been built by the Portuguese Franciscans. He took up his abode in a large house beside the Cathedral. As he met his new challenge he was overwhelmed with the enormity of it all. So he came to the conclusion that he could not manage on his own. He would go back to Ireland and seek the services of some nuns and recruit some priests.
The sisters would take on the task of educating the children of European origin, and most of all care from the orphans of deceased Irish soldiers. Many of whom had been massacred in the Afghan war.
Full of hope and faith Bishop Fennelly returned to Ireland. In Kildare, he visited two convents destined by God to be instruments in pioneering the work of education in South India.
These convents were Presentation Convent, Rahan and Presentation Convent Maynooth Co. Kildare. The large hearted superior of Rahan Convent responded to Bishop Fennelly’s request by being the first to volunteer for the Madras Mission. Three Sisters from Presentation Convent, Maynooth and a young eighteen-year-old postulant also volunteered and offered to join the first party of sisters to sail to India. This meant no returning .to their native country.
In the month of August 1841 Bishop J. Fennelly, accompanied the group of Presentation Sisters from Maynooth, led by Rev. Mother Frances Xavier Curran, Sr. Regis Kelly and Sr. Martha Kelly and Miss Josephine Fitzsimon and four seminarians. Saying “Good Bye’ to their families, friends and native land was a sad parting especially since it was for the last time. We can only visualize what it cost them. They traveled to England en route to Southampton, where the East India Company Sailing Vessel “The Lady flora” was in the docks, waiting for them to board. Depending on the weather they would reach Madras in five or six months time.
It is left to our imagination to depict the journey and what they had to en route. The ship being a light sailing vessel, it heaved and tossed on the rough seas. Annals tell how many times the Sisters thought it was their last, and prepared to meet their God. What immense joy it was when on January 13th 1842 Madras harbor was sighted and their sea voyage was coming to an end but more excitement awaited them.
In 1842 Madras harbor was just a coastline. “Lady Flora” had to anchor about ten miles out to sea, and the passengers had to wait for small boats to bring them to land. To quote the annals this seems to have been the most frightening part of the journey. We can imagine the terrified nuns in long black habits climbing down the rope ladder to the small boats as the collies rowed them to shore. Annals say this was the most fearsome part of the journey, as at any moment they were in danger of being thrown into the sea
Once safely landed a warm welcome awaited them. The four sisters were escorted to the Cathedral where the solemn ‘Te Deum’ was sung to thank God for their safe return and their Bishop and his party of co-workers. A great sight indeed for the Catholics, their first glimpses of nuns in long black habits! After a few days, the building work began. What was once Robert Clive’s Office, now it was to be the first Presentation Convent in Madras, India.
Prior to the Presentation Sisters’ arrival, in Madras, thirty orphans and sixty-day pupils had been taught and cared for over five years, by Madam Smith the wife of an English army office officer and her co-workers. They willingly handed over the care of the orphans and the school to the Presentation Sisters. After helping for some time they left for Pondicherry from where they came.
It took the sisters a long time to get accustomed to life in their new environment, like all new foundations they had many problems to cope with. Mission life in Madras was no exception.
The sisters found language a great problem- they suffered from the hot and humid climate recurring fever, clothing like worn in Ireland not suitable for a tropical country - food problems, epidemic of cholera claimed the lives of many including the sisters. The greatest calamity occurred in 1844, barely two years after their arrival. Cholera and fever took their toll of life. Sr. Regis Kelly aged 36 died of cholera and 18 months later Sr. Martha Kelly died of cholera aged 32 years, leaving only two of the pioneers to carry on the mission.
Help was sought from Ireland and the response from three Presentation Convent was excellent. Many finally professed sisters responded to the call and embarked for the Madras Mission. A note in the annals tells a tale of unrelenting heart and joyful service of the sisters. They were noted for their spirit of joy and dedicated service. As a result an extraordinary flowering of Catholic Education spread in South India. Requests came from many more areas to establish Convent schools for the neglected Anglo Indians and poor local children.
In 1928 the Presentation Sisters staffed the Railway hospital at Golden Rock, Tamil Nadu. In 1933 they established their own hospital and school at Theni in Tamil Nadu for the most neglected Kahalar tribe At the request of the local people in Manipad the sisters staffed the newly opened hospital for fisher folk.
The work of the Presentation Sisters was not confined to South India only In 1896 we see the spread of the mission to the Punjab and later to J&K State, Goa, Bihar, MP, UP, and Delhi. Since 1949 Indian sisters have volunteered for mission abroad and are now serving the people in Zimbabwe- Zambia, Latin America, North America Thailand, England, Eastern Europe-England and Ireland so we see history repeating itself.
Since 1994 the sisters are serving the people of Jehangirpuri, the biggest slum area in Delhi, and in Rohtak, Haryana since 1976. They cater to street children only. Presentation Convent Old Delhi has four sections catering to the “girl child’ from deprived areas.
Our recent immense joy is Jeevan Jyothi Hospice for HIV/AIDs at Theni. It is a well-knit network covering Theni and Periyakulam areas. This hospice is recognized as one of the most eminent hospices in South India, taking care of patients who are suffering from a faceless disease.
In May 2006 at our Congregational Chapter elected Sr. Teresita Abraham from Kerala, as first Indian Sister General to head the Congregation of the Union of the Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary. We praise and thank God for the flame of faith lit by our foundress Nano Nagle in 1777; in Ireland and now continue to burn brightly in the hearts of her Sisters, Associates, and Coworkers throughout the world. ‘Deo Gracias’