125 Years in Magherafelt
125th Anniversary of the Holy Family in Magherafelt – 11 February 2015
This evening we are marking a significant event – the celebration of 125 years of the presence of our Sisters in Magherafelt. Celebrations like this give us the opportunity to look back on the blessings of the past; to remember and honour all those who have gone before us. But above all, these are occasions when we come before God with deep gratitude in our hearts. Throughout these 125 years God has remained with us, has accompanied and guided us, sustained and cared for us as His people. And tonight, as we remember and give thanks, we resolve to renew our commitment to follow Jesus as disciples into the future.
When I was asked to say these few words, I looked in our archives in London to see if I could find any information about our beginnings. I found 3 pages of names of Sisters who lived and worked here in the parish over the 125 years. There is a total of 89 sisters. The names of the first sisters who came on 4 October 1889, at the invitation of Canon Donnelly, are written there. These were Sisters Anne Mary Barry, de Sales Carland, Agnes Sharkey, Monica Haslam and Justina Hynes. It says in the Archives that “the sisters were met at Cookstown railway station by a big crowd of eager and excited parishioners and then driven by horse and carriage (what a picture that conjures up!); they were driven by horse and carriage to Magherafelt and up the tree lined avenue to their new convent off the Castledawson Road.”
As I pictured this scene in my mind’s eye, I wondered about these first women, these pioneers. Who were they? Where did they come from? What were their first impressions of Magherafelt? What were their feelings as they embarked on this new venture? If they were anything like the rest of us, they may have felt anxious and uncertain. But surely the warm welcome they received from the people of Magherafelt would have given them great confidence and hope for the future of their mission in this new, strange place.
Pope Francis, in a recent letter to religious men and women announcing 2015 as a year dedicated to the Consecrated Life highlighted the importance of celebrations. He declared: “an anniversary invites us to remember the past with gratitude, to live the present with enthusiasm and to look forward to the future with hope”.
So we are invited to remember the past with gratitude. In looking back at our past story, there is so much to be grateful for. What I would emphasise above all is our gratitude for the warmth and acceptance of the people of Magherafelt. From the very beginning the sisters were received with open hearts and this enabled them, enabled us, (for I am one of them) to be rooted in this community, to always feel that we belong, that we are at home, that we are part of you.
Our Founder made this “being one with people” an essential characteristic of our spirituality. In his writings he exhorted us with these words: “In devoting yourselves to the works of the Holy Family Association, you have not separated yourselves from those who live under the common law….but you share with them as far as you can all the fatigues, trials and dangers of the journey”. He knew the importance of community and the strength and support we draw from one another.
Simplicity and closeness to people has always been a hallmark of the sisters that I knew when I was growing up and a pupil here in the Grammar School. The sisters were genuinely close to us, interested in us; concerned that we did well in our studies but concerned also about our human and spiritual development and our relationship to Jesus.
How can we forget the annual retreats in school when the nuns totally spoiled us for three whole days? No lessons – just peace, quiet, the smell of incense and spring flowers and special teas prepared by the sisters. During those days we came to know a God who loved us unconditionally despite our weaknesses and faults. This was what inspired me and quite a few others who are here at this celebration, to join them. I am grateful to God for the example they gave us and for nurturing our vocation to live for God Alone.
An anniversary also invites us to live the present with enthusiasm, knowing, as the song says that we are standing on the shoulders of the ones who went before us and that we are building on foundations that they laid. And the song continues: “we are stronger for their courage and wiser for their words.” The generosity of those women in the past; their commitment to the proclamation of God’s liberating message of love is a challenge for us Sisters today.
Today, in spite of our dwindling numbers, our ageing personnel, we continue to hear and respond to the call to do as they did – to make creative and bold decisions about our discipleship in this world of huge and rapid change – a world where new needs and challenges are arising daily. Jesus’ promise “I am with you always” invites us to a boldness and a confident faith that God keeps calling us to be witnesses in our times.
We are also encouraged by the sense of spring which Pope Francis is bringing to the church. Pope Francis exudes an infectious confidence that the joyful, liberating message of the Gospel can overcome all obstacles to the establishment of Christ’s reign on earth. In his Apostolic Exhortation: “The Joy of The Gospel”, he encourages all of us to go forth without fear; not to let anything hold us back; to move out of our comfort zones and be joyful messengers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Pope Francis urges us to look to the future with hope and trust. In an address on the opening of the year of Consecrated Life he tells us: “This hope is not based on statistics or accomplishments, but on the One in whom we have put our trust (cf. 2 Tim 1:2), the One for whom “nothing is impossible” (Lk 1:37). This is the hope which does not disappoint; it is the hope which enables us to believe that the plans God has for us are, in the words of the prophet Jeremiah, “plans to prosper us and not to harm us, plans to give us hope and a future”. All we are asked to do is to live fully, faithfully in the here and now; to act justly; to love tenderly and to walk humbly with our God.
To walk humbly means not to be centred on ourselves, on our own future survival as a religious Family. Of course we long for more members to join us in our efforts to make a difference in the world. We would dearly love to have more vocations. But it is not about us; it is about God’s project to bring all people into the one Family of God. We need to look beyond ourselves and our own interests and to be centred totally on the reign of God. It means to place our trust in God who is a faithful God; whose plan embraces the whole of creation. Jesus tells us not to worry but to look around us at the birds of the air and the flowers of the field and see how God cares for them – and are we not also being cared for by our Heavenly Father?
Our Founder’s words give us inspiration:
“Dear Associates of the Holy Family, there is nothing that can hold you back. Go forward. Increase in numbers and in virtues and may your hands scatter on all sides the divine seed of good words and good example…
My beloved children, dear Associates of the Holy Family, may Jesus, Mary and Joseph be always with you.”