A short history of the Poor Clare Monastery, St. Damian’s
In the providence of God, all things have their season. “There
is a time for planting, and time for building” (Eccls. 3: 2-3).
For St. Clare, 1212 was the time to be planted at San Damiano. Assisi
and build her form of life, for herself and all her followers. Before
her birth, her mother, Ortolana, was promised a child, whose light would
illuminate the whole world–hence the name Clare. Almost seven
centuries later, her light was lit in another San Damiano, perhaps better
known as St. Damian’s. Here her daughters have loved, prayed and
laboured until this day, carrying the light lit by Clare in far away
Assisi, a light which reaches out and embraces all.
In the 19th century, the Protestant owner of Simmonscourt Castle decided
to have the wall separating his residence from Saint Mary’s Lodge
raised several feet. He did this with the intention of ensuring his
privacy from the tenants in the lodge. In this action, he thought he
was making safe provision for his own future, but little did he realize
that he was but an instrument in the hands of Him who had planned that
the name “Saint Mary’s Lodge” given by protestant
owners, indicates that Our Blessed Mother had taken it under her wing
from the start. The Building is now our novitiate.
In the late 19th century the property came into the hands of the McCann
family. It was from a member of the family, Sr.Mary Magdalen McCann,
who grew up on the other side of the high wall, that a new branch was
destined to be grafted onto the San Damiano vine.
SISTER MARY MAGDALEN McCANN
Significantly, she was born on August 11, 1873. As a child she was
frail and delicate and it was feared that she might not survive the
years of infancy. Physically she remained small, and a story is told
of her being fitted for a pair of gloves in a shop in London. She was
so difficult to fit that the assistant, in despair, politely asked her
to cross the street to the Lilliputian warehouse! However, God gave
her greatness of soul and mental ability which fitted her for the great
It was decided to send her to the Poor Clare Monastery, in Levenshulme
for her novitiate, entering in May 1898, and joining the Carlow Community
in1900 when the new monastery was built. She was appointed novice mistress
by Mother Seraphine.
When the quota of sisters allowed by the bishop was reached postulants
continued to apply for admission. Not wishing to refuse them the opportunity
to live the consecrated life, Sr. Magdalen suggested to Mother Seraphim
making a foundation in Dublin. The Abbess agreed and Sr. Magdalen asked
her parents if they would give Saint Mary’s Lodge for the purpose.
The McCanns were most willing to do so and even approached the Archbishop
of Dublin, Dr. Walsh, for permission for the foundation. When he heard
of the location he is reputed to have said: “ Will they have the
poor near them in Donnybrook?” However, let us say that both rich
and poor have always been most generous and supportive to us over the
The Archbishop promised to consider the matter and give his decision
in due time. Meanwhile the Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin allowed postulants
to be admitted to Carlow, with a view to the future foundation. Four
postulants entered and Sr. Magdalen was, of course, their novice mistress.
The permission duly came from Dr. Walsh and Saint Mary’s Lodge
was renovated to accommodate the sisters.
An Abbess had to be found for the new colony and Sr. Magdalen asked
if Mother Genevieve, who had been with her in the novitiate in Levenshulme,
Manchester might be requested to come. She was English, from Yorkshire,
born to a Catholic father and Protestant mother. However, her mother
was most concerned that the family be reared as Catholics and attend
to their religious duties. Naturally she had found her daughter’s
decision to enter an enclosed Order difficult to understand. A consequence
of this was that for the first eight years of her religious life she
had to suffer the fact that the mother never wrote to her. However,
God blessed her patience and when her mother was on her death-bed, she
asked to be received into the Catholic Church. From then until she died
six months later she tried in every way to make up to her daughter for
the coldness of the previous years.
Mother Genevieve agreed to come, accepting this as God’s will
for her. She first came to Carlow in September 1904 in order to get
used to us Irish. If Sr. Magdalen was little, Mother Genevieve was the
other extreme, standing at six feet tall. They must have looked quite
a picture as they went about together dealing with all that was necessary
in setting up the new community.
The date of the departure from Carlow was fixed for 23rd October 1905.
Seven sisters, along with the Abbess were to form the new community.
All arrangements were made for them to travel by train, but as they
were about to leave, a telegram arrived from the Archbishop of Dublin
postponing the foundation indefinitely. History does not record the
reason for this, but it must have been very trying for the little group.
They resumed their ordinary religious life in Carlow and continued
to pray that the Lord would show them his will, which of course, He
did in due time. They began their annual retreat in February 1906 and
before it finished on February 23 word came from Dublin: “the
nuns may come”.
Immediately Sr. Magdalen and two others got ready to leave by the first
train next morning. The first Mass was celebrated in Saint Mary’s
Lodge on Sunday, 25th February. The celebrant was Fr. Thomas Ryan, a
curate in a city parish. Mother Genevieve and the remaining sisters
arrived next day. Mother Genevieve entered by the back door, the “main
entrance” being so small and narrow she did not want to make un
undignified squeeze in view of the welcoming party!
THE NEW MONASTERY
Postulants continued to arrive and the monastery proper was added on
during the years from 1908-1912 and given the full title: “Saint
Damian’s of the Assumption”. During the First World War
twelve sisters from Niewport in Belgium stayed here and kept in touch
on their return to their own country, writing to say that they wished
they “were back in our middle again”!
Mother Genevieve was Abbess for twenty seven years and gradually learned
the ''language''!. The story goes that one evening she came to recreation
and asked very seriously: “What kind of place is the market, is
there water there?” “What kind of water do you mean?”
asked the sisters. “ A river or a lake”, asked Mother, for
when I asked Mrs.X how business was going she said: “Oh! It is
getting on fairly well only there are a good many little barges going
around!” Her surprise was great when they explained that by “barge”
the good lady meant a person who scolds!
In 1924 Mother Genevieve again led a group of sisters to Belfast wishing
to plant another little shoot where the need for great for prayer and
reparation. She herself travelled to Belfast to "spy out the land".
However, the House in mind was in the hands of Protestants and she decided
it would be best to view it discreetly from the top of a double Decker
bus – in full Poor Clare attire!
By the end of the Second World War every available cell in the house
was occupied and so preparations began again for some to take to the
road. This time their journey was to Neath in South Wales with Mother
Anthony O’Connor as Abbess.
It was a momentous day for us, when, on January 16, 2008, we were joined by the Poor Clare community from Southampton. A new page in our history is indeed unfolding.