Stanhope St. Convent 200th Anniversary

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Homily notes of  Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin,  Archbishop of Dublin


Church of the Holy Family Aughrim Street, 2 February 2019

“I have a fascination with the history of Dublin and today’s celebration for the 200th anniversary of the opening of Stanhope Street Convent is a unique moment to get a glimpse of what Dublin was like 200 years ago.

Dublin was a divided city with great wealth and extreme poverty.  Families struggled and the opportunities for education were scarce especially for girls.  People lived in poor and unsanitary conditions with the risk of disease and yet some of what is still considered today as very affluent housing were then being built.

Times were changing and Catholics were slowly becoming able to affirm their rights in society.   Religious practice was low and the city needed new Churches.

Archbishop Daniel Murray was the Archbishop of Dublin at that critical time.  If you look at the large statue of Archbishop Murray in the Pro-Cathedral one of the titles that he is given is “amicus pauperum”, the friend of the poor.

He had a great concern for the poor and for the renewal of the Church.   During his lifetime, he began to change the religious landscape of Dublin with the building of new Churches and of institutions for the poor, many of which remain today in some form or other.

Archbishop Murray invited various religious orders to come to Ireland from abroad and encouraged the foundation new Irish Congregations most of them dedicated to education and the care of the poor.

He found allies in some extraordinarily strong women. As lay women, they had become profoundly aware of the fact that being a Catholic was not just about enjoying the fruits of the political and social emancipation that was beginning to emerge.  Being a Catholic and being Catholic Church meant also recognising the situation of the poor and witnessing to the love of Jesus Christ through the manner in which they interacted with the poor.

Mary Aikenhead was one of those extraordinary figures: a talented, courageous and innovative woman who could have become a leader in any sector of life.  She could well have become a leader in business, as she seemed destined to be, and which in those times would have been an extraordinary achievement.  Instead, she set in motion something even more extraordinary; she established a religious congregation that has continued and spread. It has been associated with initiatives noted for their technical excellence and a quality of care, reflecting the professional sense, which she brought to anything she undertook.

However, the secret of her success was not just her talent and genius.  It was something deeper: it was her clear love for the poor.  Her love for the poor was something she developed as a laywoman, coming from somewhat sheltered background.  Her love for the poor preceded her being a religious sister.  It is hard to imagine the cumulative effect of her work.

On an occasion like this, there is a tendency for historians and commentators to remember some of the outstanding figures who will have played important roles at various moments in the history of the convent.  It would also be amiss not to draw attention to failures and dark moments in the history of our institutions.  We can never obliterate the cumulative effect of neglect especially of children and the vulnerable.

But,  this afternoon I would wish to approach our reflections from another angle. I want to reflect on the unknown.  I want to reflect on the overall effect for good that this convent has had within this Stoneybatter community.  Who were the real animating forces of this drive for good?    They were the hundreds of sisters who, even in the most difficult of times, went about their work of bringing the reality of God’s love into the hearts and homes and hopes of generation after generation of the people of this area.

A convent is not just a residence for religious sisters:  it is the place where the message of Jesus Christ radiates, not with the bright lights of media publicity, but with the simple light of human warmth and loving care.

If we were to produce today a book with a list of all the sisters who worked here over two centuries, the vast majority of those names would mean very little in our memory today. However, if I were to think of the effect that each of these sisters had in helping innumerable families and young girls to realise their talents and their hopes it would be amazing.

Over these two centuries, the true Religious Sister of Charity in the spirit of Mary Aikenhead was one who was out in the streets and who knew the squalor of poverty and brought not just material assistance but also hope and dignity.  I am thinking of sisters who would not have been afraid even to steal some nice food from the convent in order discretely to bring a small treat to someone who never had something special.

Today there are many initiatives directed at serving the poor.  They can be of varied inspiration: some might be a response to the statutory obligations of public authorities, some could be of religious ethos, and others would be of that new form of private enterprise responding to social needs.  Any of these models can provide services of higher or lower quality.  What was original in the motivation of Mary Aikenhead was not just her acute awareness and sensitivity to the specific needs of the poor, nor her sense of professionalism:  it was her love for the poor.

There a section of Pope Benedict’s in Encyclical Deus Caritas Est which is almost a direct description of Mary Aikenhead’s approach to the poor:

“Individuals who care for those in need must first be professionally competent: they should be properly trained in what to do and how to do it, and committed to continuing care. Yet, while professional competence is a primary, fundamental requirement, it is not of itself sufficient. We are dealing with human beings, and human beings always need something more than technically proper care. They need humanity. They need heartfelt concern. Those who work for the Church’s charitable organizations must be distinguished by the fact that they do not merely meet the needs of the moment, but they dedicate themselves to others with heartfelt concern, enabling them to experience the richness of their humanity”

Love for the poor is not just a passing moment of emotion.  If you love the poor, then you will rejoice only when the other can become themselves fully and realise the potential that is within them. Loving the poor does not mean loving poverty but rejoicing when men, women, and children can rise from poverty and dependence and be fully themselves.

Loving the poor does not mean loving poverty, except in one sense.  The religious embraces poverty and loves poverty because they know that they can only reveal the richness of the love of Jesus when they themselves become truly poor.

Mary Aikenhead courageously addressed uncharted waters in her desire to give expression to her love of the poor.  Stanhope Street Convent is called today and tomorrow to keep alive that same love of the poor which has been witnessed to over two centuries, especially by the goodness and the kindness and the humility of hundreds of sisters who are today unknown but who were in their own time true beacons of the love of Christ.

The sisters here today probably owe the beginnings of their own vocation and their persistence in their vocation to some such person. Be like them in your service.   May the Charity of Jesus urge you not just to provide services to the poor but really to love the poor.  ENDS