Two and a quarter centuries of the Ursuline Sisters life in Thurles was celebrated in great style this week with the Cathedral of the Assumption in Thurles packed to capacity with students, past pupils, staff, parents and friends of the Order.
It could be quite difficult to comprehend how 225 years could be celebrated in one event, but the Ursulines just about managed to touch all the right themes, push all the right buttons, and reflect, with great consideration, on the wonderful work that has been done in the community since the first Sister arrived in Thurles back in 1787.
It was standing room only in the architecturally splendid Cathedral as the joyous strains of the Cecilian Choir and the orchestra from the famed Ursuline Music Academy reverberated around the fabulous, iconic permier church of the Archdiocese, which was but a dream when Sister Anastasia Tobin first set foot in Thurles. Something special was about to take place in the Cathedral and the scent of celebration was in the air, with smiles, handshakes and warm greetings of welcome being the order of the day.
The theme of the Mass was ‘Have Faith in God - God has Faith in You,” - that faith has certainly been tested down through the years in the Urusline Order which was faced with extinction at one stage in Thurles following the Famine. It was to have been taken over by the Loreto Order, but as Archbishop Clifford put it during his homily ‘faith in divine providence’ ensured that this did not happen.
Faith and education have been the cornerstones of the Ursuline philosophy from the outset and those two pillar virtues are as evident and as strong today, as they were when the Order was first founded in Thurles. Indeed, they are also celebrated and the presence of 18 priests alongside Archbishop Dermot Clifford to Concelebrate the Mass, highlighted the inseperable link between the two. The education element was witnessed in the wonderful manner in which the celebrations were carried off with the pupils and staff playing the central role. Music, song and dance were core elements of the Mass right the way through.
ADM Rev Fr Martin Hayes, Rev Fr Tom Fogarty, President of St Patrick’s College, Rev Fr Pat Coffey, Chaplain to the Ursuline Secondary School were among those present on the Altar and they delighted in the opening liturgical presentation which set the tone for the ceremony. The tree of life located in the centre of the Altar was populated with various messages and slogans reflecting the 225 years and the tree imagery was to be continued right through the Mass with the mustard seed parable used in the Gospel. Yes, from a small seed a major institution had grown; from humble beginnings to a major source of inspiration; from a thatched cottage to a sprawling, comprehensive and state-of-the-art complex.
Archbishop Clifford said as much during his lengthy Homily. He lauded the work of the religious institutions in Thurles and noted how they had contributed so richly to the shape of the local landscape in terms of education, faith formation, and the provision of community and recreational facilities.
He traced the origins of the Ursuline Order, how they came to be in Thurles, their role in the education of so many young ladies, and their continuing role in education to this day. “ A great tree has flowered from what looked like a very unpromising beginning. This mustard tree has withstood many a storm during the centuries and thanks to it’s faith in divine providence, is as strong as ever today,” Archbishop Clifford said.
St James’ letter was chosen as the second reading and asked what good is faith if actions do not prove it. The message suggests that actions must be taken to help out others in order to prove one’s faith and sense of Christianity – in other words a life of service to helping others is the true definition of faith. That surely has been the mark of the Ursuline Sisters who have given their lives to the service of others, while at the same time praising God. The many Sisters who have worn the habit in Thurles were remembered during the Mass and thanks given for their service to the community. Most have gone to their Maker now, but those who remain, remain faithful.
The first reading too focused on the tree analogy with The Book of Proverbs providing for reflection in stating, ‘Wisdom is a tree of life to those who embrace her; happy are those who hold her tightly.’
The branches of the Ursuline tree have surely spread far and wide and with them, the route to wisdom. Academic excellence has been mirrored by sporting, musical, social and extra curricular achievement in a host of disciplines and continues to lead to the development of the whole person – no matter what their background, capabilities or interests.
Former students populate the globe from the furthest corners to the nearest and their achievements in life as academics; as business people; as sporting icons; as musicians and performers; as parents; as wives; as partners; as Sisters; are as many as the grains of sand on the seashore. Each one of these leaves of the Ursuline branch have helped to make the whole tree what it is today. It is a strong, tall, proud institution whose roots are firmly planted in the soil of the Cathedral Town on the banks of the River Suir.
Since they arrived in Thurles back in 1787, sixteen years after they established in Cork, the Ursuline Sisters have been as constant as the flowing waters of the Suir which sustained them. Today, 225 years later, the river still flows, but time has altered it’s course and the vitality of it’s waters. Not so with the Ursuline Sisters though – the ethos fostered in France and introduced to Ireland by Nano Nagle, commenced in Thurles by Sister Anastasia Tobin, and continued through the 25 decades, has remained constant, steadfast and true. It remains a singleminded dedication to the God they have given their lives to; a written-in-stone commitment to those they educate; and a fundamental seal of service to the community in which they live.
Thurles, it’s surrounds, Munster and further afield has been blessed that the mustard seed has grown. Now, in a time of comfort, if not exactly plenty, education is a basic fundamental of society. And, in the Ursuline primary the young girls and boys, and the ladies of the Secondary school can enjoy the benefits of wisdom garnered through the generation. The Sisters might be fewer than heretofore but their philosophy and ethos lives on in Scoil Angela and the Secondary School.
The Mass of celebration and thanksgiving was a wonderful tribute to the Ursulines and a testimony to the contribution they have made to life, local, provincial and national. Theirs is a story of success in each and every pupil who opened a book or joined their hands in prayer.
As they processed towards the Ursuline from the Cathedral of the Assumption, one could only but wonder what the next 225 years would bring? Well, the next chapter at least was unveiled on the day with the cutting of the ribbon at the new extension.
Sr Anastasia Tobin would surely be proud.
So too, Nano Nagle.