My staff colleague Sister Lorraine, who will be retiring in a few days, was sharing over supper last night the story of her community‘s founder, Honora “Nano” Nagle. When I read a bit more about her life late last night, I thought we should put her on the fast track to this year’s Worthy Women series.
A public poll conducted in Ireland a number of years ago named her the greatest Irish woman ever. Christian Brother founder Edmund Rice owed her the inspiration for his boys’ education apostolate, mostly lifting her rules and adapting where necessary.
Like many women in this series she had to contend with some dense churchmen of the upper hierarchy who seemed to miss the whole point of the enterprise. But more on that a bit later.
Honora (nicknamed Nano) was the first child born into her family, in the 18th year of the 18th century. At the time, Ireland was a slave colony of the British. It was a crime to educate and be educated, and to practice the Catholicism.
The Nagle family had managed to hold on to some of its family wealth, and also its practice of the faith. There were ways around the education laws for the sneaky and the wealthy. Garret and Ann Nagle smuggled their two oldest daughters to France, where Nano was not only educated but lived the life of a debutante.
The Holy Spirit inspired a series of shocks to her system: first the recognition of poverty in Paris. Then, on her return to Ireland in 1746, she came to a full realization of her own life of privilege in comparison with her countrywomen and men. Her younger sister Ann was also touched by the spirit of charity. When Ann gave away a silk garment to provide for a needy family, Nano was touched to the point of reconsidering her own life’s options.
Her first instinct was to return to Paris and join the Ursulines. Nano’s spiritual director was guided by a different stirring, and he counseled the young woman to return again to Ireland and devote herself to the needy there.
Education seemed the key to freedom and fulfillment in Miss Nagle’s mind. She began tutoring children, and before long had begun a secret, illegal school in a rented hut. Within months she was educating a few hundred children. She kept the secret from her family for a while. When he found out, her brother Joseph was angry. But later he threw his full support into the enterprise.
In addition to religious instruction, a secret network of schools in Cork also provided basic education in literacy and math, as well as training of young women in various crafts–something that would enable them to carve out some small livelihood in the local economy.
Some Irish neighbors were unimpressed. They insulted Nano publicly as well as her poor students. Some clergymen were nervous; they feared a flare up of persecution from Protestants as well as crackdowns from civil authorities.
The needy of Cork, however, held Nano Nagle in great regard, not only for the education of their children. She also visited the sick and elderly. She became known as the “Lady of the Lantern,” identified by the lighting assistance she used to navigate narrow streets and alleys by night. She continued with a life of charity for years. After exhausting her share of the family inheritance, she resorted to begging for the needy.
In 1771, Nano attempted to import a small Ursuline community of Irish expatriate sisters from France, but this did not work optimally. Bishops of the day expected women to remain in the cloister. It was inconceivable that women would operate outside of convent walls. Miss Nagle had great difficulty impressing on her bishop that Catholic education in Ireland needed to be mobile, flexible, and unconventional. Authorities would most definitely notice schoolchildren flocking to a building set up next to a cloister.
In 1775, Miss Nagle gathered her assistants and together they established the Society of Charitable Instruction of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. She remained firm in the face of opposition from the clergy. The focus was not on the community of women, but on those served.
Before her death Miss Nagle saw Irish schools emerge from secrecy. In 1782 education of children was once again permitted in Ireland after more than a century of oppression. Nano died of tuberculosis in 1784. Her Sisters of Charitable Instruction of the Sacred Heart of Jesus became the Presentation Sisters in 1794. Future bishops were successful in enclosing those women. But after Vatican II, a return to the founder’s vision was achieved. Today, Presentation Sisters offer a witness of prayer, charity, and education as lived by Nano Nagle. Where education is now done in parishes and by public institutions, the sisters focus on direct charity and advocacy for justice.
My colleague Lorraine exemplifies the spirit of Nano Nagle, her worthy founder. In her fifteen years of service here in central Iowa, a worthy list: catechumenate ministry, pastoral attention to the elderly, the sick, and the needy, as well as the fostering of family life.