Members of the Disciples of the Divine Master pictured at their convent in Castle Street, Athlone, on Monday. From L-R: Sr Louise O'Rourke, Sr Mary Tronci, Sr Muriel Fetherston, Sr Brid Geraghty, Sr Cassie Mascarenas.
Next month, the religious congregation which runs the Chapel of Adoration and the Liturgical Centre in Castle Street, Athlone, will hold a series of celebrations to mark its 50th anniversary in Ireland.
The Irish arm of the Disciples of the Divine Master was started in Ballykeeran half a century ago, and the Athlone congregation is one of two it maintains here today, with the other based in Dublin.
This Golden Jubilee anniversary will be commemorated with the celebration of Mass in the Church of Saints Peter and Paul at 3pm on Sunday, September 9. The Bishop of Elphin, Christopher Jones, will be the main celebrant and all are welcome to attend. Some public talks will also be organised on topics such as spirituality, the ministry and life of the Sisters, and Eucharistic adoration.
On Monday, the Westmeath Independent met up with three Disciples of the Divine Master; Sr Louise O'Rourke from Athlone, Sr Bríd Geraghty from Ballina and Sr Muriel Fetherston, also an Athlone native who was the first Irish person to join the Order.
Sr Muriel was someone "who was here before the beginning, you might say," as she went to Rome to join the Order in 1950, some twelve years before its original Irish community was started in Ballykeeran.
When asked how she was called to join the Order, she explained that she was employed by the ESB in Athlone and through her supervisor at work she got to know a priest who had been sent to Ireland to start a congregation here.
The supervisor and his wife were in the Legion of Mary and were based in Dublin before coming to Athlone. In the capital, they encountered a priest from the Society of St Paul, part of the Pauline Family to which the Sisters also belong. His name was Fr Simone and he was living alone in a basement after being sent from Italy to start the Order in Ireland.
The ESB supervisor and his wife took Fr Simone into their home. "Eventually he was transferred to the Athlone branch of the ESB and they brought the priest with them. That's how Fr Simone came to be in Athlone," explained Sr Muriel.
"I was working in the ESB, and my supervisor said to me one day, 'have you ever thought of religious life?' I said maybe I did give it a thought. He introduced me to Fr Simone, I met him a second time, and he spoke to me about the Order. I felt the Lord was calling me there so I left, went to Rome in 1950, and joined the Order," said Sr Muriel, who was aged 24 at the time.
In 1962, two Italian Sisters started the work of the Irish Order in Ballykeeran. In 1965, the Order brought the Telfords' house in Ballykeeran and this became its first convent. The first three Sisters to be based there were Sister Paul O'Brien from Dublin, Sr Saveria from Malta, and Sr Bríd from Ballina.
When asked about those early days, Sr Bríd said the work of the Sisters revolved around prayer and making vestments. In 1969, the Order purchased the former Egan's cake shop on Castle Street in Athlone and this was opened as a place where they could sell the vestments they had made.
Their move into the centre of town was completed when they purchased the adjoining Finnerty's pub in 1982 and set about converting the drinking emporium into a sanctuary of prayer. It became the Liturgical centre, Adoration Chapel and convent which remain today.
Discussing their ministry, Sr Bríd said: "We pray nearly four hours of community prayer each day but we're still very active and we're with the people. We have our Liturgical Centre which we call a centre, not a shop, because people come in and ask for prayers. They mightn't buy anything. They come in and ask us to pray for them.
"At the moment we're praying for the family that lost the three sons in Tullamore (in a tragic car accident last Friday)."
Adoration of the Eucharist takes place around the clock at the Order's chapel, and over 200 local people have designated weekly or daily periods when they come in to worship at the chapel for an hour or longer.
"You would then have a lot more people who would come in for a few minutes as they're passing by," said Sr Louise. The Order today has 1,400 Sisters in 31 countries worldwide.
In the coming weeks Sr Louise will be moving to Ottawa, Canada, to study canon law. She said this was exciting but would be a big change for her. "You give your life to the Lord, and you do give up certain things, but He gives them back to you in other ways," she said.
At the age of 32, Sr Louise is one of the Order's youngest members in Ireland but she was hopeful that more young people would be drawn to religious life.
"There is great hope that a revival is taking place. Last weekend there were 1,400 at the Clonmacnois Youth 2000 Festival which is very much centred around the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament," she said.
"More young people are coming back to pray in front of the Blessed Sacrament, and the Lord will prepare young people who are used to praying. That's where the vocations will come from - from young people that have strong faith based on the Eucharist, the traditions of the Church, and the Sacraments."
When asked how she felt about seeing the Order celebrate 50 years in this country, the original Irish member, Sr Muriel, replied: "It feels wonderful. I praise and thank God for my calling, my way of life. I love my vocation and never stopped thanking God for my vocation. It's a great gift. Not everyonea is called to it, but the Lord looked down on me and called me."