Independent People - The people's nun

Story by Tom Kelly

Wednesday, 23rd May, 2012 4:45pm

Independent People - The people's nun

She has taught two generations of Athlone girls, and for almost two decades she has been Ss Peter's and Paul's parish sister. In between those years, Sr Bernard Lynch has led a children's choir, with many local musicians. Unbelievably she is almost 85 years old and still doing voluntary work.

She has lived in Athlone town since 1967, but Sr Bernard comes from the farming community of Arigna, in North Roscommon, and was the fourth child of a family of six children. She was christened Mary Blandina, by her uncle, Fr Tom Lynch, and he always told her he placed her on the altar of Arigna Church after her baptism. She is called Blan by her family, although she is called Bernard among her Athlone community.

There were several priests and nuns on her father's side of the family, and Bernard was taught in school by her mother, who was a national schoolteacher.

"My Dad, Peter Tim Lynch was a Fianna Fail senator in the 1940s, and his brother, Ted Lynch was a nationalist senator in the North of Ireland senate at the same time," she said. "My parents were republicans, and my father hid a man from the Black and Tans in an American trunk in our attic. It had a white cloth on it, and was made into an altar for the Sacred Heart."

During the 1940s, when Bernard's father was involved in politics, the family moved to Keadue, and Bernard won a county council scholarship to study at the Convent of Mercy, Roscommon.

"Daddy was friends with everyone, including politicians from the other parties, Fine Gael, Clann na Poblachta and Clann na Tamhlan and Mammy used to put on the kettle for them all," said Bernard.

She wasn't a big fan of being a boarder in school, but was very into camogie, tennis, basketball and volleyball, at the school.

Her older brother Tim Lynch was on the winning All-Ireland minor Roscommon football team in 1941, and played on the senior team for his county in a few All-Irelands in the forties.

Bernard decided to become a nun, just after completing her Leaving Certificate in 1946. Her uncles, the priests, didn't want her to go to a convent, and neither did her parents, because they wanted her to further her education.

"Daddy said the door was always open for me," said Bernard.

"But I had a call to training, and after about two years I went Carysfort College to become a teacher, and after that I did a post-grad in teaching in Sion Hill, Blackrock, and I was in the Mercy Sisters convent at the time."

Bernard inherited her musical talent from her mother's side of the family, and she studied piano up to Grade 8, but had to leave it behind when she entered the convent. However the music was useful when she took up teaching years later.

Bernard taught first in Sligo for twelve years, and in Summerhill (now St. Joseph's College, Athlone) for two years, and later in Castlerea and Strokestown before she came back to primary school teaching in St Peter's school in Athlone in 1967.

"In my early years, I lived close to my family, and I was asked by my congregation to go to San Diego diocese, but my father had died, and I wanted to be close to my mother, so I didn't go to America," said Bernard.

When she came to teach in Athlone in the late 1960s, her principal was Mother Ascius, and then there was Sr Columba, and then Sr Clement, before Bernard took over as principal in 1974 and she remained in situ there until she retired in 1993.

"I was always very happy as a teacher, and in my earlier years, I had taught young boys, but when I came to St Peter's I taught 5th class, and then 6th class girls," she said.

She recalls how she was always aware of the difficulties some parents had in financing their children's education.

"A man gave me a letter recently that I wrote in 1974, where I gave parents some ideas on how to purchase things."

Bernard remembers a fundraising concert, over 30 years ago in the Dean Crowe Hall, which was opened by Bernard Coyle, followed by TR Dallas, the Ganley school of dancing and Jack Allen and Allandale. Brendan Shine performed in the entire second half of the concert. The concert was in aid of buying the first computers for St. Peter's school.

For fifteen years, Bernard conducted a children's choir at 10.30 am mass at St. Peter's and Paul's Church. She had Athlone and army band musicians, PJ Stacey on piano, Joe Byrne on trumpet and Larry O'Brien on clarinet playing with the choir.

Sr Bernard was a lifelong friend of the late Fr Tommy Moran, who was a popular principal in St. Aloysius College in the 1980s.

"He was from my home place, Arigna, and we were related far out, and I helped him through his final illness, and I was very upset when he died in 1994, but I had the privilege of being with him, as he celebrated mass during his final few weeks, in his sitting room in St. Aloysius College, and I had the privilege of being with him at the end," she said.

A photo of the late Fr. Tommy offering mass at Lourdes adorns a wall in Bernard's living room, alongside many other pictures, including an interesting one from July 1941 of her father and uncle - the two senators - taken outside Leinster House. Bernard is also the chaplain in St. Aloysius College, Athlone, and on her wall, she proudly displays a picture of the college which was presented to her for her Golden Jubilee in religious life in 1999.

Canon Paddy Murray, who died last October, was parish priest at the time of the death of Fr. Tommy, and suggested to Bernard to do some work in St. Peter's and Paul's parish.

"He asked me if I would work in the parish, which I said I'd do for a year, and I'm still here over eighteen years later," she said.

"In preparation for parish ministry, I looked to do a one-year diploma course in pastoral care, which I did in All Hallows, Drumcondra."

Bernard has been the St Peter's and Paul's parish sister since that time, and works voluntarily in that role, which involves many parish meetings, and visiting parishioners throughout the town. She visits people in their homes, including those in nursing homes, especially those in Stella Maris home.

Bernard plays bridge twice a week, and sometimes plays 25s on Sunday nights and whist on Thursday nights at St Peter's school assembly hall. She opens up the hall for the card players, and these groups were originally started by Fr. Tommy before he died.

At almost 85 years of age, Bernard still drives her car to visit her family in North Roscommon. Rory is her only brother living, and she has one sister, Nancy living in Dublin.

"I would have strong faith, and I always make sure I get morning mass in St Peter's, and when I visit Nancy in Dunboyne I get mass there, and when I go to Boyle to visit Rory, I make sure I also go there to mass," said Bernard. "We always said the rosary at home every night while growing up and devotion to Our Lady in my life has been my stronghold."

Sr Bernard is enjoying a life, free from sickness, and since she moved from the convent community into a private house near the River Shannon many years ago, she has continued to enjoy good health.

"When I retired from teaching, and went working for the parish, people were calling to the convent, and then the convent was going to be knocked, so I got an idea that I would like to develop my own individuality and got permission to live in the community, and I have never been happier," said the popular Athlone nun.

"God does not always call those who are qualified; God qualifies those who respond to his call. Since I moved to my home near the Shannon, I have felt and heard the voice of God, speaking through the prophet Jeremiah, saying to me, Bernard, now that you're 70 years old, I have my plans for you, plans of peace, not disaster."

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