by JEFF DILLON
Celebrating anybody’s birthday usually involves some careful preparations and when it involves someone who was born 300 years ago in 1718, then it certainly needs some thought. 

So it proved recently at St Peter Chanel church, Green Island, Dunedin with a special Mass to celebrate the birthday of Venerable Nano Nagle, foundress of the Presentation Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary (PBVM).

Prior to the October 14 Mass beginning, the congregation received an eight-minute audio-visual YouTube presentation about the life of this woman who calmly and courageously challenged the conditions imposed on ordinary Irish people by the Penal Laws.

As Sr Veronica Casey noted in her welcome, Nano was born into a comparatively wealthy Irish family, but “Nano spurned the life of  luxury and comfort to establish illegal schools for Catholic children deprived of education”. Besides teaching or visiting her schools during the day, Nano also visited the poor and those in need in her town at night, becoming famous as the “lady of the lantern” for her errands of mercy lit by the lantern she carried.

Nano became a wonderful agent for change and transformation for the people of her day, thereby demonstrating the power of one. Sr Veronica summed her up as being “a woman for her time, a woman for our time, a woman for all time”.

From its founding in Cork, Ireland, the Presentation Sisters order has spread to 24 locations around the globe. In 1954, Presentation Sisters from Ireland arrived to staff St Peter Chanel School in Green Island. While no sisters remain teaching at the school now, pupils from the school took an active role in the Sunday celebrations.

Bishop Michael Dooley celebrated the Mass along with concelebrants Bishop Emeritus Colin Campbell, Msgr Vincent Walker, Fr Merv McGettigan and parish priest Fr Michael Hishon.

In his homily, Bishop Dooley noted the difference between the man in that day’s Gospel who approached Jesus desiring to serve God as against Nano’s response. While the man had good intentions, he could not sell up all his possessions and give his wealth to the poor and sadly gave up on that option. Nano Nagle, by contrast, had given up her relatively comfortable lifestyle and  pursued a life of exacting service.

Bishop Dooley suggested that Nano Nagle would have recognised the message in that Gospel and acted upon it. Life was not easy for Catholics at that time in Ireland just as it is not easy for Catholics today. He noted the impact of the sexual abuse issues that had
beset the Church locally and around the world and the shortcomings of those in positions of power.

Bishop Dooley noted that the lesson for Catholics today, as Pope Francis has pointed out, was that at the root of the current problem was the misuse of power and desire to retain status and privilege. That was the issue in that day’s Gospel. There will be a cleansing
process as the issues are worked through. And by getting back to Gospel values, the Catholic Church will be renewed.

The offertory procession included a number of symbolic items as reminders of the occasion. First, a lantern was carried up by a St Peter Chanel pupil to represent that carried by Nano on her nightly errands. Then another pupil carried up a globe of the earth to represent
the extent to which the Presentation Sisters have spread from Ireland. Another item was a cage containing three white doves, one for each century since Nano’s birth.

After Mass and outside the church, Bishop Dooley released those three doves. Sr Veronica Casey and Sr Pauline Moloney from the Dunedin area were joined by their Wellington-based colleagues Srs Regina Daly, Frances Nicolle, Ruth Coleman and Breda Ryan in also releasing a dove each from their respective cages as a final tribute for the 300-year birthday celebrations.

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