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Early in his mission, Jesus recited these words from the Book of Isaiah. They are embedded on the banner and in the hearts of the Missionary Sisters of the Holy Rosary.
The future founder of the Missionary Sisters of the Holy Rosary, Bishop Joseph Shanahan, a Spiritan Priest from Tipperary, Ireland and Vicar Apostolic of Southern Nigeria, hoped to expand outreach to women in Nigeria. In 1921, he wrote about missionary efforts there: 27 European priests and brothers, with the assistance of 540 catechists, had evangelized and educated 34,137 men and boys in 10 outposts throughout the country. The Sisters of St. Joseph of Cluny, had departed after 15 years without rest. The bishop, concerned about the region’s women and girls, publicized the need and called for laywomen missionaries.
In 1921, Agnes Ryan, a medical student and midwife and Mary Martin, a nurse and midwife, answered the call and sailed from Ireland to Nigeria. Several years later, Agnes (who later became Mother Therese)would become a founding member of the Missionary Sisters of the Holy Rosary and Mary, founder of the Medical Missionaries of Mary. In 1922, lay volunteers Elizabeth Ryan, Catherine Meagher, and Joan Murtagh, from Ireland, and Veronica Hasson from America, joined them.
Efforts to encourage religious congregations to go to Nigeria were not successful. During the spring of 1922, Mary Martin met with Bishop Shanahan and other missionaries at the Mission House in Calabar. They discussed the urgent need to evangelize women in Southern Nigeria. A generation of young men who had graduated from Catholic mission schools wanted to marry Christian women. Shanahan, who crisscrossed Nigeria on foot, bicycle, and canoe, felt the only way to establish lasting Christian families was to provide Christian formation for Nigerian women. He also wanted to address temporal concerns for women, such as health care and education.
Bishop Shanahan in Ireland for medical leave, preached and lectured—in churches, seminaries, convents, schools, and colleges—about evangelization, the missions, and his desire to found a missionary religious order. A decision was made to found a congregation and the Dominican Sisters agreed to take the first group of young women to their convent campus in Cabra, Dublin, until a house could be found. Between October 2, and December 8th, 1923, Agnes Ryan, Elizabeth Ryan, Veronica Hassen, Christina Shannon, Norah Leddy, Ellen Byrnes, Georgina Dwyer, and Beatrice Lockett began their aspirancy at Cabra. Mary Martin, an Irish nurse in Nigeria, and Philomena Fox from Philadelphia entered in June 1924.
By March 1924, the women had moved to Killeshandra, County Cavan, in the Diocese of Kilmore ,at the kind invitation of Bishop Finegan, to become postulants. Dr. Leen CSSp, served as their first spiritual director.
The Dominican Sisters of Cabra, Dublin, provided spiritual formation as well as guidance in managing the new congregation’s land and household. The postulants embraced their formation and the tasks of farming, laundry, and fundraising. They soon had a financially viable farm with cattle and poultry. And the people of Ireland responded to the mission appeals with faith and generosity.
In February 1927, the first ten sisters made their profession as Holy Rosary Sisters. Five would continue to work on the mission of congregational growth and the formation of new members in Ireland; five would prepare to travel to Nigeria to initiate their mission. These five studied the Igbo language and prepared to improve the livelihood of girls through a network of schools for teacher training, nursing, and technical instruction. They looked to Mary as a model for the innate dignity of women.
In January 1928, the first Missionary Sisters of the Holy Rosary boarded a boat in Dublin for Liverpool, and thence a two-week voyage to Calabar, Nigeria. The remaining sisters sang their congregation’s missionary hymn, Go Ye Afar, a tradition that continues today as sisters depart for their missions.
On St. Patrick’s Day that year, the sisters laid the cornerstone in Onitsha for their first school. They struggled with challenges, changes, and the climate, and opened their first girls’ school, October 7, 1928, the feast of the Holy Rosary.
Later, they started schools in Calabar, Emekuku, and Owerri. Teacher-training graduates assisted the sisters with new schools. The first school for Christian women, in Onitsha, taught fiancées about catechism and domestic arts. A boarding school was opened in 1930 in Emekuku and in 1933 the Holy Rosary Hospital, as well as other health care centers, maternity homes, schools, and training centers.
Pope Pius XI, who had encouraged Bishop Shanahan to found the congregation, approved the constitution of the Missionary Sisters of the Holy Rosary, granting official status as a religious order. By 1938, their missionary work was well underway.
Pennsylvania, USA, 1951
The Holy Rosary Sisters began their U.S. ministry in Philadelphia. They collected parish census data, ministered to youth and elderly poor, promoted vocations and missions, and sought funding.
The Holy Rosary Sisters responded to Pope John XXIII’s appeal for missionaries. Despite Brazil’s repressive dictatorship, the sisters successfully formed Basic Christian Communities where people could gather, grow together, and create confidence to struggle for—and attain—better living conditions.
Times of challenge and conflict
During the Biafran War (1967-69) Missionaries, including the Holy Rosary Sisters, remained with the people, providing pastoral and medical care. At the end of the war missionaries were expelled from Southern Nigeria, – though not from other parts of the country. The seeds of the Gospel did not die however, and many young women from that area answered the call to mission and became Holy Rosary Sisters in their turn. During the long war in Sierra Leone and Liberia the Sisters stayed, and then moved with the people to refugee camps in Guinea and returned with them to assist in the people’s post-war efforts to rebuild their lives. Both these countries were afflicted by the Ebola outbreak and during that time of suffering and tragedy the people trusted the sisters in the struggle to overcome the virus.
Africa, America, and Europe, 2010
Today, 380 Missionary Sisters of the Holy Rosary, with 24 in formation (14 candidates and 10 novices), continue to empower women and bring the Good News to the poor in 13 countries in Africa (Cameroon, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, South Africa, and Zambia), the Americas (Brazil, and the United States), and Europe (England, Ireland,).
Nigeria, the congregation’s first missionary site, became the main sending region for the Holy Rosary Sisters, and this has inspired young women from other African countries to be missionaries too. The Congregation is committed to interculturality in leadership and membership. Missionary activities still include medical care, education and pastoral care, and also social justice, women’s advancement, anti-trafficking, environmental awareness, and peace-building, often in areas of danger and social unrest. Above all the missionary call is God’s call and we are aware of His presence and support in our lives. As Bishop Shanahan said to the first sisters:
“It is a glorious privilege to be called to bring God to human souls… There are sufferings and trials before you, as before all missionaries. But remember, it is Christ Himself Who sweats in our sweat, Who burns in our fever, Who aches in our tired limbs, Who continues His sufferings in ours.” And again, “Our Lord intends to use your heart and soul in union with His own to pour into hearts that hunger and thirst, the untold treasures of Divine Life.”
Meeting of the Congregational Leadership Team with the Leaders from our thirteen Regions meeting at the Columban Centre in Dalgan Park in Ireland in 2019.