Drumully House was purchased to establish The Missionary Sisters of the Most Holy Rosary at Killeshandra, Co Cavan, in March 1924.

Missionary Sisters of the Holy Rosary Killeshandra celebrate centenary

REFLECTING: ‘A time to remember, a time to recall’

This week, the Missionary Sisters of the Holy Rosary, Killeshandra, begin their celebrations of the Centenary of the religious order’s inception at Drumully House in west Cavan in March 1924.

And, what a journey it has been. From humble beginnings following a chance meeting between Bishop Joseph Shanahan, CSSP, Vicar Apostolic of Southern Nigeria and the Bishop of Kilmore, Patrick Finegan, to the entry of seven women in the Killeshandra congregation after just five of months training with the Cabra Dominican sisters; in a few short years, the local convent became home to 115 sisters with members serving on missionary work in Southern Nigeria.

Sr Catherine Hally is the author of a book entitled ‘The Challenges of the Foundation Decade 1924-1934’ in which she explores the challenges and opportunities that presented to the sisters in Killeshandra during the first 10 years of existence.

Sr Catherine has served in Kenya and speaking to The Anglo-Celt, she reinforced her belief that the chance meeting between the Bishops towards the end of 1923 sowed the seeds for what was to come.

“Bishop Shanahan encountered Bishop Finnegan in October 1923 and an invitation was extended to establish the proposed congregation in the Diocese of Kilmore,” Sr Catherine explained, before adding that Bishop Shanahan immediately set about securing an appropriate property.

“After looking at three in the county, he selected Drumully House in Killeshandra.”

Seven Sisters

“On March 7, the seven sisters arrived; the plan had been they would train in Cabra for 12 months and then undertake their novitiate in Nigeria but developments in Co Cavan changed all that,” said Sr Catherine.

Three of the original seven sisters - Agnes Ryan, Ellen Burns and Nora Leddy - were all native to County Cavan. Today, the Missionary Sisters of the Holy Rosary serve in 14 countries across the world. And, despite the fact the Convent in Killeshandra closed in 1985, the rich legacy of helping and caring for others less fortunate by the Missionary Sisters lives on to this day.

Nine sisters reside in Cavan Town - seven in the Convent adjacent the Cathedral of Ss Patrick 7 Felim, aptly called ‘Killeshandra House’, and two in a private house.

“There were a lot of challenges during the early years,” recalled Sr Catherine before pointing to how some of the first sisters assigned in Nigeria became ill with Malaria and were forced to return to Ireland for treatment.

“The order gained momentum and, by the 1940s and 1950s, ‘the spirit of the congregation’ was attracting lots of women.

“Missions always had an appeal for young Irish women - the challenge, the adventure. Religious life was regarded as an alternative lifestyle, one that offered opportunities as opposed to the curtailed life outside of that,” explained Sr Catherine.

Missionary Work

When Bishop Shanahan officially founded the order in March 1924, he described how “spreading the gospel of Christ” was central to missionary work. He pointed to how boys in Nigeria who were educated to a certain proficiency could, under the supervision of the clergy, begin to impart their knowledge to families less fortunate.

However, girls were not so lucky, and Bishop Shanahan emphasised the existing barriers to their education, which he believed would disappear, under the “perseverance and guidance of the Sisters of our Order”.

With all of this in mind, the sisters continued their work and, by 1939, they were in Nigeria, England and South Africa helping the poor, setting up clinics and providing healthcare.

“We had begun branching out into other areas before Bishop Shanahan died in 1943,” said Sr Catherine.

“The sisters opened a clinic in Nigeria; it started on the veranda of their house in 1931 and became a major hospital in the country by 1935.

“In the early years, the people of southern Nigeria - the Igbo People, an ethnic identity in the context of decolonisation and the Nigerian Civil War - were very religious and were drawn to Christianity. Also, after Vatican 11, more and more Nigerian women began to enter the Holy Rosary congregation,” detailed Sr Catherine of their story.

Although the Missions were the primary focus for the Missionary Sisters of the Holy Rosary in Killeshandra, their contribution to education in the locality was enormous. One of the sisters from the congregation was principal at St Brigid’s National School for nearly 20 years.

The sisters also ran the local choirs and engaged in visitations. “The main focus was on the Missions; we entered to go on the Missions but didn’t exclude local community contribution,” Sr Catherine outlined.

“We only ever had one school in Ireland and that was a secondary school - in Artane. It provided second level education for over 30 years until the numbers attending dwindled and the decision was taken to close it. It was established in answer to a need and after a period of time, that need was no longer there,” she continued.

Throughout the 1960s, 70s and 80s children of national school age were taught about the work on the Missions. There was huge awareness of the poverty in Africa and children were encouraged to collect stamps and save their pennies for the Missions.

The Africa Rosary magazine, for example, was distributed monthly throughout the country and Ireland has been credited with providing enormous financial and spiritual support to people being helped and supported by the Missionary Sisters.

“We had a role in creating awareness around missionary work in Africa,” said Sr Catherine.

“Six missionary congregations were founded in Ireland at the beginning of the 20th century including Columbian Priests, Columbian Sisters, the Francescisan Sisters for Africa, Medical Missionaries of Mary, St Patrick’s, Kiltegan and ourselves; the Missionary movement was very strong in the first decades and it contributed in a significant way to improving human suffering, poverty, education and health care.

“It was a wonderful age because you went out on the Missions with such enthusiasm and youthfulness. I was in Kenya and the Missionary Movement supported us; there was great companionship among the Irish Missionaries.”

Sr Catherine went on to highlight that by the mid 1980s those joining the congregation were in decline and the Convent in Killeshandra needed refurbishment. It was clear that changes were on the horizon.

“In the 1980s, the house in Killeshandra was no longer suitable; it required renovations and at the same time, vocations were dropping,” she continued.

“We left Killeshandra in 1985 and moved into Cavan Town; some also went to Dublin. That was a very sad moment for us.”


In 2013 a Memorial Day was held in Killeshandra where a dedicated Cross was blessed. The Cross was erected by Lakeland Dairies, Killeshandra, in dedication to the Holy Rosary Sisters who had lived in the area.

“It is a lovely tribute to have there and also we still care for the graveyard there where nearly 40 of our sisters are buried,” added Sr Catherine.

“So, we still have close ties to the area. Holy Rosary sisters now live in Cavan Town and in Dublin.”

Special mass

On March 10, Mass will be held in Killeshandra Parish Church at 3pm to mark the Centenary of the Missionary Sisters of the Holy Rosary in Killeshandra’s centenary.

“100 years ago we came to Killeshandra and to the county of Cavan,” said Sr Catherine.

“We will mark that event in the Cathedral in Cavan Town on August 3 and that will bring our centenary celebrations to a close.”