Northern Ireland news

Co Down nun sent to work in South Africa at start of World War II celebrates 100th birthday

Sr Mary Bartholomew wrote a book looking back on her beloved parish of Drumgooland

A Co Down nun who was sent to work in South Africa at the start of World War II has celebrated her 100th birthday there with Irish relatives.

Sr Mary Bartholomew was joined by five nieces, who flew the thousands of miles from Leitrim to her Port Elizabeth home.

Born Philomena Cunningham, she and her older sister Mary Bernadette attended Sacred Heart Grammar School in Newry and were among the first girls to play camogie in Leitrim before an official team had been set up by the Fontenoy's GAA club.

She entered the Assumption Convent in Ballynahinch after leaving school.

Her niece, Mary McAleenan, told the Down Recorder how both sisters went on to become nuns and in 1940, as a postulant, Sr Mary Bartholomew was on the Warwick Castle, "the last passenger ship to sail to the continent (of Africa) for many years, as most ships were then commissioned for the war effort".

Her religious formation and teacher training was in Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape.

Taking her vows in 1942, she spent decades teaching and on her retirement was assigned to open a clinic and pre-school for refugees fleeing the Mozambique war.

The civil war in the neighbouring country raged from 1977 to 1992 when a UN-brokered peace deal ended fighting between Frelimo and the rebel Mozambique National Resistance.

It caused around one million deaths, displaced 5.7m internally and a further 1.7m refugees.

Sr Mary later wrote a book looking back on her beloved parish of Drumgooland and, according to her niece, moved to "the cooler environment of an office and spent time in general admin".

Her nieces gathered around her earlier this month for her centenary, with the nun having not visited Ireland since her return "some years ago" when her older sister Eileen was seriously ill.

A day later, the Missionary Sisters of the Assumption convent celebrated the 170th anniversary of the arrival of the first Sisters in 1849 in Port Elizabeth in the Vicariate of the Eastern Cape, South Africa, after a hazardous four-month journey on board a whaling ship.

The seven sisters, led by Mother Marie Gertrude de Henningsen, were sent by Mother, now Saint, Marie Eugénie from the recently founded congregation of the Assumption in Paris.

The first nuns were often called the `Pioneer Sisters' and their mission, to support the young Church and spread the religion through Catholic education for girls, "soon became extended to meet the many and growing needs of their people".

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