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una-oneill-gardiner-stSister Una O'Neill

1924 - 2014

Born: 26th January 1924

Entered Religious Life: 15th June 1942

Died: 5th April 2014

 

An appreciation of Sr Una O'Neill RSC


Sister Una O'Neill was born in Limerick on 26th January, 1924 and entered the Novitiate of the Sisters of Charity in Milltown, Dublin, in June 1942.  She was Professed on the 24th June 1945 and shortly afterwards commenced preparation for teaching in Primary Schools at Carysfort Training College in Blackrock.

In 1953, Mother Teresa Anthony Heskin, the Superior General and her Council announced that a new Foundation would begin in California in the autumn.  Sister Una, who was teaching in Milltown Primary School at the time, was one of those chosen to commence this new mission in Long Beach, California, because her talents also included music and she prepared and directed the school choir at Mass on Sundays.  Any choirs she trained had a most beautiful tone.

Sister Una became Principal of Our Lady of Fatima School in San Clemente, where again the pupils and their parents found her an excellent teacher and administrator.  She understood the help and guidance that new teachers might need and was always ready to hear the difficulties that parents might be experiencing.  Sister Una also had the gift of love for teenagers and became a spiritual guide for some of them in San Clemente, as they shared with her their desire to enter religious life.  Today, Sister Kathleen Bryant, Sister Marsha Moon and Sister Frances Maria Monsimer (the latter from Garden Grove), are Sisters of Charity and Sister Marsha is Regional Superior in the Californian Region.  Sisters Michelle Hetherington and Margaret Farrell who reside in the Region came into contact with Sister Una in Ireland.

Because of ill-health.  Sister Una had to return to Ireland in 1974 and was missioned to Temple Hill, Blackrock in 1975 where she commenced her involvement in helping several young people who shared with her their desire to give themselves to God in Religious Life.  On 30th  April 1975, she was missioned to Gardiner Street Convent and, despite continuing ill-health, was always interested in school and vocation ministry.  She was described by teachers who knew her then in Gardiner Street School as an excellent outreach worker with real sympathy for the children and their families.  However, in the summer of 2005 it was felt that Sister Una was in need of nursing care so on the 22nd August she became a patient in St. Monica's Nursing Home, which is situated just around the comer from the Convent.

She loved people; Sisters, relatives, and past pupils - she was always interested in what they shared with her during a visit and promised prayers.

Sister Una continued to live a fairly active and independent life in St. Monica's.  She was able to attend Mass in St. Francis Xavier Church and visited her Community in Gardiner Street for Feast Days, Christmas and Easter.  Sister Una was very grateful for any care and attention she received from the staff in St. Monica's.

In the two years prior to her death, her health declined which restricted her freedom and ability to go out.  She was never heard to make a complaint of any kind with this major change in her life.  She enjoyed two days of celebration for her 90th birthday in January 2014.
Sister Una was called to her Eternal Home on the 5th April 2014.  She reposed in St. Monica's for a few hours - and then returned to her Community in Gardiner Street.  Her Requiem Mass was celebrated in her beloved church of St. Francis Xavier, Gardiner Street, by Fr. Barney McGuckian S.J. a friend of her late brother Fr. Niall S.J. and her friend.
Sister Una was buried in the R.S.C. cemetery in Donnybrook.

May Una’s dear soul find eternal life in the love of Christ.

 

Sr. Joseph Helen Cunningham.

 

We are standing this morning on holy ground: the place where Mary Aikenhead spent the last years of her life as an invalid – a woman whose vision, courage and practical common-sense gave birth to our Congregation and to our long and graced history of service of the poor, the weak and the vulnerable.Today we are celebrating the life of Sr. Joseph Helen, a woman who cherished that charism, serving those in need with fidelity and generosity, and who also spent the last years of her life here in the Hospice.

 

The readings this morning are both comforting and challenging.In the Gospel Jesus speaks of himself as the Way, the Truth and the Life.He invites us to put our hope and our trust in Him and in His promise to be with us, steadily and constantly as we try each day to walk his way, to speak his truth, to live his life.It is an apt description of the life and commitment of the woman whom we are remembering here.

 

In her 103 years of life, Sr. Joseph Helen lived through historical and global changes that are impossible for us to imagine.She experienced seismic shifts in Church and state.She witnessed wars and famines on a world scale.Through all of those yearsshe remained steadfastly faithful to the constant core of who she was as an RSC.She was born Dorothy Cunningham in Ballacolla in Portlaoise on 1st July 1908. She was an only girl, with one brother, and was much loved by all.Her childhood and youth reflected the calm ordinariness of children’s lives at that time.Following her degree studies she spent some months caring for her mother who was ill and then secured a job teaching in Mountjoy St. School in Dublin.Her father was not impressed!His comment on hearing of that place was:“It doesn’t sound like much of a job but you like working for the poor and you’ve always been good at it”.She remained there until she entered the Sisters of Charity on 5th October 1931.

 

In the first reading we are told that God gives strength to the wearied; that those who hope in Yahweh will soar like eagles, run and no grow weary, walk and never tire.That was so true of J. Helen throughout her active life.She was missioned back to Mountjoy St. after her religious profession and taught there for 12 years.Following a year’s further study in Scotland, she went to teach in a Secondary Modern school inWalthamstow in England for a year.And then came the call to be one of our three founding Sisters of the Zambian Region, or Northern Rhodesia as it then was.

 

In 1948 they set sail, travelling for four weeks by boat – The Athlone Castle -rail, bus and lorry before arriving in Chisekesi Siding on a dark morning on 28th October 1948. Sr. Helen kept a diary of the journey which was printed for the 50th anniversary and which gives a fascinating insight into their journey and how they coped with, what was for them, such a strange and almost ‘alien’ environment.

 

One can only imagine the anticipation and anxiety, the challenge and the loneliness, the wonder and the doubts that marked that journey and her first months in Zambia.It was a place and people that she came to love and cherish.She committed herself to the education of girls and brought the gift of knowledge and freedom to countless women who still remember her with gratitude and appreciation.There are many past pupils with sad hearts in Zambia at the moment – their sadness at her passing tempered only by their gratitude that she is free from the debilities of her age.And that mourning is echoed this morning among our sisters there in the Region and here in this Chapel in the sisters who lived with her and shared her life for those 30 years.

 

Her first 15 years in Zambia were spent in the Teacher training college run by the Jesuits and began her work in promoting the education of girls – beginning with the setting up of a girls secondary boarding school in Roma in Lusaka.Nine years later she was appointed Regional Leader and on Independence day 1978she was conferred with the Order of Distinguished Service for 30 years of outstanding service to the people of Zambia in the fields of Education and Social work.

 

While she was a formidable woman in many ways, with high standards and expectations, her devotion to her religious life and her commitment to education was recognized and appreciated by all who knew her.She was a strict disciplinarian, spoke the truth without apology and demanded very high standards.At the same time her heart was compassionate and her generosity and hospitality were known and appreciated by all.

 

Like all of us, Helen has known suffering and joy, tears and laughter, pain and happiness, loneliness and friendship.And she had strong relationships with herfriends – too numerous to mention – but exemplified in the love and devotion of Sr. Mary Bernadette Collins and Catherine Fallon.Up to the end she valued and enjoyed her relationships with her nieces, nephews and other family members and followed their lives with interest, with love and with prayer.

 

In 1978 she was missioned to Ireland and worked on our Constitutions.Subsequently she was appointed as local leader to our community in Crumlin before her appointment to our Provincial Leadership team and consequent arrival here in Our Lady’s Mount in 1981.

 

Sr. J. Helen’s commitment to Mary Aikenhead's charism was single-minded and she never compromised on that.The second reading confirms her attitude to life:nothing outweighs the supreme advantage of knowing Christ Jesus. It is only through Him, with Him and in Him that we can find life and happiness and fulfilment.Rooted in that conviction, she endorsed and embraced anything that served the people for whom she cared in a better, more dignified or respectful way.

 

She suffered in her growing debility and weakness these last years and all of us – family, community, friends and colleagues - were saddened as we watched her suffering and her struggle to cope.In spite of the wonderful, caring staff who surrounded her and the sisters and friends who were her constant support,she had difficult and dispiriting days.Yet she never gave up .Her faith in Providence was the touchstone of her life.In the midst of all her pain and letting-go she was confident that he was with her, holding her, comforting her and in the end, calling her to himself.And when that call came, sheyielded her spirit to the Lord, peace-filled, calm and trusting - blest with a death that had no struggle, no pain, no fear.And perhaps I can end with some words of hers, written in the diary of which I spoke, on her arrival in Chikuni:“Now that we have reached our Promised Land we must thank God and Our Lady for our very pleasant and on the whole easy journey which we have had . . . . “Those words echo, not only the journey to Chikuni, but her life journey, now at its end as she moves, we believe, into the fullness of the Promised land of God’s life and love.

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