Just four years ago, Rochfortbridge marked the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the Sisters of Mercy into the town.
This Friday evening, however, the Order's 154-year association with the town comes to an end, as the three remaining sisters leave.
A special Mass of farewell and thanksgiving is to take place on Friday at 7.30pm in Rochfortbridge Church, followed by a gathering in the parish hall.
Says Milltownpass businesswoman, Rose Wright, the news of the sisters' departure has been greeted with sadness.
“The sisters have enhanced the lives of generations of parishioners and the wider community at many levels, especially in giving them those most essential and precious gifts of education and faith.”
Also deeply saddened by the sisters' departure is historian Danny Dunne, a past student of St Joseph's Convent, and one of the team who put together the 2012 history of the sisters in Rochfortbridge, 'To Serve with Gladness'.
It was in 1862 that the first Mercy sisters arrived in Rochfortbridge from Tullamore to set up their convent.
“Nothing could equal the joy and gratitude of the people when they beheld the accomplishment of their long-cherished hopes and fervent aspirations – the presence of the angelic Sisters of Mercy among them,” is how the Annals of Westmeath described their arrival.
Danny, speaking with the Westmeath Examiner this week, revealed that the story of how the sisters came to Rochfortbridge was remarkable – and from Rochfortbridge was fostered the growth of the Mercy Order in New South Wales where, as in Ireland, the sisters did wonderful work in establishing and running schools.
“It is very sad,” said Danny, who credits the sisters with helping him work out his direction in life when his father died as he entered fifth year.
Strangely, the root of the Sisters of Mercy in Rochfortbridge goes back to a young Protestant woman.
Eliza Fielding was the daughter of a wealthy Dublin family, reveals Danny.
“The father was in business – a firm called Fry and Fielding.”
When he retired, he moved the family to Rochfortbridge, and they lived in what was then a residential house on the corner of the street leading to the church.
His wife died, and after that, Eliza converted to Catholicism, something that led to a rift with her father, which lasted some years.
They were, however, reconciled, and Mr Fielding converted to Catholicism on his deathbed.
After her father's death, Eliza, looking for a way to fund the education of her younger brother and sister, sold the family home to the local priest. Ultimately, the Fielding home became ‘St Joseph's’ – the convent of the Mercy nuns.
Eliza joined the Mercy sisters in Tullamore, and became Sr Mary Paul. Strangely, she found herself posted back to Rochfortbridge – and living in her former family home.
By 1872, a larger building was needed for the nuns, and a wealthy Catholic landowner, Richard Coffey of Tyrrellspass, built the present convent – now, sadly, empty.
However, it was to that convent that a priest arrived one night. Fr Michael McAlroy, originally from Bracklyn, had come from New South Wales and was on his way to Tullamore to find some nuns prepared to establish themselves in Australia – but a bad storm broke out and he was directed to St Joseph's for shelter.
“Who answered the door but Sr Mary Paul, and when she heard his story she said: 'Why go to Tullamore? I'll go with you',” says Danny.
Sr Mary Paul, together with Sr Bernard Grennan, Sr Alacoque McLoughlin and three postulants travelled from Rochfortbridge to Yass in New South Wales in 1875, and from that mission emerged several schools.
A small party of sisters set off from Rochfortbridge in 1875 for Yass, and they set up several schools.
Sr Mary Paul never returned to Ireland, and spent the remainder of her life in the service of her order and education in Australia. She died in 1905.
Meanwhile, continues Danny, in Rochfortbridge, the sisters ran their primary school, and in around 1896, they set up a school for deaf students, which ran until the 1940s.
The sisters formally established their secondary school in 1953/54 under the stewardship of Sr Magdalen Claffey, who currently resides at Newbrook Nursing Home in Mullingar. From 1963 they accepted boys, and now, St Joseph's has a school population of some 800 pupils.
Both Danny and Rose say that Rochfortbridge owes the order a great debt of gratitude.
“We can carry in our hearts the memories of their hard work and sacrifices,” says Rose.
• Mass of Thanksgiving this Friday, September 16, 7.30pm, Rochfortbridge Church