Cork-based nun aged 103: I take every day as it comes

Sr Alphonsus O’Brien, who turned 103 recently, reflects on her life in the Presentation Sisters order in West Cork and her plans for a post-pandemic birthday celebration, writes CHRIS DUNNE
Cork-based nun aged 103: I take every day as it comes
Sr Alphonsus O’Brien who turned 103 in March.

FORMER schoolteacher at the Presentation Convent, Bandon, Sr Alphonsus O’Brien, was just two years old when the Spanish flu of 1918 wiped out 50 million people worldwide.

“My parents lived through the Spanish flu,” says Sr Alphonsus, who joined the nuns 81 years ago and who celebrated her 103rd birthday on March 24. She is now a resident at Bandon Community Hospital.

“The staff are very good to me here,” says Sr Alphonsus, who is cocooning during the Coronavirus pandemic.

“I got loads of cards and well-wishes on my birthday from all my friends and from my past pupils,” adds Sr Alphonsus.

“I got beautiful bunches of daffodils and beautiful cards with creative, meaningful verses.”

She had a lot of visitors too.

“People came to the window to wish me Happy Birthday. I could see them, but they couldn’t see me. I’ll remember that day, March 24, always!”

She has another lovely day to look forward to.

“My brother, my niece, and her boys booked a hotel for my birthday celebrations. Due to the coronavirus the outing was cancelled. But I’m looking forward to going to the Celtic Ross Hotel for lunch when all this is over. We’ll have great celebrations then. I love the Celtic Ross.”

What does she put her healthy longevity down to?

“God is looking down on me. He must have some reason for holding me. I’m not done yet!”

Sister Alphonsus O'Brien who was honoured with a Pro Ecclesia Et Pontifica medal from Pope Francis in recent years. Pictured Denis Boyle
Sister Alphonsus O'Brien who was honoured with a Pro Ecclesia Et Pontifica medal from Pope Francis in recent years. Pictured Denis Boyle

Sr Alphonsus, a popular figure in the Bandon community, has a good memory.

“I was just a toddler in 1918 but I know my parents got the flu that year and a nurse called to our home. She put a bottle of disinfectant, like Jeyes fluid, on the mantel-piece. The fluid was rubbed onto my chest. I’m sure I was screaming but I never got the flu or bronchitis in my life!”

Celebrating people’s

talents

Sr Alphonsus, who hails from Limerick city, has led a charmed life, encouraging younger and older people to express their gifts and talent through drama. The Good Friday Passion Drama at Easter is a highlight in the community with youth, parishioners, members of the Church of Ireland and members of the Methodist community all taking part.

She ropes everyone in.

“Last year, Graham Norton’s brother-in-law, Noel Giles, had the lead role in the pageant, he played Christ,” says Sr Alphonsus.

The show, in it’s eighth year always goes on.

“In 2017 I broke my hip and I was in hospital for three months, but the show still went ahead!”

This year things were also different.

“We’ve had eight years of great success,” says Sr Alphonsus.

“Everyone loves getting involved in the Easter Passion play on the stage and behind the scenes. But this year we no-can-do.”

She knows what to do in times of strife and trouble.

“I take every day as it comes. Each day is all you have. And you do the best you can with it. Everybody has a gift. Find that gift and use it.”

Pictured at St Patrick's church Bandon was Sister Alphonsus O'Brien who was honored with a Pro Ecclesia Et Pontifica medal from Pope Francis. Presenting the medal was Bishop John Buckley and family and friends. Pictured Denis Boyle
Pictured at St Patrick's church Bandon was Sister Alphonsus O'Brien who was honored with a Pro Ecclesia Et Pontifica medal from Pope Francis. Presenting the medal was Bishop John Buckley and family and friends. Pictured Denis Boyle

Finding her vocation

Sr Alphonsus found her true vocation at the tender age of 19.

“I had to make a choice as to which road I should take. Nuns to me were very holy people who devoted their lives to God, who lived in convents and kept rules.

“I genuinely felt that no religious order would want a girl like me in their midst.

“It was a choice I had to make and I prayed for guidance. I cried a lot too.”

A friend of hers intervened.

“A good friend of mine, a priest, came to answer my prayer,” says Sr Alphonsus.

“He suggested that I visit the Presentation order in Bandon.”

Sr Alphonsus didn’t know where Bandon was.

“But I found it! And I was surprised to be greeted by such love. The welcome I received convinced me that my decision was made. It was such a comfort that my journey was not in vain. I was filled with contentment, which in turn led to a strong sense of reassurance.”

And the rest is history.

“I did the interview and joined them on the 24th of September. I was 19 years old.”

She was sorely missed by her parents.

“My mother and father came from Limerick for my Profession of Vows. My dad cried a lot. The tears flowed down his cheeks. He thought I could never come home any more. It was a stressful, disturbing, and turbulent time.”

But he was very proud of his only daughter.

“Yes. Dad was proud of me,” adds Sr Alphonsus.

Pictured at St Patrick's church Bandon back in 2016 was Sister Alphonsus O'Brien who was honored with a Pro Ecclesia Et Pontifica medal from Pope Francis, with sisters of the presentation order. Pictured Denis Boyle
Pictured at St Patrick's church Bandon back in 2016 was Sister Alphonsus O'Brien who was honored with a Pro Ecclesia Et Pontifica medal from Pope Francis, with sisters of the presentation order. Pictured Denis Boyle

Lessons learned

Sr Alphonsus, having lived on the planet for more than 100 years, knows that life is not always a bed of roses.

“Into each life some rain must fall,” she says.

She sometimes felt the rain drops descend upon her. “At times it came in torrents.”

She loved teaching come rain or hail or snow.

“Teaching was my joy,” say Sr Alphonsus, who retired at 65.

“I loved the children. The classroom was my dream world, and drama my passion. It gave me scope for my imagination, creativity and dramatisation.”

The apple didn’t fall far from the tree. Her dad was a talented musician who taught music in the Technical Institute. Her mother was renowned for her theatrical talents. Sr Alphonsus holds a special place in her heart for her native Limerick.

“It was audibly evident in the beautiful silence of the convent when we exploded with cheers for the ‘Munster men’!”

Sr Alphonsus continued her passion for drama in the community after she retired from teaching.

“I loved doing my speech and drama classes in town and being involved in the world of theatre,” she says.

The much-loved nun adoped by the people of Bandon was awarded the Pro Ecclessia et Pontifice for church and people awarded by Pope Francis in 2016. This is the highest honour the Pope can bestow on a lay person or a cleric.

During her long, fruitful lifetime, Sr Alphonsus has never witnessed anything like Covid-19 or the havoc that the virus wreaks.

“It is threatening and very frightening,” she says. “But in these modern times when nothing is sacred anymore, we must have faith.”

Sr Alphonsus has faith that this too shall pass.

“The sun will pass out from behind the clouds.”

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