Nano Nagle "Woman of Faith and Vision" Foundress, Presentation Congregation
"If I could be of service in saving souls in any part of the globe, I would gladly do all in my power." - Nano Nagle
Nano was born in 1718 to a loving and long-standing Catholic family at Ballygriffin in North Cork. She was nurtured in Ireland's darkest hour but her early years were spent amid scenes of natural and rural beauty. She was noted for her high spirits, liveliness and vivacity. Being the eldest of seven children she learned to love and care for her brothers and sisters. Her home lay in the beautiful valley of the Blackwater backed by the Nagle Mountains to the south. Her father Garret Nagle was a wealthy landowner in the area; her mother Ann Mathews was from an equally prominent family. Like others of the old Catholic gentry, the Nagles had managed to hold on to most of their land and wealth during the era of the Penal Laws in the 18th century. Edmund Burke, the famous parliamentarian and orator, who was a relative of Nano Nagle described those laws in one trenchant sentence: "Their declared object was to reduce the Catholics in Ireland to a miserable populace, without property, without estimation, without education."
It was unlawful for them to open a Catholic school at home, and at the same time forbade them to travel overseas for their education. The Nagles had a branch of the family who were merchants in Cork city, with strong connections on the continent particularly in France. It was through these channels that Nano and her Sister Ann were able to travel to Paris, smuggled, perhaps, in a cargo ship, where they received a full Catholic education and also enjoyed a sophisticated life in French society. But there they also saw the plight of the poor, as a memoir records. Very early one morning she and her sister Ann were returning from a ball. They saw from their cab window a group of poor people huddled outside a church door waiting for the door to be opened for Mass. This scene made a lasting impression on Nano and definitely influenced her life for the future.
After their father's death, she and her sister returned to Ireland and went to live with their mother in Dublin, where they also found widespread poverty. When Nano discovered that her sister Ann had given away a valuable piece of silk to relieve a distressed family, it set her thinking about how she herself might serve the poor. Nano and Ann served the poor with great devotion, love and compassion. Then Ann fell very ill and Nano was grief stricken but Nano still continued serving the poor and spent the rest of her time with Ann who was confined to bed. As the days passed Nano realized that Ann would not survive this illness. She found it hard to be reconciled to the hard truth that Ann was dying, it was her mother's strong fortitude that enabled her to face the mystery of suffering life and death. Ann died as serenely as she had lived. This was the turning point in Nano's life but it required her to make that difficult wrench with her family. She thought that the best way to overcome these problems was to become a nun in a convent in France and pray for the poor people struggling in Ireland. Yet,even after joining the convent she didn't have peace of mind and she was advised to return to Ireland and take up the education of the deprived children there.
She returned to Cork where her brother Joseph lived and opened a few small schools in rented mud cabins in defiance of the Penal Laws and in complete secrecy even from her brother. Her brother was very angry with her at first when he came to know about it, because of the risks involved but later reconciled and gave her his full support and financial help. True to her own religious education the main aim of these schools was to provide a sound religious education as well as a general education in the basic forms of reading, writing and arithmetic as well as needle work, lace making and other skills. To put her schools on a more professional level she decided to bring the Ursuline sisters from France to teach in these school. Unfortunately the experiment was not a success for Nano and this led to her setting up her own congregation of religious sisters called Presentation Sisters in 1775 devoted especially to the education of the poor. The main problem which confronted Nano was to find ladies who would join her in this difficult and risky endeavour but she trusted God as she always said "the Almighty is all sufficient". Three good ladies came forward to join her and gradually others picked up the courage to join. It was difficult as there was a price on their head. Within 20 years Nano opened seven schools in Cork along with caring for the sick, aged, relieving poverty and suffering.
Nano had a broad vision which had a missionary dimension and that is why she said "If I could be of service in saving and helping souls in any part of the globe, I would gladly do all in my power. "Worn out by her labours for her beloved people Nano Nagle died on 26th April 1784 surrounded by her sisters. And so the Presentation Sisters spread their wings to every continent in the world engaging themselves in education especially the poor and under privileged.
The first group of Presentation Sisters came to Georgetown, Madras in 1842 from Ireland to educate the poor and needy children and then spread to the north in 1895. The dream of Nano has been realized – this valiant woman laid the foundation of an education system alone and undaunted by the threats of the Penal Laws because the fire of love was burning in her heart. The lantern which Nano carried to light her way in the dark evenings as she returned home is a symbol of the fire that burns in the heart of every Presentation Sister spreading God's light and love, dispelling the darkness of ignorance and filling people with hope.