The Sisters Who Came to Stay

In a copper-mining town, Irish nuns teach kids who are Hispanic, Apache and white. Welcome to Arizona.

Sister Consilio O'Keeffe's second-grade class is staging a patriotic play for Presidents Day.

Mistress Betsy Ross, dressed in a fluffy 18th-century cap, is giving a lesson in the fine art of sewing.

"You never will be able to make clothes unless you make something small first," Ross admonishes, piping up loudly in her 7-year-old voice.

Her sewing circle is interrupted by the arrival of Gen. George Washington and his men, all of them in cardboard tri-cornered hats.

"Mistress Ross, our country needs its flag," the pint-sized father of his country bellows. "We need one flag so everyone will know it's a new country."

A new country, indeed, in ways the 18th-century Virginia planter probably never imagined.

The kids in this play are Hispanic, Apache and white; their Catholic school is in the isolated mining town of Globe, Ariz.; and their teacher is a red-haired nun from Ireland.

Twin bulletin boards on both sides of her blackboard coincidentally map out Sister Consilio's personal geography. The one at left, green with yellow letters, pictures the Arizona flag and lists notable facts about the state where she's lived for 12 years. The gold one on the right celebrates Ireland, complete with a map and cheery pictures of shamrocks, leprechauns and St. Patrick.

"I didn't put up the (Irish) bulletin board!" Sister Consilio protests after the play has ended and the children have departed with their proud parents. "A friend did it. I'll tell the children about St. Patrick's Day in a few weeks," closer to March 17. "The Irish don't celebrate it half so much as Americans."

And unlike Irish-Americans, obsessed with their roots, "We're hopeless with family history. I couldn't go past my great-grandparents."

Sister Consilio is not the only Irish nun in the Globe convent. Cork-born Sister Agnes Walsh has lived there almost as long. But it's the third sister, Anne McCormack, an Irish-American out of Iowa, who's the real thing, Sister Consilio insists.

"Sister Anne is more Irish than we are."

Still, Sister Consilio, 70, speaks with the Irish lilt of her native County Clare, the western seaside county famed for its traditional music. Her skin is whiter than white; her eyes are the palest of blues, and her hair is red, though it's softened over the years to strawberry blonde. She's one of the last in a long line of Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary to travel from green Ireland to teach the children of copper miners in hardscrabble Globe.

"I love Globe," she tells me. "I like the country feel of it. I get up and look up at the mountains. I walk along a dirt road, and I feel I'm in Ireland."

Globe got its name way back around 1875, when, legend has it, a miner "found a lump of silver in the ground," Sister Consilio says.

For all that, it's copper that made the town. Even if you squint and imagine you're looking with Sister Consilio's Irish eyes, it's hard to see Ireland's green in the rusty ridges that hem the town, west of the sprawling San Carlos Apache Reservation. There's copper in them thar hills, and copper is suddenly booming again.

"They're reopening the mine," Sister Consilio says. Phelps Dodge shut the local open-pit mine a decade ago, putting large numbers of locals out of work, but the company that recently acquired Phelps Dodge, Freeport-McMoRan, has announced plans to revive it. "China is begging for copper."

For the last 52 years, through cycles of copper boom and bust, the Irish Presentation Sisters have been teaching Globe's children at Holy Angels School. The town is situated precariously on a series of hills, and the school is at the tippy-top of a nearly vertical street called Cedar. Modest bungalow houses cling to the slopes, looking like they could tumble over any minute. On the flatlands at the bottom, along the river, the historic downtown stretches out along Broad Street.

It was down here, at Holy Angels Church, in 1956 that a pair of Irish priests hatched a plan to lure some of their countrywomen to Globe. Now on the National Register of Historic Places, their stout Romanesque church has stone angels gracing its façade. But the priests needed angels of the flesh-and-blood variety, preferably Hibernian.

"Irish priests out in America wanted (Irish) nuns to run their schools," says Sister Consilio. "They came back to Ireland looking: Would we come out to the mission and teach? The convents listened."

Catholic Ireland in those years was producing priests to spare, and its black-robed sons were arriving by the hundreds to minister in the "mission" territories of the American South and Southwest. In the late 1950s, Irish priests galore served in the Diocese of Tucson, which stretches more than 100 miles north to take in the mining town.

When the Irish-American pastor of Holy Angels, the Rev. James McFadden, learned that his assistant, the Rev. Patrick Callanan, a Cork man, was planning to go back to the Old Sod for a vacation, he gave him a job to do.

"See if you can interest some nuns in starting a school in Globe," said Father McFadden to Father Callanan, as a fanciful 1961 story in The Arizona Republic tells the tale.

So Father Callanan dutifully called on the Presentation Sisters at Crosshaven, a picturesque fishing village on a harbor, just south of the city of Cork in Southwest Ireland. The sisters already had a connection, of sorts, to America: Crosshaven has views across the water to Cobh, the port town from which so many desperate Irish immigrants had sailed to escape the Great Famine more than 100 years before.

Callanan must have deployed his gift of gab, because "nearly all eligible nuns volunteered," the Republic reported, and four were chosen.

"This worldly old copper camp, that had seen so much in 80 years, had never set eyes upon a curiosity to equal the black procession upon the streets Sept. 2, 1956. They were nuns, Globe's first. They had come to stay."

Sister Agnes Walsh is outside in the bright February sun, tending to her cactus garden outside the convent's front door.

"It's one of my hobbies," she says, looking over the agave and the yellow-blooming cholla. "A big fella helped me drag the stones in. I didn't have to buy anything. People gave it to me."

The native of rural Ireland, where the soil is moist and the grass impossibly green, has adapted admirably to dusty Globe. Sister Agnes isn't telling, but her splendid cactus garden won a prize from the local Manzanita Club. Her cacti have grown and multiplied, and sunk down deep roots.

Unlike Sister Consilio--who still wears a modified veil, at least when she's on duty--Sister Agnes has given up the habit. She's comfortably dressed in a loose blue sweater and pants, and her curly white hair, once auburn, is aglow in the sunlight.

She liked the habit when she first entered the convent, she says.

"I thought I was the bees' knees. But not when you have perspiration running down your forehead. It does distinguish you and command respect, but you should treat everyone with respect. That's basic to Christianity."

Sister Agnes, 83, was born Margaret Mary Walsh in North Cork, some distance east of the Ring of Kerry so popular with American tourists.

"It would be on the Limerick border," she explains, after heading back inside to the school office.

I've come up the winding road to Globe to record the life stories of the last of the Irish nuns in the Tucson Diocese, and she's nervous and a little puzzled by my interest. She calls good-naturedly to the school secretary, Karla Pitterle, to sit by her.

"Give me moral support in my old age," she says, flashing her beguiling smile. With Karla at her side, she begins again.

"I was born into a family of 11 children"--10 daughters and one son, Séan. "I was the seventh."

Her parents, Bridget and Daniel Walsh, were schoolteachers, her mother running the girls' school in the village, her father the boys'. Like most primary schools in the Irish Republic, they were free "national schools," open to the public but under the supervision of the Catholic Church.

"We had no farm, just a house, in a little village. My father built it next to my grandfather's house."

The old Irish name for the place, she says, was Cnoc an Teampall, Hill of the Church. The roof was slate, a step up from thatch. When I ask if the Walshes had electricity, Sister Agnes breaks into peals of laughter.

"Sure, no electricity, not at all," she chortles, delighted by my American ignorance. "And no plumbing. We had to fetch water at the well, a quarter-mile up the road. We used to take a bath in the river. We used to like it. My older sister Kathleen was in charge of washing us."

Madge, as her family called her, learned Irish from an early age.

"Do I have Irish?" she asks incredulously. "I could speak it all day." She gives a sample: When the Irish say hello, it's Dia is Maire duit. God and Mary be with you.

"Religion permeated our language," she adds. "But the English took our language. Cromwell hunted the Irish out of their land. You got nothing if you didn't speak English--like the illegal immigrants here."

Nevertheless, Daniel Walsh made sure his children spoke the old language. "My father, God rest him, he'd pint to the lamp and say lampa," she says, giving an Irish pronunciation to "point." "I had (Irish) words before I went to school."

All 11 in the Walsh clan went to high school, though in the 1930s, that meant being packed off to a boarding school in a distant town.

"Our parents did their best to educate us. It wasn't like it is now, in a bus and off you go. They weren't rich by the time they got us educated and clothed, and teachers' salaries were poor. Every one of us went to boarding school. But you missed a lot of your home life. You went in September and didn't come home until Christmas."

Madge studied with the Presentation nuns in faraway County Laois, in the middle of Ireland. And after high school, she joined the Presentation sisters in Wexford, a coastal town on the Irish Sea, midway between Dublin and Cork.

"I entered in October 1942. I felt the Holy Spirit was calling me--I did feel it. I was 18. My father, God rest him, didn't care much for it. My mother was happy about it, but lonely. She said, 'Why can't you be someplace nearer home?'"

In those distant days, long before Vatican II, once a young woman joined the convent, she was barred from visiting her home.

"You didn't come at all!" Sister Agnes exclaims, sighing at the memory. "I remember my father distinctly saying, 'Madge, if you're not happy, write and tell me. We'll go for you.'

"My mother was lonely, but she said, 'You've made up your mind. Stick with it.' At that time, if you left, it was bad. Same with the priests." In the intensely religious Ireland of those years, "If you left, you were looked on as a black sheep.

"I'll give you a laugh. My oldest sister, Kathleen, visited me in Wexford and brought her little boy. We were very regimented then. We all walked out of the chapel in procession, and the child said, 'Ooh, look at all the Auntie Madges.' We were in identical dresses."

The rules for nuns have relaxed dramatically since those days. Not only are they free to wear what they choose; they can and do visit their families at will. Sisters Agnes and Consilio both go back to Ireland regularly.

"I can enjoy the present," Sister Agnes says, happily.

And luckily for her parents, only one other daughter joined the convent, the youngest, Bernadette, a Presentation nun still in Ireland, in Galway. The lone son, Séan, "was telling my mother he was going to be a priest, but he forgot about that. He married and had seven children." The other siblings produced so many children that "I gave up counting my nieces and nephews."

Sister Agnes taught primary school for some 40 years in Wexford and became eligible for a government early-retirement program at the age of 63 or 64. Her superior asked whether she'd like to take it.

"I would," she replied, "but not to sit in the car."

Which is how she got to the United States. The Presentation order had a solitary sister in a remote part of Alabama, living in a trailer and serving a desperately poor black population. The local priest, Father Kelly, an Irishman from Dublin, "was saying all the time to Reverend Mother" that he needed another Irish nun to join her.

"Alabama was the last place on my mind," Sister Agnes says. "I went in August 1988. Well, yes, I was sad about leaving Ireland. I was to go for one year. I'm here still."

She traveled to America for the first time, moved into the trailer and was shocked at the conditions in tiny Vredenburgh. The ramshackle settlement reminded her of a Tinkers' "itinerant settlement in Ireland--shacks in the country."

At one time, a German factory employed the people to mill the local timber, and did at least rudimentary maintenance on the shacks. But when the mill shut down, and the company left, conditions "went from bad to worse. It was not very far removed from slavery."

Sister Agnes enjoyed the semi-tropical weather. Unlike Globe, southern Alabama got "plenty of rain. It was nice. Not the extreme heat like here."

But she had trouble understanding the Deep South accents, and the families likewise had trouble tuning in her Irish brogue. Somehow, though, both sides adapted. She worked with the mothers, teaching sewing and cooking, and one year stretched into eight: "You just stayed. That was it."

In 1996, the nuns were pulled out by the order, and Sister Agnes was sent to Holy Angels in Globe.

After the trailer, "It was nice living in a house!" she exclaims. And the three other sisters there then were all Irish: Sister Leonie Bracken, Sister Consilio and Sister Uma. Sister Leonie even spoke Irish. "If we didn't want someone understanding us, we'd speak Irish together."

And Sister Leonie, now stationed in Phoenix, knew all the old Irish tunes.

"Sister Leonie was a great singer. She would lead the singing here."

Sister Agnes pokes fun at her own distinctly un-Irish singing voice. Like her father, she's a "crow" who can't sing. On a visit back home, she ran into a former pupil of her mother's, now grown old.

"My mother, God rest her, had taught her. She said, 'Your mother was a beautiful singer. Will you sing a song for me?' I did my best, cleared my throat and began." The woman listened in horror, and jumped in quickly to stop her with an insult: "You're not a patch of your mother!"

At Holy Angels, Sister Agnes--in her 70s when she arrived--wasn't assigned a classroom of her own. But she's carved out multiple tasks for herself. She tutors, teaches religion to Catholic kindergartners who go to public school and takes communion to the parish's shut-ins.

And she gave herself the assignment of visiting men in a nearby prison. She resisted at first, when one of the priests asked for volunteers.

"I was fighting against it. Then I told him I'd go."

Now, at 83, she still drives herself to the prison once a week, to give communion to the prisoners and to lead them in prayer.

"There are some very nice men there; some of them got caught up in drugs and whatnot. I don't ask them. One poor fella is 70--he finds it hard enough.

"I'm never scared. There's always an escort. The men look forward to it. Every day there is the same."

Last Christmas, Margaret Mary Walsh got her U.S. citizenship, passing the test with "full marks."

"People were joking, 'She's afraid she'll be deported,'" Sister Agnes remembers.

She doesn't really expect to return to Ireland to live. Her parents are dead, and so are four of her siblings. As for the rest, "We're an aging family," she notes without complaint. And, anyway, she has work to do here.

She gets up and heads for her car. A parishioner who's ill at home down the hill is expecting communion from Sister Agnes.

"This is home now," she says.

A bittersweet longing for home permeates the conversations of both of Globe's Irish nuns, but they're no-nonsense about the duties they feel called to do.

"Our foundress wants us with the poor," Sister Consilio says.

Nor are they limited to serving Catholics. As Sister Agnes puts it, "We have all nationalities (and religions). It brings in a breath of fresh air. We've had Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus."

The nuns' commitment to teaching the impoverished--and to social justice--has roots deep in Irish history. Honora Nagle, always called Nano, founded the order during the dark old days of the English persecution. She was born into a wealthy Catholic family in Cork in 1718, but with the punitive English Penal Laws forbidding Catholic education, she was forced to travel abroad to study. One night in Paris, the story goes, when she was returning from the theater, she was so struck by the sight of the poor waiting to attend Mass that she resolved to devote her life to them.

Returning to Ireland, Nagle started a school in the 1750s for poor Catholic children, an act of defiance that made her a criminal in English eyes--and won her a popular vote in 2005 as "Ireland's Greatest Woman." She joined one order of nuns, only to find its rules too restrictive for the work she wanted to do, and started her own, the Presentation Sisters, in 1775. Before she died in 1784, she and her nuns established many schools.

Operating on the wrong side of English law, she is said to have run the schools surreptitiously, slipping through town to gather the children from their homes, much as the famous "hedge schools" were conducted on the sly in the Irish countryside, in hiding from the British authorities.

Early on, some Presentation sisters traveled to minister to the mass of Irish immigrants who poured into the United States after the Great Famine; one group landed in San Francisco as early as 1854. Though the number of religious vocations has declined, as it has among nearly all orders of nuns, the Presentation Sisters still have convents around the world, from Pakistan to Papua New Guinea. Nagle summed up her vision in the death-bed admonition, "Look after the children, the children of the poor."

The nuns, on their Web site, have updated that "look after." Their goal now is to "empower the poor."

Sister Consilio has been doing just that, delivering a quality education to poor kids, for some 42 years in the United States. She spent 13 years in Alabama, 17 in California and the last 12 in Globe. She had never imagined that she'd spend most of her adulthood in America.

When she joined the Presentation sisters in the 1950s in Ireland's County Westmeath, her branch was "semi-enclosed," almost cloistered.

"I entered thinking I would never go out at all. There was no thought of going out to the missions."

Born Cecelia O'Keeffe into a farming family in County Clare, in the West of Ireland, overlooking the Atlantic, she was one of three daughters and three sons.

"It was a fairly big farm. We were comfortable."

Her two older sisters both became nuns, but young Cecelia had no intention of following them: "I had no notion of being a sister."

In high school, she was taught by nuns, and it was nuns who gave her a "marvelous training" at a teachers' college. The college was hard to get into--"my mother was on her knees for a year," praying that her daughter would be admitted--and strict.

"The nuns were so tough on us." The students would be allowed out on a Saturday. If they were a minute late for the 5 p.m. curfew, they'd be punished by losing the next Saturday out.

O'Keeffe was thrilled when she graduated. She got a teaching job, and she was dating, going to dances and planning eventually on marriage and children.

But she was troubled. More than one nun had told her she had a vocation. She tried to push the thought out of her head, and her parents were distraught at the thought of losing their third and last daughter. But after a fretful summer at home, she returned in the fall, marched in to the convent and said, "Would you have me as a nun?"

"God had me walking in that door," she declares.

Like Sister Agnes, she joyfully recounts the changes wrought by the Vatican II Council of the mid-'60s. For her first visit home once the rules changed, she was allowed just one day out, with orders to be back at the convent by 9 that night. But her family was two counties away: She had to travel from Westmeath through Galway to Clare, and back. To allow enough time, "my brother had to be there (at the convent) at 6 a.m.," she remembers. Still, the short visit was "marvelous. My parents were alive. We were young."

And her parents were comforted by an abundance of grandchildren: Each of her three brothers married, and each fathered four children.

She was teaching in Westmeath when some Irish priests from America came calling at her convent as well: "I was asked to come in 1966 to Birmingham."

Tough as her teacher training had been, the states didn't recognize the nuns' teaching credentials. Sister Consilio bolstered her credits in the summers, at Cullman College in Alabama. To her delight, in her classes, she met up with other Irish nuns in the same predicament. "I made great friends with the Irish Mercy sisters who were in Florida."

She goes back to Ireland every two years--not to Crosshaven, the convent that administers Holy Angels, but to her own motherhouse in Mullingar, County Westmeath.

In these days of the Celtic Tiger, though, when the old religion is waning in Ireland, the big old convent has been sold for offices. The nuns live in a modest townhouse on the grounds. Her family has changed, too: Her parents are dead, and her sisters aren't there.

"I have no sisters in Ireland. One is in South Africa, a Holy Rosary nun who's a doctor. The other is a (cloistered) Carmelite in Peru." Sister Consilio visited her sister's Peruvian cloister just once, but this summer, she's looking forward to going to Ireland and meeting up with her sister from Africa.

She still has her brothers, sisters-in-law and their multiple progeny at home. And even with all the years she's been gone, "In Ireland, it's the same as if you never left. Sometimes, I say, 'I'd rather not go home than face the loneliness going back'" to America.

She tallies up her blessings, though. She takes comfort in the sisters in her convent, and the "next nearest Irish. We have three sisters working in Phoenix."

Bishop Gerald Kicanas "loves us," she says, describing how the Tucson prelate came up in 2006 to celebrate the 50-year Golden Jubilee of the Presentation Sisters in Globe.

"I love the people here, the children. I have great friends here, great friends among the teachers." And as remote as Globe is, "I love every stick and stone of it."

It's late in the afternoon, and the mountains are casting shadows on those sticks and stones. Sister Agnes is mortified to discover that I've had no lunch, and she and Sister Anne McCormack whisk me into the convent for coffee and cookies before I go back down the twisty road to Tucson.

"That's not much Irish hospitality," Sister Agnes berates herself. Sister McCormack, as promised, regales me with so much Irish-American genealogy--all Ryans and Danahers and Sweeneys--that I hardly have a chance to put down my pen. Sister Agnes notices.

"You haven't had a drop," she admonishes.

And then it really is time to go. "The road to Tucson is dreary," as Sister Consilio has said.

"I don't mean to be hahnting you, Margaret," puts in Sister Agnes, giving an Irish spin to the word "haunting." "But you need to be getting on the road. Will you make it alive?"

Then they send me off with an Irish farewell. Safe home. slán abhaile.

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