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Jeanne Mathilde died on Monday, August 8th, in Adelaide, Australia after a long struggle with cancer. She was one of three Little Sisters of Jesus who came Ireland late in 1972, at the invitation of Archbishop Dermot Ryan, and chose the Travellers’ Settlement at Labre Park, Ballyfermot, Dublin as their Irish home. A remarkable woman from the French Basque country, she had a significant influence on my life.
I first visited the central house of the Little Sisters of Jesus at Tre Fontane, Rome, in February 1972. The energy, the joy, the peace, the inwardness of those living there – the leaders and the young women of different races from Europe, Africa, Asia and America - were for me a new encounter with Charles de Foucauld who died alone at Tamenrasset, Southern Algiers on Dec. 1st 1916. They were his followers, the younger ones training to live as Little Sisters of Jesus among the world’s poor wherever they were sent.
During my student days in the Redemptorist seminary we had read Rene Bazin’s biography of Charles at meal time. However his single-minded search for a life like Jesus at Nazareth made no impact on me then. But at Tre Fontane in February 1972 the message of Charles’ life unfolded for me. Here was Nazareth, the Gospel lived in joyful abandonment to God and in a spirit of universal fraternity.
True to their vocation Labre Park became Nazareth for Jeanne Mathidle and her two companions. Their home was a caravan and a tigeen. The caravan was living room and bedroom. The tigeen served as bedroom and chapel. My friend Fr Peter Lemass and I took turns in celebrating Mass in the tigeen for them and their traveller neighbours. Curious children would sit on the floor gazing on all that was happening.
Jeanne Mathilde was leader of the group. She was enterprising, intelligent, down to earth, caring, radiant with love of God and neighbour. She was always able to spread delight around her. Two elderly travellers, Paddy Flynn and his wife Nan, became close friends of the Little Sisters. Paddy would sit in their tigeen when the screened off corner was opened up to reveal the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle. He once told me “I can sit there for ages and even forget my pipe”. He would talk about the mysteries and inequalities of life and invariably conclude “God will sort it all out in the end and he wont be far wrong!”
On the afternoon of June 29th 1974 Jeanne Mathilde hosted an information meeting in the tigeen to introduce the Jesus Caritas Fraternity of Priests to Ireland. Present at it were Don Stoker and Charles Walker from the Fraternity of Priests in England, a few Irish priests whose names I’ve forgotten, Peter Lemass and myself. We began with a time of silent adoration. Then Charles and Don told their Fraternity story.
I don’t remember what Charles said but Don’s story changed my life. He told us how being part of the Fraternity had enabled him to be faithful to a daily hour of adoration all his 14 years in the priesthood. He and I were ordained in 1960. At the meeting I said that I could not see myself managing an hour of adoration every day. How in a busy schedule would I get the time?
When all was over Peter Lemass gave me a lift home. We talked about the challenge of the daily hour of adoration. In the end I said to Peter “What are you going to do?” He replied “I’m going to try”. I said “Well, if you try, I’ll try”. That simple shared commitment was the beginning of the Jesus Caritas Fraternity of Priests in Ireland.
The Fraternity has spread in the intervening years, one priest telling another and sharing the challenge and the grace. It has blessed the lives of many priests. It now exists quietly in most Irish dioceses. Peter Lemass was the first leader of the Fraternity in Ireland. He became to me a great and blessed friend until his death from a brain tumour on January 22nd 1988.
Jeanne Mathilde lived among the travellers in Labre Park till 1977. Then the leadership of the Little Sisters of Jesus asked her to go to Melbourne, Australia, where she spent the rest of her days. During two journeys home to her Basque country she visited Ireland and came to see me in Clonard Monastery. Her friendship has blessed my life down the years. May she have eternal rest with God.
To-day the Little Sisters of Jesus in Ireland are at 18 Donard View, Bishopscourt, Downpatrick, Co. Down, BT30 7BN. Tel. 028.44841085.
The present leader of the Jesus Caritas Fraternity of Priests in Ireland is
Fr Joe Deegan, Parochial House, Slane, Co. Meath. Tel. 086.3853045.
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