Sisters Seek Funds for Legendary Kylemore Abbey

By Gerry Regan / The (New) Wild Geese

New York -- Nuns from the Irish Benedictines, who count themselves as cloistered nuns who "are focused on staying  at home and living in our community rather than focused on things outside," made several stops to Irish enclaves on the East Coast to gain support for their order’s efforts to refurbish, and reinvent, Galway's venerable Kylemore Abbey.

The abbey is a stunningly beautiful landmark in the heart of Connemara. Kylemore was abandoned by its first owner due to the tragic loss of a wife and child.  This Abbey is also, incidentally, the home of a British battle standard captured by the original Wild Geese, in 1706. [Read more about the mysterious flag on WG.]

Sister Maire Hickey, the Abbess of the centuries-old community, along with former Abbess Sister Magdelena FitzGibbon, met with 65 potential supporters at American Irish Historical Society in January. Six days earlier Hickey spoke at the Nollaig na mBan Breakfast of the Irish-American Partnership, in Washington, D.C.’s Hay-Adams-Hotel . The Sisters highlighted the need for funds to secure the future of Kylemore, their community’s home for the past 92 years.

On Jan. 16, the eve of their return to Kylemore, Hickey and FitzGibbon sat for an interview with The Wild Geese. The meeting took place in the 112-year-old American-Irish Historical Society headquarters in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, in the society’s Beaux Art townhouse. Sitting in was Mary Reed, who is coordinating the fundraising component focused on the Irish community in metro New York.

Kylemore Castle was created in 1874 by millionaire Mitchell Henry and his wife, Margaret, alongside a river and hilltop, offering some of Ireland’s most scenic vistas. The Irish Benedictines rescued the estate from the ravages of time when the order acquired the site in 1920 from London-based banker Ernest Fawke, after it went into foreclosure. The nuns relocated from their former abbey in Ypres, Belgium, which had been destroyed in World War I.

Kylemore begins its metamorphosis

Some of the building was destroyed by fire in 1959, which lead to the construction of  a temporary residential area for the nuns. In the past decade, the roof on this area began to leak and in 2005 the majority of the community moved into a farmhouse on the grounds, after its 12 rooms were “moderately refurbished,” Hickey said. The more elderly from their ranks moved into a nearby residential facility as "they need more dry warm rooms than one can sustain out in Kylemore." In recent years, both Sisters said, two new women joined the community, one a German national, the other Irish, and so the space has become tight. There are currently 15 nuns in the Benedictine community at Kylemore.

In 2009, the community created Kylemore Trust, with community members as trustees, to better secure the future of the Abbey and the community in the face of the school's closure and dramatic changes in Irish society. The nonprofit Trust is the recipient of all donated funds.

(Left: Left to right - Kylemore Abbey Abbess Sister Maire Hickey, Director of Development-US Mary Reed and former Abbess Magdelena FitzgGibbon, in January, at American Irish Historical Society in Manhattan.)

The community has created a year-long, $1.1 million fund-raising goal for its New York supporters, with the funds helping defray the costs of its newly developed Education Centre and transformation of the former school gym into the monastery’s church, replacing the current chapel, created in the mansion’s former ballroom. The money is also to fund maintenance of the Victorian Garden and reconfigure the former mansion that has served as Abbey’s main building. The Sisters noted that half the 72 rooms in the one-time mansion need restoration. The Sisters are hoping to raise $10 million by the year 2021.

Hickey explained that there were many monasteries throughout Europe operating with the same model as Kylemore, sharing their space with tourists and students alike. What is different about Kylemore is that there was no separation between the public view of the tourist attraction and the private world of the abbey.  She spoke of the other monasteries saying "they all say the most important thing to them would be living in their monastery, living their life of prayer, community and work according to the rule of Saint Benedict and taking visitors practicing hospitality." Hickey continued, "But the visitors area is separate, (while) the church is the place they meet. Kylemore wants to become that."

Epitomizing the evolving role of the Abbey and the community, in 2010, the order closed its 90-year-old Scoil Aine, known in English at Kylemore Abbey School. The boarding and day school at the Abbey drew girls from throughout Galway, and the world. Maintaining and updating the school became prohibitively expensive in light of dwindling enrollment and scarcity of religious to staff its faculty, there is only one teacher in the community at the moment.

The new monastery will be perhaps the most dramatic addition to the campus. “We would like to build for 20 nuns with guest rooms for eight community guests, in addition to the accommodation for about 30 guests in the (main house's) Education Centre,” Hickey stated in e-mail after her return to Ireland.  She said the cost could range between $4-6 million, “depending on how generous one can afford to be with space.”

In the ongoing first phase of development at Kylemore, the Sisters are creating from the mansion’s original 70 rooms 25 small en suite single or double bedrooms, for students plus a total of about 12 rooms for teaching, group work, dining, common room, library, concerts, and utilities. University students would benefit from credits from studying abroad. There would be space for further development in a second phase, if funding were available, Hickey noted.

Last summer, a group of 15 came from Azusa Pacific University, bringing their own teachers, to explore Irish culture, Irish life, and to gain insights from the Irish Benedictines as well. This summer 25 students and faculty will be coming from Notre Dame of Maryland University for a 12-day study experience, again creating their own program.

Gymnasium get new life as a church

The Sisters are looking for support, as well, from its school’s alumnae, who are creating its first alumnae association and planning a June reunion.  “The school was never a big school,” Hickey stated. “ It started in 1923 with 30 pupils, and finished in 2010 with 10.” She estimated that about 6,000 graduated from Scoil Aine.

The gymnasium, no longer needed for the girls, is in the process of being transformed into a church, at a cost of $400,000, where the Sisters, visitors, guests and local residents can worship together on Sundays, replacing the services now held in the castle’s former ballroom.

These days, as mentioned on the Sisters’ business card, Kylemore is focused on monastic life, education, retreats and hospitality. The campus includes a restaurant, a studio, and a shop, where Kylemore’s highly regarded pottery is made and sold. The abbey's association with pottery began in 1970 while one of the nuns trained to become a potter, it is still produced on site by one lone woman. The pottery, they noted, incorporates the color fuchsia, inspired by the color of so many of the abbey ground’s wildflowers.

The memorial chapel which Mitchell Henry dedicated to the memory of his wife Margaret has been restored, though it needs ongoing upkeep. It has been described by FitzGibbon as  "a cathedral in miniature, it's magnificent". The Victorian walled garden had also been restored during Fitzgibbon's time as Abbess.

FitzGibbon, a native of Fermoy, County Cork, has spent most of her adult life both as a Benedictine and at Kylemore. She served as the community’s abbess from 2001 to 2007, when Sister Hickey assumed the post. FitzGibbon was dragooned into teaching in Scoil Aine for a time, religion and commerce, but found spearheading capital improvements a stronger, more appealing suit. She coordinated the 1990s restoration of the chapel and the Abbey’s beautiful Victorian garden, which had fallen on hard times and once again required attention. 

Hickey, meanwhile, had spent relatively little time in Kylemore, though she's been a Benedictine for 40 years. “I’ve known of Kylemore all that time," the Clontarf native said, but was in Dinklager Abbey in Germany "for all but the past five years,” when she came to Kylemore.

Kylemore, said Hickey, is a “a jewel in the middle of Connemara, (which) people stumble on or people travel to visit, but often they would go away not be aware that there is a monastery there, a church there. ... Let Kylemore become a place (that) people recognize as a monastery, with a beauty spot wrapped around it."

 “In order to maintain the abbey and grounds and hospitality we need help from other sources,” said Hickey.

For information on the fundraising effort here in the United States, contact Mary Reed, Director of Development for Kylemore Abbey, US Campaign at reedmary44@yahoo.com, or via phone, at 914-420-3517.

Donations can be made payable to Irish American Partnership, a 201c3 corporation and transferred to Kylemore Trust, according to Reed, providing U.S.-based donors a possible charitable tax deduction. WG

What Kylemore Has To Offer

Among the varied activities available to visitors to Kylemore Abbey is a walk through the restored rooms of the former castle, a visit to the Gothic church built in 1876 by widower Mitchell Henry as a memorial to his wife, and a stroll through the estate’s Woodland and Lakeshore Walks, Nature and Tree Trails, Children’s Play Trail, as well as the 6-acre Victorian Walled Garden built by Henry and restored by the Sisters. The restaurant, in one of the estate’s coach houses, and tea house at Kylemore offers traditional homemade food and the Craft & Design Shop has a collection of some of the best Irish crafts and gifts, including highly regarded Kylemore pottery.

 A Brief History of Kylemore Abbey

Kylemore Abbey was completed after four years of construction in 1871, and christened Kylemore Castle, by English millionaire Mitchell Henry as a gift for his wife, Margaret, above a lake on Kylemore Hill. They came upon the property during their honeymoon in the 1850s. Both Henry’s mother and his wife, incidentally, were Irish, both natives of County Down.

The name, Kylemore derives from the Irish phrase  "An Choill Mhór," meaning Big Woodland. Henry became an MP representing Galway, and was a member of Parnell’s Irish Parliamentary Party. His wife died in 1874 on a vacation in Egypt, age 45, followed quickly by the death of one of their nine children. After which the family spent less and less time in Kylemore.

Henry’s stewardship was followed by that of the Duke of Manchester and his American-born wife in 1903. The estate was heavily mortgaged, and after the death of the Duchess’ wealthy father, Eugene Zimmerman, it came into the hands of London banker Ernest Fawke .

(Below: The ruins of the Irish Benedictines' abbey in Ypres, Belgium)

The Irish Benedictines came to Kylemore in 1920, six years after they were driven from their nearly 240-year-old home in Ypres, Belgium, in the early months of World War 1. They found refuge in England, ironically, since they had been driven from Ireland during the anti-Catholic persecutions of Elizabeth I. The order crossed the Irish Sea to Wexford in 1916 and purchased Kylemore Castle and its surrounding 10,000 acres in 1920.

Three years later the nuns aunched Scoil Aine, St. Anne’s School, a boarding school for girls, continuing their tradition of educating children until 2010. WG

Cloistered Nuns and Religious Sisters

While the term Nun and Sister are in many ways interchangeable, there are distinct differences between a Cloistered Nun and a Religious Sister. The Cloistered Nun takes a solemn vow to renounce all property, and each commits to daily rituals of prayer and contemplation within  a closed community. On the other hand, a Religious Sister takes a simple vow retaining her right to property and lives an active life outside the monastery of prayer and service, often volunteering to serve the sick, poor and uneducated.

The Cloistered Nun would adhere to the strict dress code of the habit and tunic, which is tied at the waist using a leather or cloth belt, often with scapular worn over top. The Benedictine Abbess will often wear a large cross in the center of her chest. The Religious Sister would have more freedom in her attire, though still restricted by a certain, less rigid, uniform. 

The Benedictine Nuns at Kylemore Abbey count themselves as a cloistered community. Although they have visitors to their monastery, they rarely take time away from it themselves, preferring a life of prayer, contemplation, community and  work according to the rules of St. Benedict. WG

Related Resources:

Kylemore Trust on MyCharity.ie

Irish Brigade of France at Ramillies

Kylemore Abbey’s Official Website

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Tags: Benedictine, Connemara, County, Down, Faith, Galway, Irish Brigade, Irish Parliamentary Party, Kylemore, Parnell, More…Ramillies

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