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Bishop Denis’ Homily at the 185th Anniversary of St Leo’s College, Carlow

185th Anniversary of St. Leo’s College, Carlow:                                       30.04.24

St. Leo’s Convent Chapel @ 10am


It doesn’t seem like five years ago since we gathered here to mark the 180th. What a great joy it is to gather together with the family that is St. Leo’s this morning on the eve of May 1st, to mark the 185th Anniversary of St. Leo’s College.

I welcome Mgr. Brendan and Fr. Yanbo to concelebrate with me this Mass honouring the 185th Anniversary of St. Leo’s College. Apologies from Fr. Conn who is unable to be here because of a prior commitment but sends his best wishes.

I welcome the Sisters of Mercy, to this their own Convent Chapel. I welcome Niamh & the Staff & the students of St. Leo’s, some of whom form our choir this day. I welcome former Principals Sr. Kathleen Kennedy and Clare Ryan, former members of staff, the Chair of the Board of Management Margaret Farrell and friends of St. Leo’s as we acknowledge the story that is St. Leo’s. You are all very welcome.

The Acts of the Apostles paints a picture that the spreading of the gospel then was as much dependent on courage as on compassion. In others words mercy isn’t enough. That great line tucked into the reading tells us on their return to where they had been expelled from, Paul and Barnabas “put fresh heart into the disciples[1].

John’s gospel speaks of peace, “a peace the world cannot give, this is my gift to you[2]. We long for that peace, that sense of allowing our troubles to be short-lived and our fears subside, and so we pray …

  • Is tusa Tobar na Trócaire – you are the wellspring of mercy: A Thiarna, déan trócaire. 
  • Is tusa Slí na Fírinne – you are the way of truth:  A Chríost, déan trócaire. 
  • Bí linn i gconaí, ós ár gcomhair amach – be with us always, showing us the way. A Thiarna, déan trócaire. 


Canon Sydney Alfred MacEwan, the Scottish tenor, was born on October 19th, 1908. It was while attending university that his vocal talents were first spotted. It is customary that his composition ‘Queen of the May’ is played on RTÉ Radio on May 1st every year; a tradition begun by the late Gay Byrne. Had our celebration been tomorrow, I have no doubt ‘Queen of the May’ would have featured.

Bring flow’rs of the fairest,
Bring flow’rs of the rarest,
From garden and woodland
And hillside and vale;
Our full hearts are swelling,
Our Glad voices telling
The praise of the loveliest
Rose of the vale.

O Mary! we crown thee with blossoms today,
Queen of the Angels, Queen of the May,
O Mary! we crown thee with blossoms today,
Queen of the Angels, Queen of the May.

For the past eleven years I have passed by St. Leo’s College probably every day. I have celebrated more Masses here in the Convent Chapel than anywhere else in the diocese, including the Cathedral. Each stained glass window; every seat; all the altar furniture, even the vestments I wear have their own story.

There are additions over time, like St Roch for prayerful intercession during the recent pandemic; I still pray the prayer every morning, because although we may be through the worst of it, we still need his protection. Indeed we need the protection of all the Saints, Blessed’s and Venerable’s and those gone before us leaving footprints on the sands of time. 

Our voices ascending,
In harmony blending,
Oh! Thus may our hearts turn
Dear Mother, to thee;
Oh! Thus shall we prove thee
How truly we love thee,
How dark without Mary
Life’s journey would be.

O Mary! we crown thee with blossoms today,
Queen of the Angels, Queen of the May,
O Mary! we crown thee with blossoms today,
Queen of the Angels, Queen of the May.

185 years is an unusual celebration. In some ways it’s neither one thing or another, yet it’s extremely significant. Anniversaries that fall mid-decade are harder to pin down. I remember my parents 40th, their Ruby, and indeed their 50th, their Golden, but I haven’t the foggiest idea what we did for their 45th! Dates and years are important.

Let’s for a moment look to 1839. The Index at the beginning of the Mercy Annals still faithfully kept here in St. Leo’s Convent describes this historic moment we are remembering today with three simple words: “Pension School opened”. That note is sandwiched between a reception and blessing in the Convent Chapel by the newly appointed Bishop of Kildare & Leighlin, Francis Haly, the Visit of their Foundress, Catherine McAuley. There is some mention of the Postulants uniform with particular mention of a Sr. Kate’s first experience of a recreation day in a Convent. Kate is now alongside Venerable Catherine and St. Roch in eternity.

On the 1st May 1839 the Pension School was opened. In the planning and building of St. Leo’s Convent from 1837-1839 a school was included. It consisted of a spacious room with four big windows on either side. Underneath each window were shelves for books and other school requisites. Mother Frances Ward, Mother Cecilia Maher and the Cullen sisters were the first teachers in the school before going on various foundations.

O Virgin most tender,
Our homage we render,
Thy love and protection,
Sweet Mother, to win;
In danger defend us,
In sorrow befriend us,
And shield our hearts
From contagion and sin.

 O Mary! we crown thee with blossoms today,
Queen of the Angels, Queen of the May,
O Mary! we crown thee with blossoms today,
Queen of the Angels, Queen of the May.

The Acts of the Apostles gives some flavour of what Paul and his companions had to deal with in their journey to evangelise. This morning’s reading speaks of the violence and outright opposition experienced in Antioch and Iconium. While Paul was stoned there, he would return to that place of the stoning, putting “fresh heart[3] into everyone he met. I have no doubt that visionary women like Catherine McAuley, Frances Warde, Cecilia Maher, Josephine Cullen and others met opposition but held fast. It is said that the Carlow foundation was the nearest one to Catherine’s heart, she loved Carlow. I mentioned earlier in time Frances Warde and others would leave from here for Pittsburg, as acknowledged in the plaque we unveiled in November 2018. Then Pittsburg was the other side of the world. Pittsburg in time became the St. Leo’s of Carlow as many more foundations were established from it right across the United States.

St. Leo’s College has a splendid tradition. Catherine McAuley travelled to France to study their education system. It began as a “Pension School”? Those who could afford it simply paid a small fee. The name no doubt came from the French, came from Catherine’s transposing of the French education system onto the land of the ‘Scallion Aters’.

Of Mothers the dearest,
Oh, wilt thou be nearest,
When life with temptation
Is darkly replete?
Forsake us, O never!
Our hearts be they ever
As Pure as the lilies
We lay at thy feet.

O Mary! we crown thee with blossoms today,
Queen of the Angels, Queen of the May,
O Mary! we crown thee with blossoms today,
Queen of the Angels, Queen of the May.

There are many memorable quotes attributed to Catherine McAuley. We are told she preferred to build bridges rather than erect barricades. John’s gospel reminds us of the peace only the Lord offers. A peace that is often so shockingly absent in a broken world torn asunder from Gaza to Kharkiv, from Aleppo to Port-au-Prince and much more locally from Newtownmountkennedy to Dublin Street. The makeshift night camps we saw erected down below on the corner of Dublin Street, facing the Courthouse, as refugees made their way to a new home, not to stay but for respite, was nothing short of appalling.

In this Mass we are remembering 185 years ago. It’s hard for any of us to put ourselves there. This was the decade after Catholic Emancipation. Catholics began to take their rightful place in public, professional, business and educational life. Catherine came on the scene at the right time, realising education was the only route of advancement for young ladies. That tradition continued in many different facets over the intervening years. So many schools owe their bloodline to St. Leo’s – St. Joseph’s Boys’ School on the Station Road, later renamed St. Catherine’s and Holy Family Girls’ National School in Askea.

As I say, it’s hard for any of us to honestly put ourselves into the shoes of Catherine, Frances, Cecilia and others who founded St. Leo’s and first taught here, but as the priest said who was replacing me in Mullingar many years ago, when it was unfairly put to him, “you have hard shoes to fill”. He responded “I’ll wear my own”. He was right and we must do the same, how is our education system today helping us form bridgebuilders, peacemakers, not far right, not far left, but young ladies with a passion for justice, for rights and for truth, all centred on the gospel? This is the way we will truly mark the 185th and prepare for the 190th as we journey towards the bicentenary of St. Leo’s College in 2039.  

O Mary! we crown thee with blossoms today,
Queen of the Angels, Queen of the May,
O Mary! we crown thee with blossoms today,
Queen of the Angels, Queen of the May.

[1] Ac.14:22

[2] Jn.14:27

[3] ibid