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eithne breenSister Eithne Breen

1924 - 2019

Born: 25th April 1924

Entered Religious Life: 4th February 1946

Died: 20th February 2019


The following is the Welcome given at Sr Eithne’s funeral Mass by Sr Rita Dawson, Provincial Leader in the English/Scottish Province

On Behalf of the Congregation I would like to welcome all of you here today especially Eithne’s brother Paddy and her sister Maura. Also, to her nephew Arthur and nieces Stephanie, Deirdre and Anne. I would also like to welcome Sr Patricia Lenihan, who is here on behalf of the General Leadership Team. And to all who have travelled from Birkenhead, Scotland and Ireland to be here today.

Sr Eithne Breen was born in Rathmines to Mary and John Breen. She was one of 7 children; 5 boys and 2 girls. She has 17 nieces and nephews, many grand nieces and nephews and even great grand nieces and nephews!
Eithne was educated at St Louis School in Dublin, School Mhuire and also the Gregg College of Commerce. Before entering Eithne did a Shorthand and typing course, and then worked in a solicitor’s office.

Eithne’s sister Maura was 5 years younger, and did not want Eithne to enter. She was beginning to enjoy going dancing and the summer before she entered they had a dance in every house in the street. They went out dancing and enjoyed a great time together. However, on the final night there was a cross- road dance and Eithne danced all night at this.

Maura was full sure Eithne would have changed her mind after that, but Eithne had her mind on other things and set off for Milltown a week later. Maura was devastated.

Eithne entered when she was just 21 years old. Can you just imagine the changes Eithne has seen in the world over all those years? It is a very different one to the one she left in 1946 when she entered in terms of communicating with each other. They did not have mobile phones and iPads which makes it so much easier to keep in touch with our families. However, Eithne managed without all of the things we have today to keep a very strong bond with her own.

Before entering Eithne, when asked, said she would be happy to do any other work, but not teaching. This was well known – the very thing you did not wish to do was very often the one thing you were asked to do!!! It was a sort of blind obedience. At the time it was difficult to see and understand the reason behind it. Again nowadays much more time would be spent on discerning and helping with decision making.

Eithne started her Pastoral Ministry in Kilkenny in 1948 and after her profession she spent 10 years happily in convent life mostly doing house work until one day a Superior spotted her and said ‘Your mother was one of the best teachers in Dublin and we must send you off to train now.” So Eithne was sent to England to start her training as a teacher. According to those who knew her in those days they said she was a born teacher and she loved it.
She spent over 30 years in teaching at various houses including Sowerby Bridge, Hackney, Hammersmith, Basildon, Ollerton and Macclesfield.

In 1986, she moved to Witney as Local Leader where she stayed for 4 years working in Parish Ministry before moving on to Birkenhead and then ultimately to Hackney in February 1995 as a Community helper. In 2007, Eithne attended a reunion of St Joseph’s School (Boughton). Eithne was the only nun still living who taught at the school.

She was great friends with the late Sr John Fisher. They travelled regularly together. Eithne loved going home to Ireland and would spend a week with her brother Paddy in Donegal and then travel down to Kerry with her sister Maura and her nieces and nephews.

Eithne was a very private person but she had always loved going out for a meal. A few weeks ago, in fact it was the Sunday before she became ill for the last time, Eithne was invited to join the three members of staff who were on duty, in the staff room for a cup of tea. Eithne enjoyed the ‘Tea party’ saying it was her first time in the staff room, and she really enjoyed herself, eating and drinking more tea and cake than she had done in a long time. Her conversation was mostly about St Bernadette and her hard life. She had special devotion to this Saint.

Eithne has not been well for some time though I think she had quite a few scares during the last few years and when I and others visited her, the visits needed to be quite short due her breathlessness.
We know it is said in the Psalms (Psalm 90:10) that 70 is the sum of our years and 80 for those who are strong. However, I think this should be moved now to 90 for those who are strong as people are living much longer and with a better quality of life.

As Father said last night, getting old is not easy with all its frailties and frustrations. At times aging can be very challenging and difficult to accept. How many times do any one of us reflect on our own mortality? And how do we feel about it? We should reflect on how vulnerable we are and how quickly things can change for us and always try to be grateful for everything we have because we are truly Blessed.

Sr Eithne did find old age very difficult and she certainly gave the staff on the care floor a run for their money at times. But they were so very kind and patient, as they are with all of those in their care. And of course, it is well known that Religious, both Priests and Sisters, can be demanding and their expectations sometimes can be unreasonable. We are very fortunate as sisters because the Congregation looks after all of us so well especially in our illness.

And on this note, I would like to give a special thanks to Sr Helena and all the staff on the care floor who looked after Eithne so beautifully over a long period and also to Tony the CEO and the Palliative Care team (Hospice) who assisted Eithne in her recent illness.

Thanks to Sr Geraldine and Sr Patricia for accompanying Eithne in her final hours. What a privilege it is for us to be able to safely see one of our own Sisters through their final journey.

Thanks also to Fr Neil Hannigan for being with us here today.

We give thanks to Eithne for her dedication and commitment as a Sister of Charity over all those years.

Eithne’s life could be summed up in the following:
"Well done, good and faithful servant; you have shown you can be faithful in small things; I will trust you with greater; come and join in your Father’s happiness." Matthew 25-21
We can be assured this is where Sr Eithne is today.
May Eithne now Rest in Peace.

We are standing this morning on holy ground: the place where Mary Aikenhead spent the last years of her life as an invalid – a woman whose vision, courage and practical common-sense gave birth to our Congregation and to our long and graced history of service of the poor, the weak and the vulnerable.Today we are celebrating the life of Sr. Joseph Helen, a woman who cherished that charism, serving those in need with fidelity and generosity, and who also spent the last years of her life here in the Hospice.


The readings this morning are both comforting and challenging.In the Gospel Jesus speaks of himself as the Way, the Truth and the Life.He invites us to put our hope and our trust in Him and in His promise to be with us, steadily and constantly as we try each day to walk his way, to speak his truth, to live his life.It is an apt description of the life and commitment of the woman whom we are remembering here.


In her 103 years of life, Sr. Joseph Helen lived through historical and global changes that are impossible for us to imagine.She experienced seismic shifts in Church and state.She witnessed wars and famines on a world scale.Through all of those yearsshe remained steadfastly faithful to the constant core of who she was as an RSC.She was born Dorothy Cunningham in Ballacolla in Portlaoise on 1st July 1908. She was an only girl, with one brother, and was much loved by all.Her childhood and youth reflected the calm ordinariness of children’s lives at that time.Following her degree studies she spent some months caring for her mother who was ill and then secured a job teaching in Mountjoy St. School in Dublin.Her father was not impressed!His comment on hearing of that place was:“It doesn’t sound like much of a job but you like working for the poor and you’ve always been good at it”.She remained there until she entered the Sisters of Charity on 5th October 1931.


In the first reading we are told that God gives strength to the wearied; that those who hope in Yahweh will soar like eagles, run and no grow weary, walk and never tire.That was so true of J. Helen throughout her active life.She was missioned back to Mountjoy St. after her religious profession and taught there for 12 years.Following a year’s further study in Scotland, she went to teach in a Secondary Modern school inWalthamstow in England for a year.And then came the call to be one of our three founding Sisters of the Zambian Region, or Northern Rhodesia as it then was.


In 1948 they set sail, travelling for four weeks by boat – The Athlone Castle -rail, bus and lorry before arriving in Chisekesi Siding on a dark morning on 28th October 1948. Sr. Helen kept a diary of the journey which was printed for the 50th anniversary and which gives a fascinating insight into their journey and how they coped with, what was for them, such a strange and almost ‘alien’ environment.


One can only imagine the anticipation and anxiety, the challenge and the loneliness, the wonder and the doubts that marked that journey and her first months in Zambia.It was a place and people that she came to love and cherish.She committed herself to the education of girls and brought the gift of knowledge and freedom to countless women who still remember her with gratitude and appreciation.There are many past pupils with sad hearts in Zambia at the moment – their sadness at her passing tempered only by their gratitude that she is free from the debilities of her age.And that mourning is echoed this morning among our sisters there in the Region and here in this Chapel in the sisters who lived with her and shared her life for those 30 years.


Her first 15 years in Zambia were spent in the Teacher training college run by the Jesuits and began her work in promoting the education of girls – beginning with the setting up of a girls secondary boarding school in Roma in Lusaka.Nine years later she was appointed Regional Leader and on Independence day 1978she was conferred with the Order of Distinguished Service for 30 years of outstanding service to the people of Zambia in the fields of Education and Social work.


While she was a formidable woman in many ways, with high standards and expectations, her devotion to her religious life and her commitment to education was recognized and appreciated by all who knew her.She was a strict disciplinarian, spoke the truth without apology and demanded very high standards.At the same time her heart was compassionate and her generosity and hospitality were known and appreciated by all.


Like all of us, Helen has known suffering and joy, tears and laughter, pain and happiness, loneliness and friendship.And she had strong relationships with herfriends – too numerous to mention – but exemplified in the love and devotion of Sr. Mary Bernadette Collins and Catherine Fallon.Up to the end she valued and enjoyed her relationships with her nieces, nephews and other family members and followed their lives with interest, with love and with prayer.


In 1978 she was missioned to Ireland and worked on our Constitutions.Subsequently she was appointed as local leader to our community in Crumlin before her appointment to our Provincial Leadership team and consequent arrival here in Our Lady’s Mount in 1981.


Sr. J. Helen’s commitment to Mary Aikenhead's charism was single-minded and she never compromised on that.The second reading confirms her attitude to life:nothing outweighs the supreme advantage of knowing Christ Jesus. It is only through Him, with Him and in Him that we can find life and happiness and fulfilment.Rooted in that conviction, she endorsed and embraced anything that served the people for whom she cared in a better, more dignified or respectful way.


She suffered in her growing debility and weakness these last years and all of us – family, community, friends and colleagues - were saddened as we watched her suffering and her struggle to cope.In spite of the wonderful, caring staff who surrounded her and the sisters and friends who were her constant support,she had difficult and dispiriting days.Yet she never gave up .Her faith in Providence was the touchstone of her life.In the midst of all her pain and letting-go she was confident that he was with her, holding her, comforting her and in the end, calling her to himself.And when that call came, sheyielded her spirit to the Lord, peace-filled, calm and trusting - blest with a death that had no struggle, no pain, no fear.And perhaps I can end with some words of hers, written in the diary of which I spoke, on her arrival in Chikuni:“Now that we have reached our Promised Land we must thank God and Our Lady for our very pleasant and on the whole easy journey which we have had . . . . “Those words echo, not only the journey to Chikuni, but her life journey, now at its end as she moves, we believe, into the fullness of the Promised land of God’s life and love.