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Sister Joseph ElizabethSister Joseph Elizabeth Sanfey

1934 - 2012

Born: 11th January 1934

Entered Religious Life: 16th October 1950

Died: 2nd April 2012



An appreciation of Sr Joseph Elizabeth Sanfey

Sr Elizabeth Sanfey, daughter of Joseph Sanfey and Elizabeth Pidgeon, was born in Dublin on the 11th January 1934. She was one of seven children, she had three sisters and three brothers. She entered the Sisters of Charity in Milltown on the 16th October 1950 and was given the name Sr Joseph Elizabeth at her reception into the novitiate and made her religious profession at the age of nineteen on 28th April 1953.

During her life Sr Elizabeth ministered in the Irish, English/Scottish Provinces and the Zambian Region. After her profession she spent two years in Bristol where she was involved in housekeeping and in parish work. On her return to Ireland in 1955 she was missioned to Mountjoy Street to teach in the primary school in King’s Inn Street for six months. She then went to train as a primary teacher in Carysfort Teacher Training College. Following her graduation from Carysfort she spent three years teaching in Clonmel before returning to Mountjoy Street and then to Milltown while she studied for her B.A.Degree in UCD.

In August 1966 Sr. Elizabeth was missioned to Chivuna, Zambia and in 1968 she moved to Chikuni, as the Secondary School in Chivuna had been passed on to the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Mary. Recognising her gifts, the Ministry of Education in Zambia invited her to set up a Commercial College in Kabwe Teacher Training College. She carried out this task with great enthusiasm and the high standards reached by the students ensured financially viable positions for them in their future employment. During this time she stayed with the Dominican sisters in the convent where our sisters now live. In 1973 she returned to Ireland as principal of the secretarial School in Milltown. From Milltown she returned to Mountjoy Street where she was principal of King’s Inn Street Secondary School until 1986. From 1986 to 1992 she was principal of the Secondary School in Foxford. She was passionate about Education and as an educator she was conscientious, full of new ideas or as she called them “lights” and had great patience with children who needed that extra help in understanding things.

After her sabbatical in Canada, where she had the opportunity to spend some time with her sister, she was missioned to St.Vincent’s Cork where she was responsible for the accounts. From Cork she moved to Donnybrook and was Secretary/Manager of the Residential Care Centre until 1999.
Her next move was to Stanhope Street where she spent two years working in the Heritage Centre, which had been set up by Sr. Mary Aquinas Hogan. From 2001-2005 she lived in Tramore, Co Waterford community and commuted to Waterford every day where she was in charge of the Sacred Heart Centre for children with learning difficulties. Sr Elizabeth then moved to Temple Street, where she was involved in the ministry of Neighbourhood retreats.

Sr Elizabeth loved a challenge and was totally committed to whatever she was asked to do. She had a great love of the Congregation and it always gave her great pleasure to be asked to “do” something on behalf of the Congregation. Over the years this took the form of re-writing the morning reading book, giving lessons to the sisters (often over weekends), to help them with their studies and exams, and in more recent times interviewing sisters to record their memories of life in the Congregation. Whether it was teaching a class, doing accounts or running a centre she loved to get the project up and running and then move on. Nothing was burdensome for her and she settled in very well wherever she was sent.

She was a very prayerful person who had a very simple way of expressing her life of prayer and love of God: God called her, she answered, “Yes” and everything after that was done in and for Him. She had a very fulfilled life until the advance of her illness, which must have been very difficult for her. This illness necessitated her being admitted to the Mary Aikenhead Wing of St Patrick’s, Kilkenny on 9th December 2006 where she was lovingly nursed and cared for over her declining years. She died very peacefully on 2nd April 2012. May she rest in peace. She was laid out in the Convent Chapel where her family, colleagues and staff came to pay their last respects. Her removal took place to St Joseph’s Church, Foulkstown for Mass and burial. Fr Liam Taylor CC was chief celebrant with three Carmelite priests from Terenure College, Fr Maurice Crean MHM, Fr Dermot Ryan and Fr Sean O’Connor as con-celebrants. A large congregational presence joined her family and friends to celebrate her life of service and commitment to the Lord. May she rest in peace.


Sr. Joseph Helen Cunningham.

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 years she 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 in Walthamstow 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 1978 she 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 her friends – 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, she yielded 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.