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Cora WoodsSister Cora Woods

1932 - 2013

Born: 1st May 1932

Entered Religious Life: 30th June 1952

Died: 2nd February 2013



Sr Cora Woods daughter of Patrick Woods and Molly Mullally was born in Swanlinbar, Co Cavan on 1st May 1932 and to everyone's amazement it was snowing!  She was one of five children, two sisters Patsy and Margo, and two brothers Liam and Fr Thos.  She entered the Sisters of Charity in Milltown 20th January 1952 following her Children's Nurse Training in Temple Street Hospital, Dublin and made her religious profession on 26th January 1955.

Sr Cora's whole life's ministry was in the Nursing Profession having spent twelve years in the Nursery in Ballaghadreen, Co Roscommon and thirty years in St Patrick's Centre, Kilkenny.  She devoted her life to nursing and developing care for the intellectually disabled whom she loved and she was equally loved in return.  The service to the Intellectual Disabled had just been established in 1966 in St Patrick's and Sr Cora came in 1967 so it was a whole new and challenging field for her admitting mild, moderate and severe intellectually disabled children with varying degrees of need.  She saw the continuing growth and development of the service and while managing her unit was also the only driver for the minibus.  Many of the staff reminiscence about Cora taking the children on outings etc.  She was well known by the traffic wardens in Kilkenny for abandoning the car or the minibus telling them she would be back!  She also ensured the children got to school every day and she allowed the care staff to accompany them in the classroom before the appointment SNA's.  She was a great listener and was a great source of consolation and comfort to many parents and families for her wisdom and advice.  Even after she retired they remained in touch.

After her years in St Patrick's she took a sabbatical year and following that she was missioned to Cappagh Hospital in 1998 and thus began her pastoral role in the wards.  She fulfilled this role until her accident on the grounds of Cappagh that left her with severe injuries in 2000.  She resumed her role again until the closure of Cappagh in 2006 when she retired to Kilkenny.  The results of the accident left her quite incapacitated and her dependency grew and she was admitted to the Mary Aikenhead Wing in 2008 until her death.

Sr Cora had a deep love for her family and made the long trip home up to Cavan at every possible chance.  She was a devoted letter writer and wrote to her mother every week until she died.  The mobile phone was also a great way for her keeping in touch having phoned her brother Fr Thos and niece Colette two nights before she died.  Sr Cora had a great sense of humour and fun and was great to initiate a singsong.  Her brother Fr Thos told the story of their Dad having retired from the Army owned a small dance hall in Swanlinbar and Cora was often known to get up on the stage to sing with the band.

Her prayer life was of paramount importance to her and she was a woman of routine.  You would always be sure to find her at Prayer at various times during the day or reading the Word of God.  Her sudden death on the 2nd February came as a great shock to us all as she had only been ill for the previous twenty-four hours. May she rest in peace.

Her removal took place to St. Joseph’s Church, Foulkstown for Mass and burial.  The chief celebrant was her brother Fr Thos and the con-celebrants were Monsignor Michael Ryan and Fr Dan Carroll PP who gave a very inspirational homily.  Her sister Patsy and her brother Fr Thos survive her.  As she was being buried a large rainbow appeared in the sky and snow greeted her the next morning. 

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.