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sheila-geaneySister Sheila Geaney

1947 - 2016

Born: 22nd February 1947

Entered Religious Life: 17th October 1966

Died: 18th July 2016


Sheila, daughter of John Geaney and Mary Daly, the first of four daughters, was born in Castlemaine, Co. Kerry on 22nd February 1947.  She entered the Novitiate of the Sisters of Charity on the 17th October 1966 and received the habit and the names Marie Perpetua on the 25th April 1967.  She made her Religious Profession of vows on 22nd May 1969.

Sheila’s area of ministry throughout her religious life, apart from a year in Basildon, was in the Irish Province.  She ministered in Milltown, Basin Lane, St. Joseph’s Kilkenny, Benada, Cappagh, St. Vincent’s Cork, St. Vincent’s Elm Park, Dublin.  She was involved in the catering ministry and in childcare.

Sheila successfully completed a one year full time Diploma Course in Pastoral Ministry in 1993/94 which was held at the Dublin Institute of Adult Education in Mountjoy Square, Dublin.  Here she was commended for her essays, group project and particularly for the quality of her work in her personal project which dealt with Basic Christian Communities.  Sheila’s placement was based in an active middle income parish where she had the opportunity of familiarising herself with the work of the locally based parish sister.  She visited quite a number of elderly in their homes which led her supervisor to make the following comment about her: “Sheila’s easy manner endeared her to anyone she visited and I could see her journeying with many a lonely person if she takes up parish work”. 

Following a year of practical experience in parish ministry in Basildon she was missioned to Sandymount, first in Lakelands (1995-2008) and then in Park Avenue, (2008-2016). It was in her years in Sandymount that she blossomed in her true element.  Sheila loved people and enjoyed her visits to the elderly and the housebound.  She was also involved in the Ladies Sodality and in the ministry of Neighbourhood Retreats.  She had a great interest in prisoners.  One gentleman who spoke to her before she died said ‘Sr. Sheila you were my prayer warrior’ and went on to thank her for the important role she played in his life.  He spoke about his own faith now and the seeds she had helped to plant that had nourished the growth of that faith. 

Sheila was very interested in Charismatic Renewal as she saw the effect it had on people’s lives.  She attended many of the prayer meetings and always had a great love for the Holy Spirit.  She often prayed to be surprised by the Spirit and she loved the feast of Pentecost. 

About a year before her death Sheila was stricken by Motor Neuron disease, which began by depriving her of her power of speech.  This meant that she had to write down whatever she wanted to say, which must have been very tiring, but she never complained.  Eventually she lost the power of her leg muscles and was confined to bed.  It is no exaggeration to say that Sheila smiled her way through her illness.

Sheila had great devotion to the Eucharist.  As this is her Golden Jubilee year, a priest friend celebrated Mass for her and a number of her ‘coes’ in the convent chapel.  Sheila was present in a wheelchair and was genuinely happy.  She also enjoyed the little celebration that followed.

Sheila died very peacefully, surrounded by her family and the Lakelands community on the 18th July.  Her remains were received in the Convent Chapel on July 20th and she was removed to Star of the Sea Church in Sandymount for her funeral Mass on July 21st.  The large attendance at her funeral bore testimony to the love and appreciation of those whose lives she touched.  She was laid to rest in the community cemetery in Donnybrook.

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 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.