Friday, 21st April marked the 91st anniversary of Mother Arsenius’ passing. Celebrated for founding Foxford Woollen Mill, she worked throughout her life for the betterment of the poor and sought to provide sustainable opportunities for employment.
Born Agnes Morrogh in England in 1842, she spent her childhood in Munster, where her family inherited the Bernard estates and name at Sheheree, Killarney. The devastation of the Famine was still felt by rural dwellers in the area, and it was in this early setting that Agnes learned the importance of giving people a chance to earn their living. Following her education at Laurel Hill Convent in Limerick and the Dames Anglaises Convent in Paris, Agnes left behind her life of privilege and entered the novitiate of the Religious Sisters of Charity. The order’s fourth vow of service to the poor deeply appealed to Agnes.
Professed Sister Mary Joseph Arsenius on 16th January 1866, she was soon sent to Ballaghaderreen in County Mayo as superior of a new convent. For the next 14 years, she founded a successful bakery, pharmacy, laundry, lending library, industrial school and national school. She also established a textile business to help local girls learn how to spin thread, weave, knit, make dresses, lace and crochet.
Following her success in Ballaghaderreen, Sr Arsenius was called to the nearby ‘God-forsaken town of Foxford’, one of the poorest districts in the West. While she established a technical training school to help improve farming best practice, she is best known for founding Providence Woollen Mill in 1892, so-called because of Mother Arsenius’ firm belief that God’s love for the people of Foxford would provide all that was needed for the success of the project. By 1905, the mills were employing more than 150 people and turning a profit; their flannels, tweeds, shawls, blankets and clerical cloths could be purchased from Brown Thomas and Arnotts.
Alongside the promotion of the Mill, Mother Arsenius and the sisters founded a school for the children of the area and arranged the building of houses for the Mill workers. A supporter of the Gaelic League, Mother Arsenius also helped establish an orchestra, choir, brass and reed band in Foxford.
Mother Arsenius continued to work for the betterment of Foxford until she passed away on 21st April 1932 at 90 years of age. A heritage centre attached to the Mill recounts the story of Agnes Morrogh Bernard and the RSC’s many ministries during their century in Foxford – a fitting tribute to their legacy. Foxford Woollen Mill transferred to new ownership in 1987 and several years after the sale of the Mill, the remaining Sisters left the town.
Foxford native Fr Donal Dorr remembers visiting the convent chapel when he was studying to become a missionary priest. “Each evening I heard the Sisters reciting their prayer – and the prayer that sticks out in my mind is the one the Sisters had learned from Mother Morrogh-Bernard: ‘Providence did provide, Providence can provide, Providence will provide.’”