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josephine mcdonaldSister Josephine McDonald

1939 - 2021

Born: 30th July 1939

Entered Religious Life: 6th October 1958

Died: 18th February 2021


Josephine McDonald was born in Dublin on the 30th July 1939 to Thomas McDonald and Kathleen O’Mara.

Josephine entered the Religious Sisters of Charity on the 6th October 1958 and was received into the Noviciate on the 30th April 1959, receiving the name Sr. Mary Cephas. 

She was professed on the 2nd May 1961, after which she spent a few months in Clonmel and a year in Clarinbridge.  Josephine’s 62 years in religious life was divided between England and Ireland. She taught in Basingstoke and then qualified from Maria Assumpta Teacher Training College in 1965.  She taught in Basildon and Sowerby Bridge and returned to University College Dublin as a student 1967. During that time she taught in Marymount Primary School, Harold’s Cross, Dublin and returned to teach in Birmingham (1972-1975)

Josephine spent one year in the Liturgy Centre in Portarlington and following that year she was appointed Mistress of Novices in Milltown 1976-1985.  Some of her novices said that she was a ‘great mentor’ who formed them with ‘gentleness, wisdom and care’, and was faithful to them over the years, remembering their ‘families, siblings and special events’.

Josephine returned to England again, where she did a Pastoral Theology Course in Heythrop College and was a member of the Diocesan Schools Catechetical Team.  She was appointed Provincial Leader of the English/Scottish Province from 1987 to 1993.  She did a Sabbatical Course in South Carolina and then a Renewal Course in St. Beuno’s.  For one year she lived in a shared community with young adults in Sarabeth, Bath 1994-1995.

She returned to Dublin when she was elected Vicar General of the Congregation in 1995 and served in that capacity until 2007.  Following this term of office and a short break in St. Monica’s she was appointed Local Leader in Naomh Brid.  In 2012 she was missioned to Shalom, Merrion Road, Dublin and worked in the Office of the Cause as Vice Postulator until she retired from this role in 2019. Josephine was passionate about the Cause for Mary Aikenhead. She had a great love for our Foundress and constantly looked for opportunities to promote Mary’s charism and her spirit. It was mainly due to her dedication, commitment and collaboration with others as Vice Postulator over this period of seven years, that Mary Aikenhead was declared Venerable on the 18th March 2015, to Josephine’s absolute joy.

Josephine touched the lives of numerous people through her many ministries in the Congregation (some of which is outlined above) but also through retreats, spiritual direction, talks, facilitating and forming groups of the Friends of Mary Aikenhead, visitation of the sick in hospitals, corresponding with prisoners, and delivering meals on wheels, to mention just a few.  Her influence was endless.

The testimonies on the website and the many sympathy cards received mentioned her many qualities. To many she was a woman of integrity, deep faith, humble, unassuming, gentle, very forgiving, caring and generous with her many gifts.  She loved people and made friends easily, supported them and kept in touch.  She never spared herself in doing good and was greatly loved.

She greatly loved her family and supported them and they in turn loved and supported her.

Josephine’s final illness was thankfully short, 12 days in fact.  In the second week of her stay in hospital, she was moved to a single room where community and family were allowed to spend time with her two days before she died in St. Vincent’s University Hospital, in the care of a very special team in St. Charles/St. Helen’s ward. 

Due to Covid restrictions only 10 people were allowed to attend her funeral Mass in the Sacred Heart Church in Donnybrook.  Her brother Fr. Tom McDonald CSSp celebrated the Mass.  Sr. Úna O’Neill, Provincial Leader, paid tribute to Josephine at the beginning of the Mass. She said:

‘It is strange to be here this morning. The tiny group of us gathered in this beautiful Church emphasizes the strange world in which we are living. It is good to know that so many people are ‘with us’ through the webcam and I welcome in particular Josephine’s family members, her many colleagues and friends, our Sisters from Zambia, Nigeria, Malawi, California, England and Scotland and Ireland and the Friends of Mary Aikenhead who were so very special to her.

It is also strange to be here this morning because we are celebrating the life and death of Josephine and we did not expect to be doing this. Her going from us was sudden and unexpected. I know that for her it was the way she would have wanted it. But it is hard for all who knew and loved and appreciated her - especially her beloved family and the Congregation.
We could talk about Josephine from now until sunset. All of us have our own memories of her - as teacher and friend, sister and aunt; Novice Director and Provincial leader; as General Counsellor, valued advisor and spiritual director and more.

Josephine was single-minded and single hearted in her commitment to God and to the Congregation. She never compromised on our way of life as Sisters of Charity – and sometimes this was at great personal cost. She lived that commitment in all her journeying and ministry – a life journey that took her to many of our houses in Ireland and England – too numerous to mention. She finally moved to Shalom in Merrion in 2012 where she was the Vice Postulator for the cause of Mary Aikenhead until 2019.

There is a phrase in one of the psalms that speaks of ‘drooping spirits’. Many of our spirits are indeed drooping at the moment as we face an extended lockdown and continued restrictions on our freedom and choices. I think Josephine would have little time for our self-pity. So in remembering and praying for her this morning may we move with a quiet hope into a future without her presence but knowing from the example of her life that the Lord is surely with us - and that the certainty of His love will lift our drooping spirits knowing, in the words of Mary Aikenhead, that “all our Courage and strength can only come from God Himself”. May she rest in peace.’

Mon. Ciaran O’Carroll, concelebrant at the funeral Mass, had worked with Josephine on the Cause for Mary Aikenhead, and said the Prayers of Commendation at the Mass.  He spoke personally when he said that she was “a wonderful person, whose knowledge of Mary Aikenhead was invaluable to me over the years we worked together.  She was a good friend to me and I enjoyed her company no end.”

In spite of rain, wind and cold quite a number of sisters, family members, and Friends of Mary Aikenhead waited in the cemetery to pay their last respects.

May she rest in peace with the Lord she loved and with her Friend and Foundress, Venerable Mary Aikenhead.

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.