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Sister Florence Kavanagh

1935 - 2018

Born: 30th April 1935

Entered Religious Life: 5th October 1959

Died: 30th June 2018

 

The following is the eulogy given at Sr Florence's funeral by Sr Rita Dawson RSC Provincial Leader of the English/Scottish Province.

Sister Florence, as she was known in Religious Life, was born as Catherine, but was also known to her family as Colette.

Sr Florence was born to Matilda Mary O'Neill and Patrick J Kavanagh. She was the middle child in a family of four having an older sister Peg, a twin brother Patrick (Patsy) who recently died, and a younger sister, Angela who is also deceased.

The family were raised in Holles Street, Dublin and were Baptised in Westland Row Church. At that time, they were living in Rathmines and later moved to Donnybrook, not too far away from Donnybrook Convent. They started school at Mount St. Anne's Milltown and Florence was introduced to Mother Mary Aikenhead by her mother at a very early age.

Sadly, Florence’s mother died shortly after she made her First Holy Communion, and she felt life was never the same. Her father re-married in 1948 and they had one child, Patricia.

Florence went to live with her aunt and attended Ballsbridge and Dundrum Technical College where she took a course in Office Practice. She worked in Pye (Ireland) Limited Dundrum in the General Office. After some years she entered Mount St. Anne's Novitiate in 1959, and received the Habit on 27th April 1960, during which time she spent eight months in Bath as a Novice. Florence returned to Ireland to be professed on 2nd May 1962 and finally professed 2nd May 1965 after which she was missioned to Walthamstow.

Florence was companion "on the Mission" to Sister Laboure, until missioned to work with Children in Walthamstow where she remained for nearly twenty years.
During this time she completed a course in Child Care and Social Work organised by the Home Office. In addition to her child care and social work training, Florence also had a Diploma in Pastoral Theology and a Post Graduate Diploma in Systemic Psychotherapy & Counselling from the University of Luton.

During 1980 to 1981 she attended a "Re-orientation" of training at the Franciscan Study Centre Canterbury and was then missioned to Ollerton where she worked at the Catholic Children's Society Nottingham as a Social and Pastoral Care Worker.

When Ollerton Convent closed Florence moved to a house in Nottingham with Sister Josephine McDonald and both were assigned to the Sowerby Bridge Convent.

Following this she was missioned to Hammersmith and then to Shepherd’s Bush. Florence worked at the Catholic Children's Ladbroke Grove, London and at this time was appointed as Director of Temporary Formation. Following this, she was Non-Resident Leader to Macclesfield.

She returned to Hammersmith Convent as Local Leader in 1997. The Community moved to the new house in Acton in 1998.

In 2000, Florence was missioned to Airdrie in Scotland as a Local Leader. She had a Sabbatical at St Beuno's, followed by a trip to Rome including visiting Assisi, Venice and Verona. Later in the year in 2004, having spent 4 years in Airdrie, she was missioned to Bristol and remained there undertaking Hospital Chaplaincy and voluntary work until June 2012.

In 2012, she moved to Hackney and was able to continue her ministry of Chaplaincy within the Hospice which was appreciated by so many who enjoyed her visits. It was to Florence that many of the staff turned when they were troubled or distressed and I know now that Florence will also look after the Hospice for us.

Florence had a great thirst for learning and really enjoyed her iPad which she used for corresponding with her friends and family. She also enjoyed listening to her hymns and the Divine Office, which was very important to her.

Until her recent illness, she was very fit and active and loved walking and spending time gardening.

Florence always talked about some of the wonderful people she had met over the years whose influence, kindness, love and acceptance helped her in so many ways.

Her family had always been very special to her and she deeply loved all of them. She was especially close to Peg, her sister and her brother Patsy (Patrick) and loved all of her nieces and nephews.

Florence had a very warm personality, was always very welcoming, a real home maker and very hospitable. In fact Jacinta (Rankin), Angela and herself were blessed with this very same attention to detail, thoughtfulness, home-makers, with hospitality being their very special trademark! Most of us will know they were all very great friends having worked together in the earlier days in Walthamstow. It is a very sad day for Jacinta and Angela as well.
On occasions, when you asked Florence how she was, she would say “I’m fed up” but when you went a little deeper she would say “I don’t know why”.

It is in moments like this that we should remember how important it is to support each other – and hopefully not all of us are fed up at the same time! It is the little things in life and the little acts of kindness to each other which really matter and help us especially in our frailty and weakness. It can be that unexpected smile, that word of encouragement, the little bit of affirmation, adds to all of our quality of life. When you are unwell, not feeling your best, and especially nowadays, we live in a throwaway society. Very often when people can no longer make a contribution, there is an attitude which is disposable. This is very sad and we must never allow this lack of respect for life and for the most vulnerable in our society. We must guard constantly against it.

In the passage of Scripture, 2 Timothy 4, we find the phrase:
“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, and I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” Or to put it another way, when in 1963 Pope John XXIII, the man who will forever be remembered as the man who humanized the role of Pope and opened the door to the renewal of the Church, he said: "We are not on earth to guard a museum, but to tend a blooming garden full of life. Do not walk through time without leaving worthy evidence of your passage."

How true is this of Florence’s life? She has left plenty of evidence and it is very apt that she loved the gardens and loved seeing things bloom.
When Pope John XXIII was told he had inoperable cancer in November 1962 he said “Let God’s will be done. But don’t worry about me because my bags are packed. I’m ready to go.”   It is another way of saying “I have fought the good fight.”

Florence was ready to go, she was tired, had suffered quite a bit latterly but we now know she will have reached her eternal reward.

On behalf of the Congregation and the English/Scottish Province, I would like to thank Sr Patricia Lenihan for coming today and representing the General Leadership Team, Sr Geraldine, the Hackney community, Sr Helena and all staff on the care floor for their great care of Sr Florence which helped her stay in the Convent until the Lord called her home. And of course to all the catering staff.

A special thanks to Nigel CEO of the Hospice for all his help and for so many other things. Also thanks to Carolyne Barbour who was very supportive to Sr Florence and has helped so much with education, etc.

Thank you to all of you who have come here today to share in this Mass and in thanksgiving for the life of Florence. We appreciate your presence with us and especially Florence’s sister Peg, nieces Geraldine and Mary, and all the family members who are present here and also those who were unable to attend.
Thanks to Father David Evans and Father Peter Scott for celebrating Mass last night and for celebrating this Funeral Mass here today. Also, for all the spiritual support to Florence and to all of the Sisters here in the Convent.
We greatly appreciate everything you do for us.

We give thanks for Florence’s commitment and dedication over many years as a Sister of Charity. We know that Florence’s struggle is now over and she is with the God she so faithfully served and loved each day of her life.
Rest in peace, Dear Florence.

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.

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