The story of the modern foundation in Ireland started in 1619 when Marianna Cheevers, from Wexford, entered a convent of Poor Clares in Belgium. She was the first Irish woman to join them. Eventually, six others joined her. In 1629 the six Irish Sisters went back to Ireland and established a convent in Dublin, on Cook Street, near the Franciscan Friary on Merchant's Quay.
In her second letter to Blessed Agnes of Prague, St. Clare counsels her spiritual daughters:
remember your resolution and be conscious of how you began.
The early Poor Clares in Ireland could have taken these words as their charter. They were marched barefoot to Dublin Castle to appear before the Lord Chief Justice, they were compelled to flee before the Confederate troops and were driven out of Dublin in the face of Cromwellian persecution. Yet, they never forgot their "resolution" but went forward "securely, joyfully and swiftly."
From Dublin, the Sisters fled to Bethlehem, near Athlone, which was the estate belonging to the father of two of the Sisters, who were also blood sisters. In 1642, Bethlehem was surrounded and the Nuns had barely time to escape by boat across the Lough Ree, before the convent was burned down. Shortly after, the Sisters founded a convent in Galway and then in Drogheda, Wexford and Athlone. Some Sisters escaped to Spain. In 1712, some of the Nuns, at the invitation of the Archbishop of Dublin, left Galway to make a foundation in Dublin. During Penal times, the Poor Clares had to discontinue wearing religious dress. It was not possible for them to observe full enclosure so they took in boarders, partly to disguise their identity and partly to support themselves.
The Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries have presented a different kind of challenge to the Sisters of St. Clare. In 1804, the Sisters who were living in Dorset Street in Dublin were asked to undertake an active apostolate, the care of poor children and orphans. A building at Harold's Cross was obtained, through generous benefactors, to house the orphans. Although this meant a departure from the original life which was essentially contemplative, it did not mean the abandonment of the contemplative spirit. The success of the undertaking in Harold's Cross showed that the spirit of St. Clare could meet the needs of the Church in every age and in every circumstance. The orphanage, which is now San Damiano, was completed in 1806. In 1817 the Sisters once again began to wear religious dress and the life of prayer and work with orphans continued.
The spiritual daughters of those Nuns who had survived the Cromwellian Wars were able to accept another new challenge in 1830 when they were asked by the Bishop of Dromore to make a foundation in Newry. They were the first Nuns to settle north of the Boyne since 1690. Since then the Sisters of St. Clare, in their apostolates of education and pastoral care have continued to serve the Lord with the dedication of their heroic predecessors.
A new era in the history of the Order in Ireland began in 1944. Six convents founded from Newry - Newry, Cavan, Keady, Ballyjamesduff, Mayobridge and Porthcawl - amalgamated into one Religious Congregation - a unique Congregation within the Order of St. Clare, a Congregation which has a definite mission to bring the contemplative charism of Clare to the world through our varied ministries. Later, at our Chapter of 1973, it was decided that our Congregation would be known as Sisters of St. Clare to avoid confusion with the enclosed Poor Clares.
At Harold's Cross, today, there are three connecting buildings, in the shape of a horseshoe: San Damiano Convent, Bethany Hostel, and Harold's Cross Convent. Adjacent to these buildings is "Bethlehem" (The Generalate - main residence of the Abbess General.
San Damiano is the oldest building now in use in the Congregation. One section of the structure dates back to the 1700s, while the remaining part was built shortly after the Sisters arrived in Harold's Cross in 1804. For over 150 years the building's main use was as a national school for the education of the orphans under the care of the Sisters. In 1977 the building was converted into a hostel and conference center and given its present name. Seven years later, in 1984, it became the Novitiate House for the Congregation. In 1999, the Novitiate was moved to Laurel Lodge in Dublin. The Novices are part of an International Novitiate Formation Program, joining with Novices from various different Religious Orders, both male and female, for prayer and study.
In August, 1981, the Harold's Cross Orphanage closed. In 1984 it was decided that the connecting building, where the orphans lived, was more suitable for large groups, and had more facilities than "San Damiano." Consequently, the decision was reached to name the building "Bethany", and transfer the Students' Hostel and Conference Center from San Damiano to these premises.
American Region: At the request of Fr. James Mc Ginley, pastor of St. Pius X Church in Chula Vista, California, it was decided to send Sisters to California. On August 16, 1960, Mother Rita Mc Gee, Abbess General, and the Sisters arrived in Chula Vista. There have been many Convents founded, over the years, in California. Presently, however, there are only four Convents and a House of Prayer (St. Clare's Garden).
In 1966, at the request of Fr. Lawrence Higgins, St. Lawrence Parish, Tampa, Florida, Sisters were sent to his parish. Three Sisters arrived in August of 1966 to help staff the existing school. This was the first Convent in Florida, but no longer exists. Presently, however, there are eight Convents in Florida.
Today, we have Sisters
and foundations throughout Ireland, Wales, England, California and
Florida, El Salvador and Guatemala.
We have a diversity of apostolates and ministries.
Our Sisters are free to take on almost any apostolate, as long as
there is a need, they have the necessary gifts for that ministry, and it
is for the common good of all the Sisters.
The spirit of St. Clare and her charisms are still alive amongst
the Sisters of St. Clare, and with her prayers will continue to light
the way into the Twenty First Century.