As an Irish American, I always look forward to St. Patrick’s Day as an opportunity to celebrate the culture and resilience of my relatives and ancestors.
This year will be especially meaningful as an Irish Catholic, thanks to the selection of Pope Francis, a man who has instilled great pride in my family through his focus on helping the poor and those without a voice.
In fact, I am particularly proud of the fact that, upon becoming pope, one of his first steps was to nominate to sainthood an Irish nun who devoted her life to the poor: Sister Honora “Nano” Nagle.
More than ever, during this time of incredible income inequality, we can draw some inspiration from Nagle’s life. Although she lived in the 1700s, her message fits just as well in with today’s times.
Nagle lived in Ireland during the time of the Penal Laws, which among other restrictions, prohibited Irish Catholics from gaining an education or preaching the Roman Catholic faith. Fortunately, she came from a wealthy family who believed in the importance of education. They sent her to France to study, where she enjoyed the life of the elite, attending balls and absorbing the culture.
According to her biography, one night coming home from a ball, she saw a group of poor people huddled in a church doorway. The juxtaposition between those people and her life was startling and created the moment that later defined Nagle.
She returned to Ireland and set up the first school for the poor, despite the law banning her work. She spent her days educating children (often in secrecy) and nights feeding and nursing the sick and elderly. She began with a class of 30 and grew to seven schools educating 200 children, all on her own until she realized she needed some help.
Working with her uncle and some women, she founded the first Presentation convent and set up a network of schools throughout Ireland. Even after she died, the Sisters of the Presentation continue to set up and run schools for the poor in 26 countries around the world.
She was a woman who defined courage, empathy, and service.
Nagle is truly worthy of sainthood and should be a source of pride and inspiration to Irish women (and men) everywhere. She was voted the Irish Woman of the Millennium in 2000 for her work in educating the Irish poor and was once voted Ireland’s greatest women ever.
Her lessons carry on today. As a woman who had access to wealth and education that only a slim minority had, she used her resources to enlighten and empower people who otherwise had no hope.
This St. Patrick’s Day, amid the parades, the corned beef, and the green beer, we should take a moment to admire the work that this amazing woman accomplished and consider living up to Nagle’s final advice, “Spend yourself for the poor.”
Janmarie Toker, a Yarmouth resident, is an attorney at McTeague Higbee in Topsham. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 725-5581.