Irish eyes smiling – Sister chalks up a century

Sr Mary Irenaeus with Irish con-gen

In 1938, the young Ellen Murphy was waving goodbye to her sister Finbarr who was leaving Ireland for New Zealand to become a Mercy Sister.

Little did Ellen know that she would be following Finbarr’s footsteps a year and a half later.

“I just got the call. I heard the Lord saying, ‘you should go, too’,” she said with a laugh.

Sr Mary Irenaeus, as she is now known, who turned 100 years old on February 25, said hers had been a wonderful life.

“It really has. I couldn’t have been as happy anywhere else, I’m sure,” she said.

She arrived in New Zealand on January 31, 1940, and entered St Mary’s Convent in Ponsonby. She worked with Māori people in the Far North, at Pawarenga and Kaitaia for about 23 years, though not continuously. She also taught in Ponsonby, Otahuhu, Avondale, Manurewa,
Henderson and Northcote, until her retirement in 2005.

Sr Irenaeus said it had been hard at times. She loved teaching the little children, especially the new entrants.

“[We had] huge classes. It was just after the war. I remember having 72 (pupils) or something and having many primers is just dynamite. I would have been in my 30s,” she said.

Sr Irenaeus said her secret to long life is “good living and chip on, chip on”.

“I always loved walking . . . I’ve never driven a car. Apart from that, I was always a good walker,” she said. “And I’ve always kept active at something. I wasn’t the kind of person who can sit for long.”

Sr Irenaeus goes swimming once a week at the Tepid Baths in Auckland city and is also a keen gardener, tending to the little garden in the courtyard at St Mary’s Convent.

“I’ve loved gardening from the beginning. I remember pulling the flowers out of my mother’s garden. I was pottering around while she was there, as soon as she turned her back I’d pull out the wrong things,” she remembered fondly.

For her 100th birthday, she received many birthday greetings. Two of these were from the Queen and from Irish President Michael D. Higgins.

Sr Irenaeus with the birthday greetings from the Queen and Irish president Michael Higgins

“It’s a lovely one of the Queen. Those colours she has on [blue] suit her,” she said, pointing to the Queen’s card.

But President Higgins’ card was a favourite because it came with the Centenarian’s Bounty of €2540, which is awarded to every Irish-born person who reaches 100. Sr Mary Irenaeus received the card from Irish honorary vice-consul in New Zealand Denise Flanagan.

She said she’ll probably buy something for the garden and donate to a worthwhile charity.

Sr Irenaeus with novitiate Sr Lyra Manalo

To young women who are discerning a call, Sr Irenaeus’ advice is: “Just follow it. Follow the message. It’s very worthwhile trying.”

“I don’t think I always show it, but underneath, I feel very happy, fulfilled and contented in my old age.”

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Rowena Orejana

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