Farewell to Sr. John Vianney Cosgrove, 17th September 2019

Kathleen McGarvey OLA, Provincial Leader

Good afternoon and welcome. We are gathered here today to thank God for the long and fruitful life of Sr John Vianney Cosgrove, our Sister, our aunt and our friend, and to bid her farewell. We entrust her to God as she goes to her final resting place to join her parents, her brothers, Martin James and Willie, her sisters, Sheila and Ann, and the many other deceased members of her family, friends and OLA Sisters.  

A special word of welcome today to Sr John’s nieces and nephews, and all other family members and friends who are here with us today. John’s brother-in-law Peader and her sister-in-law Noreen cannot be here with us today but they are surely united with us in thought and prayer. Failte to the OLA Sisters, especially those who have come from other communities in Ireland. Failte to all the priests here to celebrate with us. A special word of failte and thanks to Fr Tim Cullinane, our main celebrant.

Sr John Vianney, baptised Mary, was born in the townland of Belass, on Ballina Rd., Foxford, Co Mayo way back in August 1928. After primary school she worked in the Mill in Foxford and in September 1948, just after her twentieth birthday, she wrote to Ardfoyle saying she had been thinking about entering for some time and had now decided she would like to enter. As it happens, an OLA Sister from Foxford, Sr Mildred Thornton, had died in Ghana two years earlier, in 1946. Sr Mildred had died at the age of 22, just three weeks after arriving in Cape Coast, and John always said it was she who had inspired her vocation. It is indeed providential that today is Sr Mildred’s anniversary. May they both, together now in heaven, look down on us and help to inspire more young people in the same courageous faith-filled way.

A year after writing here, in August 1949, young Mary Cosgrove came to Ardfoyle, and in March 1952 she made her first profession as an OLA Sister, vowing to give her life to God in the service of God’s Kingdom, especially in Africa. Over the years since then that is what she did her best to do, and although she was sent to many different places, she never forgot her roots and was, up to the end, a very proud Mayo woman.

Immediately after first profession, John was sent to Dromantine, where she spent three years caring for the SMA Fathers and students, which she continued to do for another six months in Clough, Ballymore. She was then sent to England where she spent the next six years, first helping out in the OLA hostel in Eccleston Square, before going on to do her training as a nurse and then working in the OLA run Nursing home in Leigh.

In 1962, ten years after her first profession, John finally set sail for Nigeria, where she was to spend, in all, about fourteen years, between 1962 and 1984, working as a nurse in Oke Offa, Ibadan, Jos, Zawan, Ogwashi-Uku, Agbor and Asaba. Within these same years, she had returned to London to train as a midwife, and care for the sick in Silverdale between for some years. Health demanded that she leave Africa in 1984, although she went to Ghana for six months to help out in the hospital in Nkwanta in 1986 and at that time had a very special visit to Sr Mildred’s grave. She worked for about a year in Castlemagarrett in 1985, and then for a good thirteen years, from 1986 to 1997, she looked after sick and elderly OLA Sisters here in Ardfoyle in our own infirmary. Relieved from nursing in 1997, for the next seventeen years she ran the Crown Fund, promoting missionary cooperation in Ireland. During those years she corresponded regularly to the many who wrote to her, including my own mother to whom she regularly sent pamphlets about the power of Holy Water and no doubt they also spoke about Mayo woman Christine Gallagher who both my mother and Sr John followed closely.

It was only in 2014, at the age of 86, and when health, which for many years had been challenging, now really dictated, that John agreed that it was time to hand over this responsibility to somebody else. From then on, John has been more and more reduced in her independence with her debilitating health about which she never ever grumbled, and over these past years from her chair and her bed in the Infirmary she has given a most eloquent witness of gentleness, simplicity and inner joy.

Although John spent just fourteen years in Nigeria, and left so long ago, she always loved the people of Africa and is still very fondly remembered there. I received a most beautiful letter from three women who worked with John in the hospital in Asaba, and their letter says so much about the woman whose life we are today celebrating. Two of those who sent this letter say they were ‘ward-maids’ under Sr John Vianney and one was an old friend. They entitled this letter a ‘Tribute to a Prophetic and Zealous Missionary’: “With grateful heart we recall your immense contribution to saving the lives of women and children (through Maternal and Child Health) in the then St Joseph’s Maternity, Asaba and its environs; your humanitarian services and work of evangelization in St Joseph’s Old Peoples Home, during the Civil War, and your House-to-House visitation in Asaba Town. Sr John Vianney, we will forever appreciate the hope you gave to us, cherish your golden heart and salute your courage. We cannot forget you and the good work you did for us and among us in Asaba.” It’s true John was not in Asaba during the Nigerian civil war which ended in 1970, but undoubtedly when she arrived there in 1979, the people were still struggling to get their lives together, resettle, find jobs and so on, and it seems John was of great help to them; she loved them and they knew this. To give hope and truly witness to love and joy: what more could any missionary hope to achieve? Kindness, generosity, good will, good humour… these are some of the words used to describe John by Sisters who lived and worked with her over her many years as an OLA. As one sister told me, John was by nature Kind. She was indeed a very special, beautiful woman.  She is now surely at peace with God, in heaven, freed from her sickness and possibly singing a rendition of Moonlight in Mayo.

I take this opportunity to thank all those who cared for Sr John: Sr Katherine and the House Council here in Ardfoyle, as well as Joan and all our infirmary staff.  Thank you to her family who loved and supported her all through the years. She felt very closely united with her family always – you were very important to her and you were very good to her, even flying her up to Knock for her holidays from time to time, I’m told, something she very much enjoyed. Thank you so very much and may God grant you, and all who loved her in this life, the consolation we need.  Our thanks also to our choir, those who have prepared our altar, and all involved in today’s celebration.

May Sr John Vianney be rewarded for her goodness, her faith and her commitment to God’s service, and may she know in Heaven God’s Peace in a deep and everlasting way.

I now hand you over to Fr Tim to lead us in our Eucharist.  Go raibh mile maith agaibh.