In 1957 the Handmaids of the Sacred Heart of Jesus arrived in Ireland. They were few in number, three Spaniards and just two Irish, but with a great desire to spread their Mission* in a country known for its hospitality and friendship. The local people soon began calling the Sisters “the Spanish Nuns”, the name by which they became known throughout Dublin and beyond.
Having sought permission from the Archbishop of Dublin to set up a Convent in his Diocese, initially without success due to the fact that there were so many convents in Dublin already, he suddenly reversed his decision when introduced to the life of Raphaela, then “Blessed Raphaela Mary”.
Finglas, Dublin: 1957 – 1996
The Archbishop invited the Sisters to open a Retreat House in Finglas, on the north side of the city. While the Retreat House was being built the Sisters took up residence in a small bungalow which presented many challenges for them. However, they were greatly cared for and supported by the local community who took them to their hearts.
They soon set up a Youth Club for girls, sharing their bungalow space with them a few evenings a week. This gave the young people opportunities to engage in music, singing and dancing; enter into competitions with other Clubs throughout Dublin and participate in many social activities; enroll as “Children of Mary” under the leadership and input of the Sisters and participate in simple biblical studies directed by the Convent Chaplain. From this Club many vocations to the Handmaids were nurtured. Then in 1960 the Retreat House was officially opened and the Sisters transferred there.
With the Retreat House functioning to capacity, as Sisters from all Congregations throughout Ireland came in large numbers to make their annual retreat. Groups of adults from all parts of the city came every Thursday night to make Adoration before the Blessed Sacrament exposed on the altar until the following morning. The Sisters continued to expand their mission and the concept of a Commercial College for the young people of Finglas came to fruition. In 1966 the Bungalow, the first home of the Sisters, was set up and used for this purpose.
With changes in the social and spiritual climate of the time the Retreat House was opened up to accommodate all kinds of new groups with special attention given to the spiritual welfare of secondary school children from the most disadvantaged areas in Dublin, who came with their teachers for day retreats. Most of the retreats were directed by the Sisters themselves.
“Cruinniú”, a Catechetics’ Resource Centre, was also set up in the Retreat House at the request of the diocese. Catechists were trained here and were then sent to the different parishes to initiate the FIFA Program – Foundation in Faith for Adults. There was also an established group following the FIFA course in the Retreat House itself for 3 years. The participants came from different parishes.
The Retreat House Chapel was affiliated to the Diocese, facilitating daily and Sunday Worship followed by Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament which was well attended and appreciated by the local people. The Finglas community became known near and far for its warmth and hospitality.
It was unfortunate that, due to various circumstances, the life of the Retreat House came to an end in 1996, which was a great loss to the local community.
Blackrock, Dublin: 1966 – 1972
In 1966 the Sisters blazed a new trail and founded a house in Blackrock, Dublin South, which opened as a university residence accommodating students from both Ireland and abroad. It also became the house of continued formation for their own young Sisters who pursued their University studies alongside the lay students. They named the Residence “Dal Riada”. It buzzed with intellectual and physical vitality throughout the academic year. Then, in the summer months, it was transformed into a Summer School for young foreign students wishing to improve their English. The young Sisters gave up their own summer holidays to prepare these students for English Exams and to help fund their own studies. Once again the house buzzed with even greater laughter, joy and vitality and with a creative energy that only youth can bring.
The Retreat House in Finglas was still flourishing at this time. The University Residence was continually filled to capacity but the God of Surprises gave the Handmaids the opening they had always desired – to be involved in Education in Ireland – Education being an integral part of their Charism and Mission. The Holy Spirit again intervened through the same Archbishop of Dublin who invited the Sisters to take over St. Philomena’s Primary School and Marillac Secondary School in Stillorgan in 1971. The joy of the “Spanish Nuns” was unbounded and they began to become known by their proper title: “Handmaids of the Sacred Heart of Jesus”. Fortunately there were two big houses on the new premises, besides the school buildings, which allowed the Sisters to use one as their convent and the other as a University Residence. Lock, stock and barrel both the Sisters and the University students transferred from ‘Dal Riada” to Stillorgan, as did the Summer School. Buildings on the premises also facilitated one of the Sisters to pursue alternative medicine, ministering to people near and far while a small school for Special Needs children was also housed on the new premises.
With the closure of the house in Blackrock a new era began in the life of the Handmaids here in Dublin.
Stillorgan, Dublin: 1971 – present day
With the canonization of Raphaela Mary in January 1977 it was decided to change the name of the schools to “Saint Raphaela’s Primary School and Saint Raphaela’s Secondary School”. This deepened the understanding of the Charism of the Handmaids and the living out of the Spirituality of Saint Raphaela through the ethos of the daily life of the school. All the teachers responded with great enthusiasm, giving their pupils opportunities to value prayer time before the Blessed Sacrament in the convent chapel. Many teachers and pupils began attending Mass daily with the Sisters when possible, which can still be witnessed today. Both schools thrived under the new Management – lay teachers and Sisters working in harmony and partnership imbuing the young people in their care with both academic and spiritual values. Both schools are thriving to this day, with lay principals now at the helm. Even though there are no Sisters working full-time in the schools some do help out regularly both at a pastoral level and as members of the Boards of Management.
The residence for university students is also thriving but under the management of the Emerald Cultural Institute.
The convent and school campus is continually used by local groups for various activities and meetings while sports facilities are made available to hockey and soccer groups.
Today, with ten Sisters in the community, there is still that great spirit of hospitality and welcome towards all and special attention given to Priests, Sisters and lay people of other nationalities wishing to study English.
May the Handmaids continue to respond to the guidance of the Spirit, ever challenging them along new pathways, as they always did throughout their History in Ireland and in so many other parts of the world.