In the Church there are no less than seven (7) Religious Congregations called Daughters or Sisters of the Cross. They are to be found in Italy, in France, in Spain, in Switzerland, in Mexico and, of course, in Liege in Belgium.

What that tells me is, that down through the ages, women of strong faith and generous and loving character, have seen the Cross of Jesus Christ as their only hope. For, on the Cross of Calvary, Jesus showed how much he, the Son of God, loved each one of us. That love has, in turn, inspired, down through the ages, religious women to imitate Christ in a special way by giving their own lives in the service of others. So, in 1920, when Canon Joseph O’Neill of Donaghmore decided to invite a religious congregation to this parish, he turned to the Daughters of the Cross of Liege in Belgium.

Liege is an industrial city in the eastern part of Belgium not far from Maastricht. We had the Maastricht Treaty some years ago. Canon O’Neill had bought a house which originally belonged to the Lyles, that is, the Lyle half of Tate and Lyle, the sugar people.

The house was in bad shape so the first four Sisters – Sister Mary Walters from Kerry; Sister Mary Hedwia from Germany; Sister Mary Sgiberg from Abbeyfeal; and Sister Hildelidd from Lancashire didn’t wait until the carpets were down and the curtains on all the windows before they moved in. They had a bed each plus one chair. They carried the chair from bedroom to dining room to chapel and to the kitchen table. But, there was no shortage of friends.

Mr Donnelly of Carland gave the Sisters two cows which bcame the nucleus of a small farm. It supported the community until 1946. Miss O’Neill, who lived opposite the Convent, gave chickens; Other kind friends made presents of bread, vegetables and butter until the pioneering Sisters could support themselves.

Originally the intention was to open a hospital and six beds were donated by the Sisters of Mercy in Dungannon. The first patient was received by torchlight procession for the simple reason that the electricity plant had failed.

They were stirring times. On one occasion the old Police barrack, opposite the house, was burned down. The next night, the opposing forces came into the grounds, firing shots. It made the Sisters feel there was really no use in renovating as they might be burned out at any time.

Dr. Campbell, father of the late Dr Tommy Campbell, helped the Sisters with advice and a decision was taken to open a Boarding School in 1922. The first Principal was Sister Mary Hyacinth with Sister Bernard Mary as her Assistant. The school was a success from the start. Numbers increased and so additions were made to the building. In the meantime, classes were held in the parlour and sometimes even in the byre where the donkey was an interested onlooker.

The new school was completed by 1929. Sister Mary Hyacinth died that year and was not there to welcome the pupils to the new school. One month later Canon O’Neill also died. They were heavy blows to the fledgling community.

In February 1930, the school got recognition under the leadership of its new Principal, Sister Mary Xavier. Further building was made – the new red- brick building comprising of the Chapel, dining room and dormitories. They were completed and blessed by Cardinal Mac Rory in 1935. To we owe not only the buildings but the wonderful spirit of tradition which characterised Donaghmore.

It was Sister Mary Merciedles, ably assisted by Sister Mary Brogan who built the present school. Sister Merciedles was succeeded by Sister Mary Bastl who was Principal until 1984. Her successor, Mrs Helen McCrory, Principal from 1984 to 2000 had to cope with the decision to close the Boarding School in the late eighties and the retirement of Sister Patricia, the last teaching Sister in this school.

Now we are gathered here tonight to give thanks to God, in this Mass, for all the Sisters who have lived and served in Donaghmore over the last eighty-five (85) years.

We give praise and thanks for past and present Principals and staff. We bring before the Lord tonight all past and present pupils with all their gifts and virtues and needs. We remember with gratitude, the generous service of past and present members of the Boards of Governors. We give thanks also for past and present priests who served the Sisters here and who celebrated Mass for them and ministered the sacraments down through the years.

And now, as they prepare to depart, the Sisters would wish to remember with affection, all those generous young women who came into the Congregation. They came in and joined the Daughters of the Cross because of the example they saw given to them by the Sisters here in Donaghmore tonight. They saw them not just as excellent teachers, good administrators and mature women. They were all that, but they were something more. They were a sign of another world – the world that is to come. The Daughters of the Cross have been, for all who wish to see it, a sign that we have not here a lasting kingdom but we, all of us, seek one that is to come.

Tonight the Daughters of the Cross dare to ask God to inspire others to follow their example. For that to take place, girls contemplating such a step would need help. They would need to be helped to see that the Daughters of the Cross did not lose their freedom, instead they chose to exercise their freedom- to give their lives to the service of God who is totally free.
Recently I was given a book entitled: Art in Prison. It contains pictures painted by prisoners all over the world. I was particularly struck by one entry. It was a painting made of soap which came from Hungary. It depicted a jail, a bar, a casino and a road with a question mark. That picture suggests. to me at least. that there are various ways of losing our freedom besides being placed behind prison bars. In his resignation speech, Tony Blair, said that one way of resisting enslavement by the lust for power, is to give power up. We can all be enslaved by material things. But I think the presence of the Daughters of the Cross in this community has shown that we put our freedom to its highest use when we devote it to the praise and glory of God.

Tonight we give thanks not just for good education but for educators who were also good people – people who served the community in many ways. I am thinking of Sister Carmel’s wonderful apostolate to the deaf, to the deaf not just in Donaghmore and all of Tyrone but all over this part of the country.

Tonight we are celebrating the presence here of valiant women who came, not to become rich or famous or powerful. They came here because they believed that by so doing it was the only way they would remain in the love of Jesus and that was the only thing that mattered.

We are celebrating the presence of people who brought joy to the community because they were joyful people. They showed their love for one another and for all those they met by laying down their lives in the hard grind of teaching, administering the school, saying their prayers, and going about their business.

By so doing they became friends with Jesus and so were able to become friends with anyone who wanted to become friends with them. Yes, they have borne fruit – fruit that will last. The challenge is for us who remain to appreciate them properly and adequately. To appreciate the kind of people they were – the kind of faith they had – the kind of hope they had and to take that heritage and make it available to all those who come after us.