Born Gertrude Philomena Kiernan, into a farming family in County Cavan, Ireland, she was one of 12 children, three of whom died in infancy. One of those children was her young brother Aloysius and that was why she chose that name as her religious name. Her eldest sister Delia (Sister Mary Clare) decided she wanted to become a Sister of Mercy and she travelled to Scotland to enter the Mercy Convent in Elgin in 1928. At 17, Gertrude decided she wished to follow in her sister’s footsteps and she, too, joined the Sisters of Mercy.
She trained as a teacher at Craiglockhart College in Edinburgh and then taught at schools in Elgin, Tomintoul, Buckie and Keith. Among her pupils was Michael Milton, now Canon Michael Milton, Administrator of St Andrew’s Cathedral, Dundee. During her time as a teacher in the North she ran the school football teams and was honoured for her work with the local Scout groups.
After retiring as a teacher she worked in London’s East End, where her Order ran a hostel for young women. It was during her time there that she got to know the MP Emma Nicholson. Ms Nicholson invited Sister Aloysius to the House of Commons to hear a talk about the situation in Ceaucescu’s Romania. That was the beginning of her love affair with that country and sparked her burning desire to do all she could to help the poor there.
She came to Dundee in 1991, and was Superior at Lawside Convent until 2000. She brought with her ideas to help Romania’s orphans and, shared them with her colleague Sister Marie-Therese, who died last year aged 92. The two elderly Sisters decided to visit Romania to see the situation for themselves. They were both so moved by the plight of young boys in an orphanage that they vowed they simply had to do something to help. Thus the Lawside Romania Fund was born. Help poured in, as donations of clothes, blankets and toys were given by people, first of all in Dundee, but then from across Scotland as news of their work spread. The cellars of the convent were soon packed with boxes to be shipped to Romania. The project continued to grow and Sister Aloysius and Sister Marie-Therese made several visits to Bucharest, one of which saw them taken to the city’s Budimex Children’s Hospital. Again, they were appalled by the conditions they found and in typical determined fashion they resolved to try to improve matters. Sister Aloysius told of abandoned babies lying in squalor in their cots, of young cancer patients in overcrowded wards, of their parents sleeping on the floor to be beside them, of skilled doctors who had little medical equipment or supplies to help them.
People from across Scotland and Ireland, including members of her own family, rallied to her call and steadily the Fund was able to offer help. Sister Aloysius became a weel-kent face around the Budimex and would challenge anyone, especially the hospital top brass, in order to get a better deal for ‘her’ children. She also visited many of the city’s elderly poor, most of who were younger than her, and set up a Meals-on-Wheels service, which gave them a hot meal each day. Along with Romanian businessman Traian Despa, who became manager of the Fund in Bucharest, she travelled out to the countryside around the capital, helping some of the poorest people. Through the Fund, houses were built for cancer sufferers and their families, who had been living in what were little more than farm outhouses, with no running water, sanitation or adequate heating.
Among those to visit Sister Aloysius to see her work in Romania was Bishop Vincent Logan, Bishop Emeritus of Dunkeld. He recalled, “Sister Aloysius was an incredible human being, an indomitable spirit. She took on an immense project at a time of life when she should have been putting her feet up. She simply loved what she was doing in Romania, trying to help the poorest of the poor, and she was loved by them. She wanted nothing more than to be able to continue her work, and I know she thanked God every day that she was able to do so. At Christmas, she told me again how blessed and how privileged she was to have the energy and strength to do what she was doing. She simply loved it and I know she will be more than happy that she died in harness. Countless people owe an enormous debt to Sister Aloysius and we give thanks to God for her and her amazing life.” She was hoatheroured by the City of Dundee for her work when she was made Citizen of the Year.
A Requiem Mass for Sister Aloysius was said in Bucharest on Tuesday 22 January 2012. Among the concelebrants was Fr Colin Golden, parish priest of Our Lady of Lourdes, Perth and St James’, Kinross. Father Golden visited Romania many times and raised thousands of pounds for the Lawside Romania Fund. Sister Anna, Superior of the Mercy Community in Dundee, also travelled to Bucharest for the funeral. Paying tribute to Sister Aloysius, Sister Anna said, “With her boundless energy and enthusiasm, Sister Aloysius was undoubtedly the driving force behind the Lawside Romania Fund. But she would be the first to admit she would have achieved nothing without the support and commitment of countless people, many of whom gave quietly and anonymously, to the Fund. She was especially indebted to our Mercy Congregation for allowing her to work in Romania and for all the financial help given to her.
She was totally devoted to the cause. She was a woman of great faith and gave thanks every day to God for his bountiful goodness to her, first of all in calling her to be a Sister of Mercy and secondly for giving her the privilege of working in Romania. She touched the lives of so many people, both here and in Romania.”
Sr. Mary Dympna Berrigan, Sister of Mercy: 28th February 2013.
Sister Mary Dympna Berrigan died on 28 February 2013. At the homily of her Requiem Mass held in Lawside Convent Chapel, Bishop Logan said:
“I am the resurrection. If anyone believes in me, even though he dies, he will live and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this? Like Martha in today’s Gospel reading, Sister Mary Dympna’s response to that question was a resounding YES. Sister Dympna most certainly believed that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God, the one who was to come into this world. It was her faith in the Lord which sustained her throughout her 92 years, a faith first nurtured in her large family by her parents Francis and Alice Berrigan.
Born Teresa Mary Berrigan in Dublin in 1920, she had four sisters and four brothers. She was educated by the Sisters of Mercy in Dublin’s Baggot Street Convent, the site of the House of Mercy established by Catherine McAuley in 1827. On leaving school, she worked for some time before deciding that God was calling her to be a Sister of Mercy. The Novice Mistress here in Lawside Convent in the 1940’s was Mother Columba. She had a brother who was a priest in Dublin, whom the young Teresa knew. It was through this connection that she happened to come to Dundee and she was to remain here for the rest of her life.
She made her First Vows here in this very chapel, with Sister Mary Rose who is with us today, in 1945. Her brother Matt, who is also here today, was also present on that occasion 68 years ago.
She trained as a nurse at Dundee Royal Infirmary and nursed at Ashludie Hospital until she retired. When recalling her time at Ashludie she said, “I was a good nurse!” and that was an opinion echoed by her many colleagues. Though she loved her work, she loved nothing more than spending time with her community, and she just loved this chapel. She was the one who was responsible for the beautiful floral displays which adorned the sanctuary. She was very artistic and on feast days, and especially at Christmas and Easter, she would decorate the refectory with beautiful flowers for the Sisters to enjoy. All that she did, in her career and in her Community, she did in her own quiet, unassuming way, happy to serve the Lord in whatever was asked of her. She trusted in God and that trust and faith was shown no more clearly than last Christmas when she was diagnosed with a brain tumour. When her doctor gave her the result of the scan, she simply accepted it. She never complained, not even when she deteriorated, she simply put her trust in God. She received wonderful care from her GP and from the staff at St Anne’s Cottage who looked after her until she died, peacefully, a week ago today. She will be sorely missed, especially by her brothers, her many nieces and nephews and her Community here in Lawside. To them we offer our prayers and our condolences as they mourn a much-loved aunt and a much loved colleague and collaborator.
But as always, for those of us who believe, as Sister Dympna did, death is not the end, but a new beginning and we draw consolation and comfort from that. Happy are those who die in the Lord! Happy indeed, the Spirit says; now they can rest for ever after their work, since their good deeds go with them.
Eternal rest grant unto her, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon her. May she rest in peace.
Died – 28th February 2013