An Ap­pre­ci­a­tion

The Irish Times - - Comment & Letters - OLIVE TRAVERS

It took death, three months short of her 100th birth­day, to quench the in­fec­tious ex­u­ber­ance of Sr Hilda Hef­fer­nan. Live­li­ness, laugh­ter and love char­ac­terised her re­mark­able life, in­clud­ing 79 years as a Notre Dame sis­ter, 43 of which were spent in South Africa.

Born in 1919, she had an idyl­lic child­hood in Prospect House, a coun­try home out­side Kilkenny. Her fa­ther, Dr Patrick Hef­fer­nan, was the med­i­cal of­fi­cer for Kilkenny, and she and her five sib­lings rode their own ponies, and gave con­certs each year in the lo­cal hos­pi­tal. Her love of horse train­ing was just one of the sac­ri­fices which Hilda’s strong re­li­gious faith de­manded, but she never lost that in­ter­est and loved the Chel­tenham races.

Art was one of Hilda’s many tal­ents, and in her later years she painted the dairy she had loved in that Kilkenny home. Her vivid mem­o­ries of the dairy, the potato house, and the chop­ping house kept alive a long-gone era of coun­try liv­ing.

In 1939, at the age of 20, Hilda en­tered a Notre Dame Con­vent in Sus­sex, Eng­land. After train­ing in Our Lady’s Col­lege, Liver­pool, as a pri­mary school teacher she taught in the Notre Dame School in Worth, but in 1951 her high in­tel­lect and bound­less en­ergy were chan­nelled into her role as pos­tu­lant and novice mis­tress for the Notre Dame con­gre­ga­tion in South Africa. While there she was deeply dis­tressed by the in­jus­tice of apartheid and the in­car­cer­a­tion of Nel­son Man­dela. Those who knew her in Africa re­mem­bered her as an in­spi­ra­tional teacher who was in­no­va­tive in her use of drama and artis­tic ex­pres­sion.

Back in Eng­land, at the age of 75, Hilda de­voted her life to car­ing for sick and el­derly sis­ters, with spe­cial af­fec­tion for those from Ire­land. How­ever she never ever saw her­self as one of the el­derly!

To com­pen­sate for the loss of driv­ing in her nineties, Hilda ac­quired a lap­top and em­braced this new tech­nol­ogy, dash­ing off emails in­stead of hand­writ­ten let­ters. This was a loss for the many who missed how the speed of her mind was re­flected in the dense thicket of her ex­quis­ite hand­writ­ten notes, of­ten ac­com­pa­nied by her own hand-painted cards.

The ex­tent and breadth of her in­ter­est and knowl­edge was phe­nom­e­nal. She read widely, from thrillers to dense the­o­log­i­cal trea­tises. Her 99 years spanned the reign of nine popes, some of whom trou­bled her deeply spir­i­tual but pro­gres­sive soul. “I’ll just have to trust in the Holy Spirit” was her prag­matic ap­proach.

The elec­tion of Pope Fran­cis com­peted with the re­lease of Nel­son Man­dela as one of her hap­pi­est days.

“At last, a pope for the poor!” she re­joiced, and launched into avidly read­ing all of his writ­ings and en­cycli­cals.

Hilda de­rived great plea­sure from vis­its of her much-loved fam­ily, and the birth of each new baby.

Her joy­ful “Won­der­ful! Won­der­ful!” con­tin­ues to echo in the ears of all those who loved her. In­deed she was a won­der­ful woman.

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