Amazing story of Sister Agnes McKeon, First MMM Postulant in the USA
Sister Agnes McKeon spent most of her life as a missionary in Angola. She was there through the civil war that lasted for twenty-seven years. She told us the amazing story of how she came to know about the Medical Missionaries of Mary in London in 1948, and how she became the first postulant to enter the MMM Congregation in the United States in 1950.
You can watch a fourteen-minute video of Sister Agnes telling this story on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zRkFcsvCg18
On 4 July 1950, the people of America celebrated Independence Day as they always do. That Tuesday in Ireland, a letter arrived on the desk of our foundress, Mother Mary Martin. It had been a hectic few weeks and this was one of her busiest days ever, the eve of her first voyage to America. The Mauritania would sail from Cobh the following day. Sister Stella Phelan, then a novice, was booked to accompany her.
When Mother Mary read the letter she turned to her secretary, Sister Catherine Ryan. "Reply immediately by airmail, and ask that young woman if she could meet me at the ship when it docks in New York," she said.
Once the voyage began, Mother Mary never rested for a moment. She was single-minded about making known the work of the Congregation she had founded just thirteen years earlier. On 6 July, Mass was celebrated in the ship's cinema. After Mass she lost no time about contacting the ship's purser, Mr. Thomas. In her cabin luggage she had the large tins containing the reels holding the movie Visitation, filmed in Nigeria in 1946. The purser readily agreed to her suggestion that the film be shown for the passengers.
Sister Stella kept a diary, so we know how busy the next few days were. Mother Mary personally printed an Invitation to Captain Thompson and the ship's officers, and sent the captain the book about Visitation, autographed by the famous London director of the film, Andrew Buchanan.
Invitations were also printed for the ship's doctor, Dr. Winer; for the nurses, Sisters Burgess and Knowles; for the Chief Steward, Mr. Thom and his staff; for the Chief Engineer, Mr. Macgovern and his staff; and of course for the staff of the purser's office.
The date set for the showing was the final day of the voyage, Monday, 10 July. Sister Stella noted in her diary: "Distributed literature to the people as they went in. Full house with only standing room. People seemed very interested and many suggested that we should have a collection."
In between, they were packing their luggage to disembark the next day.
The young life of the first postulant in the USA
Agnes McKeon (above), the writer of the letter mentioned above, was the second youngest of nine children who grew up on an eighty-acre farm at Liscloonadea, near Mohill in Co. Leitrim. While she was still small, her oldest brother, Paddy, left for America. He wrote home frequently but never came back to visit. Her parents spoke of him often, and Agnes always knew that before she did anything else with her life, she would fulfill her childhood dream of going to America and meeting this brother.
In 1943 she, too, left home to train as a nurse in England. She first completed three years' training in mental deficiency nursing at Dartford, and when she had staffed there for a year, she commenced training in general nursing at Ipswich.
One evening in 1948 while she was working as a staff nurse, another Irish nurse came back to their residence full of excitement about a film she had seen in London. It was called Visitation.
"She told me about Sisters called Medical Missionaries of Mary who worked in Africa with people who had leprosy. The climate was so hot that you could see the candles at Mass melting from the heat. I thought that would be a worthwhile thing to do with my life. But not yet. I was still saving up so that I could go to America and meet this brother of mine. Because I had two qualifications in nursing, I could earn a bit more than the average nursing salary.
"I sent Paddy a photo of myself and he sent me his. Eventually I went home to talk to my parents, and I bought a ticket from Shannon to New York. That was the autumn of 1949.
"When I landed at Idlewild Airport, as it was known then, I looked at all the people waiting. 'That man over there,' I thought, 'looks a bit like Mammy.' I went over to him and asked, 'Are you waiting for someone?' 'Yes,' he said, 'I am looking for my sister, Agnes.' 'I'm Agnes McKeon', I said, and it was great.
"Paddy took me to see his pub, The Shamrock House on Long Beach. Then we went to his home and I met his wife and little two-year-old daughter. My sister-in-law was expecting a new baby the following month and was worrying about who would mind the toddler. So I decided to stay with them for as long as I was needed. Then I got a nursing job with the Franciscan Sisters at Far Rockaway."
Agnes usually worked the morning shift, 7:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Often she could do a second eight-hour shift of private nursing in the evenings, for which she would earn another ten dollars. She was saving up again. This time it was to buy a return flight to Ireland and fulfill her dream of joining the Medical Missionaries of Mary. When she had flown to New York, she brought with her the contact details her nurse friend had given her in London. When the time felt right, she wrote to Mother Mary Martin in Drogheda.
On the day the Mauritania was due to arrive in New York, Agnes arranged to have the day off duty and travelled to the docklands. She watched all the passengers disembark, but there was no sign of Mother Mary Martin. Getting worried, because she was due on duty at Far Rockaway at 7:00 the next morning, she stopped a priest passenger and asked him if he had seen two Sisters on board. He kindly retraced his steps and returned with a note from Mother Mary saying they could not disembark till the following day so would Miss McKeon please return next morning.
By now it was getting dark. Her brother had told Agnes that if ever she had to stay out in New York overnight, never to stay at a cheap hotel. She made enquiries about a good hotel, followed the directions and checked in. She was surprised when a knock came to her bedroom door and a bellboy handed her a bouquet of flowers. She was in the Waldorf Astoria!
She remembered it well. "Luckily I had put the money I had saved in my purse that day. Next morning I went to the shipside again and waited. Eventually Mother Mary and Sister Stella disembarked and I went with them to the residence where they were booked. Mother Mary told me a lot about the Congregation. She asked me to come back there in two weeks' time and she would give me all the details about entering the Medical Missionaries of Mary. I did as she suggested. To my surprise when we met the second time I found that she had the date set for me to enter on September 14th, not in Drogheda as I had thought, but in Boston!
"The nuns at Far Rockaway were not very pleased to hear I was leaving. Mother Mary had told me to come just as I was, bringing whatever I had, but I thought I should do some shopping, and I remember buying sheets with satin tops and blankets. I cannot remember if I had a trunk or not, but I took the train from New York to Boston on September 14th and then a taxi to Number 36 Commonwealth Avenue.
"I got a glimpse of Mother Mary, looking out the window. As soon as the taxi pulled up she and Sister Stella came out to meet me. They had a lovely meal ready for me. There were just the three of us in that big house until more Sisters began to arrive from Ireland to form the first community of MMMs in America.
"I remained there for six months, and at the end of March 1951, I was told that I would do my novitiate in Ireland, so a passage was booked for me by boat. I was so disappointed. I loved America and I said, 'If I ever leave MMM I will come straight back here.' But I never wanted to leave or do anything else with my life because this way I could do what I wanted most, to help people who were sick in places where there was nobody else to do it."
So began the story of MMM in America
We have been blessed with many American Sisters who brought new energies, great talent and dedication. They opened up the Congregation to a vision of cultural diversity that has enriched MMM in bountiful and lasting ways.
MMM quickly won loyal and loving supporters in the Boston area. Bazaars held each winter in the Hancock Building became legendary. We will never forget the people who helped us back in the early days or those who came later and remained with us through the decades.
As we developed our communities in Chicago and New York, new friends came on board, forming very energetic committees. Through the Office of the Propagation of the Faith the film Visitation was shown all over the country, and people all over the United States have been most generous in supporting MMM. To this day, each year our Sisters speak in parishes in many states. The work continues to be blessed.