Born in 1923 at Kilmainham Wood, Co. Meath, Sister Eileen was educated at Loreto College, Cavan, before joining the Medical Missionaries of Mary in 1944.
After religious profession, she qualified as a midwife at the Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda, and in 1953 took up her first missionary assignment in Tanzania. She was among the pioneering community who founded Makiungu Hospital, near Singida, and has recorded vivid memories of those early days.
In 1967 she was asked to go to the USA and was engaged in promoting the work of MMM all over the States. Along with the late Sister Shirley Smith, she opened our house in Chicago. While there she came to learn about the new concept of clinical pastoral care, taking a course at the Mercy Hospital under the direction of Sister Cyrilla Zerek, OP.
On returning to Ireland early in 1975, Sister Eileen introduced this concept at the Lourdes Hospital. She was so convinced of its value that she wanted to see it extended to other Irish hospitals. Thus began the sequence of events that led to the situation that obtains today, whereby all hospital chaplains must hold certification for their work.
In March 1976, at a seminar at the Marianella Pastoral Centre in Dublin, Sister Eileen was invited to speak about her work in Drogheda. Many of the forty participants who heard her there invited her to visit their hospitals and nursing homes in different parts of Ireland. She was then invited to Cork, where she spoke in all the city hospitals and was interviewed on Cork Local Radio about this new understanding of clinical pastoral care.
The Old Drogheda Society, in its Aspects of the History of Drogheda, No. 4, published in 1999, noted:
“By 1978, Sister Eileen Carmel had become well-known as a speaker on pastoral care of the sick and especially on the subject of death, dying and bereavement. After she appeared on the Late Late Show that year, letters and enquiries poured in to Drogheda about the possibilities of organising training programmes in pastoral care and hospital ministry in general.
“The provincial of the Augustinians at the time was Fr. Martin Nolan. He was also president of the Conference of Religious. While visiting the Augustinian community in Drogheda, he discussed the development of this work with Sister Eileen, suggesting that she should arrange to bring a supervisor to the hospital in Drogheda and arrange an experimental course in clinical pastoral education, to showcase the concept.”
As a result, in 1979, Sister Cyrilla Zerek of Mercy Hospital in Chicago, came to Drogheda. Seven pioneering students took the first course in clinical pastoral education to be held in Ireland. The course proved popular and was widely praised. These were the first small steps that led, ten years later, to the establishment of the Healthcare Chaplaincy Board, which is now responsible for certification of chaplains and for standards for the basic, advanced and supervisory training in clinical pastoral education throughout Ireland.
Sister Eileen retained her passion for pastoral care of the sick to the end of her life. Back in the 1970s, when preparing for her appearance on The Late Late Show, the host, Gay Byrne, dubbed her ‘The Dying Nun’. She protested that when people saw her approaching their bedside they would be thinking, “Here comes ‘the Dying Nun.’ I must be going to die soon”, whereas her work was all about living fully to the very end of life.
She was very excited when, in 2006, the Lourdes Hospital received a public service excellence award from the office of An Taoiseach for its work in improving quality end-of-life care. The hospital had been selected for the pilot project known as the Newgrange Process. Today, when you visit a hospital area where a person is dying or has just died, you will recognise the circular symbols taken from Newgrange that indicate that this is an area requiring silence and respect. The Newgrange Process has since become Ireland’s National Programme for Hospice-Friendly Hospital Care.
Mary McGrane, assistant director of nursing at the Lourdes Hospital, is the link co-ordinator between the Lourdes Hospital and the Hospice-Friendly Hospital Care Programme. On learning of the death of Sister Eileen she said, “I was a student nurse in the hospital during the 1970s. We all got together to watch her on The Late Late Show, and it was great for the hospital. She was the pioneer of pastoral care in Ireland; there is no doubt about that. She was so different, had great ideas, was so caring with families and had time for everybody. She was just so full of life and fun.”
Sister Eileen Carmel died on 1 June 2011 at the Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda.
Rest now, Eileen, and care for us as you enjoy the eternal reward of your work on earth.