Sister Agnes was born in Liscloonadea, Mohill, Co. Leitrim, in 1924, the second youngest of five girls and four boys. She attended the local primary school and Mohill Technical School and in 1943 went to England with three of her sisters to train as a nurse. While working there in 1948, another nurse told her about a film called Visitation.
Agnes remembered, ‘She told me about Sisters called Medical Missionaries of Mary who worked in Africa with people who had leprosy. I thought that would be a worthwhile thing to do with my life. But not yet.’ Agnes had something special to do first. While she was small, her oldest brother, Paddy, left for America. He wrote home frequently but never returned. Agnes knew that someday she would go to America and meet this brother and so she bought a ticket to New York in the autumn of 1949.
She said, ‘When I landed at Idlewild Airport [now JFK], 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.
She met Paddy’s wife and two-year-old daughter. Her sister-in-law was expecting a new baby and was worrying about who would mind the toddler. So Agnes decided to stay with them as long as she was needed. She then got a nursing job in Far Rockaway. She was now saving for a return ticket to Ireland to join MMM. She wrote to Mother Mary in Drogheda.
What Agnes didn’t know was that Mother Mary was preparing for her first voyage to America, planning to open a house in Boston. Agnes’ letter arrived shortly before Mother Mary was to depart for New York on the Mauritania. She told her secretary, Sister Catherine Ryan, ‘Reply immediately and ask that young woman if she could meet me at the ship when it docks in New York.’
Agnes met Mother Mary and Sister Stella, then a novice, at the dock. Mother Mary told Agnes a lot about the MMM Congregation asked her to come back in two weeks. She would give her the details about joining. Agnes wrote, ‘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! … I took the train from New York to Boston and then a taxi to Number 36 Commonwealth Avenue.’
Agnes was our first MMM postulant in the USA. She said, ‘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.’ She was received by then Archbishop Richard Cushing of the Archdiocese of Boston in 1951 and was told she would do her novitiate in Ireland. After profession she worked in the hospital in Drogheda for a year.
In 1954 Agnes was assigned to Angola, then Portuguese West Africa, as part of a new MMM foundation in the south of the country. While she was trained professionally she had only two words of Portuguese, bom dia (good day). Medical care was at a minimum, roads were non-existent, needs were huge and the hospital was tiny. Agnes learned both Portuguese and the local language.
For over 20 years she worked in Chiulo as a ward sister and matron and served in local MMM leadership. She trained women and young girls in health care long before there was a nursing school and with the other Sisters, built up what became Chiulo Hospital – a busy, large and well-run facility. In 1975 she returned to Ireland and was home sister for a year in the nurses’ residence in Drogheda.
Agnes was back in Chiulo in 1976 and spent twelve more years there. She was present in Angola through the twenty-seven-year civil war, dealing with isolation, shortage of supplies, and the communist regime. She returned finally to Ireland in 1989 but was not idle. For twenty-four years she worked in Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital (then the IMTH) as a volunteer and receptionist. Based in the Motherhouse, she then helped in Áras Mhuire, organizing daily prayer sessions for the Sisters. In her life she maintained an inner calm, was quietly organized and was available for new possibilities.
She moved to Áras Mhuire for care in July 2019 and died there peacefully on 11 February 2020, the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes.
The main celebrant at Agnes’ funeral Mass was Fr. Colm Reidy, CSSp, who worked in Angola and visited Chiulo many times. He was assisted by Fr. Pat Kelly, SPS, chaplain of Áras Mhuire. Several generations of the McKeon family attended, including Agnes’ only surviving sibling, Jack. After the burial, Sisters and visitors shared stories and fond memories of a woman who gave all in God’s service. Speaking of her life in MMM Agnes said, ‘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.’
For Agnes’ story in the USA, see our website: Amazing story of Sister Agnes McKeon, First MMM Postulant in the USA.