A sister to be proud of

Annie Cannon left Glencolumbcille as a 16 year old for the Missions in 1932. 70 years on, her brother, Willie, recalls the extraordinary life and times of the nun who died two years ago in Singapore, having made a huge difference there.

It’s all of seven decades since his sister, Annie, first left home. It’s a long, long time ago but Willie, who was aged just eighth, remembers it vividly.

Yet, he could never have imagined the trials, tribulations and triumphs which were to lay ahead for the second daughter of Annie and John Cannon of Cloghan, Glencolumbcille.

She left these shores for Manchester initially and at her first convent, one of her many tasks involved an early rise in order to get the boilers going.

“She couldn’t afford a dowry and that was her way of paying. She was up regularly at five in the morning,” Willie explains.

She subsequently moved to Angiers in France where she joined the Good Shepherd Convent and she remained there until she was professed. She was then known as Mother Mary of Saint Columba. Her next move took her to Ceylon in 1936 and after three years, she teamed up with two other nuns and headed to Singapore.

Within a short time of her arrival, World War Two broke out in 1939 and she was taken as a prisoner of war by the Japanese in the small island country of south east Asia.

“Eight or nine years went by and there never came a letter from her. Naturally, we thought she had been killed. But as soon as the war ended, we got a letter. I remember when the letter came into the house because the crying started. They were tears of joy, of course,” he recalls.

It was during one of the years of uncertainty about her wellbeing that Mother Mary of Saint Columba was making the headlines on the other side of the world. She spent many years of hardship under the Japanese in the jungle after the outbreak of World War Two. She was one of 2,600 internees in a jungle camp and during that unforgettable period, 600 members of the camp died from starvation.
In 1950, Mother Mary played a hugely significant role in the rescue of 13 year old Marie Bertha Hertogh, who was known the world over as “The Jungle Girl.”

Explains Willie: “Bertha was a little Dutch girl who was separated from her parents in the jungle during the war and was cared for by a Muslim woman, who refused to return her to her parents. When the Muslims realised that they were going to lose their case, they made the young girl marry a Muslim man.”

During what was a prolonged hearing, the Singapore authorities put the little girl in the charge of the Good Shepherd Sisters, with Mother Mary of Saint Columba as her special guardian. The court eventually ruled that Bertha be returned to her parents and this decision caused uproar among the Muslem community.

One newspaper described the riots as “dreadful” when the little girl went back to Holland.
“500 rioters went to burn down the Good Shepherd Convent and kill the nuns, but 300 armed police forced them back with machine guns, with the police protecting the convent day and night.”

Because of the part she played in Bertha Hertogh affair, Mother Mary of Saint Columba had to flee to Ceylon for a time. When the British returned to Singapore, the Community of the Good Shepherd Order resumed their works of mercy, with Mother Mary very much to the fore.

The rules of the Good Shepherd Order prevented her from ever re-entering her home, until the Vatican Council, under the direct of Pope John 23rd, did away with what were draconian regulations.
However in 1953 - 21 years after she left Glen - Mother May came back home for the first time. As Willie recalls, it was a truly memorable affair.

“I was in England at the time as were all my brothers and sisters, although Rosie was in America. We met Annie in London and we had a family reunion. We met her off the plane after she flew in from Singapore and we all travelled home together.

“When we came to Killybegs, there must have been around 200 people standing at the train station. All the neighbours and relations had turned up and it was a most memorable day. Unfortunately, my father had died in 1947.”

After a discussion with his brothers Colm, John and Paddy, the brothers were keen to mark the moment.

“We took them up to Rodgers Hotel for a drink and a cup of tea,” he adds.
Despite the overwhelming joy at her homecoming, it was tinged by some degree of sadness, as Willie remembers.

“At that time she wasn’t allowed to come up home. So I hired a car from Kennedy’s in Dunkineely, Barney McIntyre of Malinbeg took me up as far as Dunkineely for the car. My sister had to go to stay with Bishop McGinley during the holiday in a big two-storey house, the building that is now used by the Killybegs’ Fishermen’s Organisation. She wasn’t allowed to sleep at home or to come into her own home,” he recalls.

Sister Mary of Saint Columba’s visit lasted three months, and although Willie was only home for a fortnight, he took his mother to Killybegs every morning while he was in Glen.

“There was no sense to the rule which didn’t allow her into her own home. I remember my mother and two old aunts were with us in the car when I turned to Annie and said” “Do you know what you are going to do now, go up and see your old home.” She wouldn’t hear tell of it. She eventually came but would not go into the house.

“Then I got on the soft side of her and got her to walk into the house, and down to the room, into the kitchen and down to the other room. She walked out to the street again and broke down in tears. After that I drove her back to Bishop McGinley’s.”

She went back to Singapore at the end of the summer, and returned every four years to visit thereafter. After Pope John 23rd was elected head of the Catholic Church, the laws about re-entering her home were relaxed and she enjoyed her trips back to Ireland much more thereafter.

She was responsible for establishing a Good Shepherd Convent in Singapore which took young prostitute girls as young as 10 off the streets and provided them with education and accommodation. Many of the intake went on to become nuns themselves.

Mother Mary of Saint Columba died in Singapore on March 17th, 2000, aged 84. After her Requiem Mass in Singapore, her remains were cremated.

“She had been in the best of health until about a year before she died. She developed Alzhiemer’s in 1999,” says Willie.

“I used to ring her every Christmas Day, but she used to write often and I would reply. She would have got a letter from some member of the family every month.”

Willie Cannon is proud to have had a sister who made such an impression in her life time. And prouder still to recount the exploits of a great Donegal woman who, it seems, could have been too easily forgotten.

Courtesy of the Donegal Democrat
July 2002
by Ciaran O’Donnell