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.
Its all of seven decades since his sister, Annie,
first left home. Its 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 couldnt afford a dowry and that was her
way of paying. She was up regularly at five in the morning,
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
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
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
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
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 wasnt allowed to come up home.
So I hired a car from Kennedys 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 Fishermens
Organisation. She wasnt allowed to sleep at home or
to come into her own home, he recalls.
Sister Mary of Saint Columbas 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 didnt 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 wouldnt hear
tell of it. She eventually came but would not go into the
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 McGinleys.
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
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 Alzhiemers in 1999,
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
by Ciaran ODonnell