Sister Mary Bertha Hennessy
One beautiful summer day, August 9, 1926, the Lord sent a baby girl into this world. I am the first born child of William and Norah Hennessy. I was baptized in St. Marie's Church in Rugby, England on the feast of the Assumption of Our Lady, August 15 th , and given the name Norah Agnes. I am the eldest of six children, three boys and three girls, in an Irish Catholic family that had settled in Rugby, England.
My parents' Catholic faith was of such importance to them that each Sunday they would travel nine miles to Mass. I attended the local public school for one year until my parents decided that I should attend St. Marie's as a preparation for my First Confession and Communion. Eventually we moved to Monks Kirby where I attended the Convent of Mercy School.
Our parish had a mission in the fall of 1937 given by a White Father, Fr. Gaffney, who was home from Africa and touring the country to raise funds for the Missions. Each day he would visit the school and speak to the students about his work in the Missions. I began to feel a strong desire to go to Africa as a missionary Sister to teach about Jesus. During the next few years I learned all I could about missionaries in action in Africa. When I was seventeen I began writing letters of inquiry to several religious congregations. Some never responded and others were not interested in encouraging girls under eighteen to enter their order.
Among the positive responses I received was one from Sr. Cecile Agnes Connolly, OSFS, Superior and Headmistress at the Convent of St. Francis de Sales School in Tring. Sister and I corresponded for several months before I requested to enter. She assured me they had missionary Sisters in Africa. She advised me to obtain several documents and forward them to her. I requested an interview with our pastor, Fr. Henry Van Dillon, who informed me he would write a letter and give me a reference the next day, August 8, 1944. Unfortunately Fr. Van Dillon died of a massive heart attack during the night and so I never got his reference and letter. Several newly ordained priests performed the ministry at our parish for the next several weeks. They felt they did not know me enough to give me a reference but one of them had the idea to ask the chaplain of a nearby boarding school that had evacuated from London and was temporarily located in Lord Denbigh's mansion. Fr. William Butler willingly gave me the reference.
When I requested my parents' permission, my mother told me that I was too young and that I should wait unto the war (World War II) would be over. Fortunately my father told me that as long as I would be happy he would be willing to allow me to enter. Because of travel restrictions there was no question of going to visit the Oblate Sisters in Tring.
In September 1944 all seemed to be in order for me to enter in November. I informed the Superior of the Mercy School, Mother Mary Xavier, that I would be entering the Convent in November so would no longer be helping them. She told me I could not leave until I had found a replacement. I communicated this news to Sr. Cecile Agnes in Tring and told her I would come as soon as possible.
The feast of the Epiphany was on a Saturday in 1945. My family had the custom of attending Benediction at the Mercy Convent Chapel. At the end of the service, the Superior called me to the phone to speak with someone who had been trying to reach me. It was Sr. Cecile Agnes who asked me, "When are you coming?" I answered, "On Monday, January 8 th ." What a surprise for everyone that I would be leaving in two days!
My suitcase had been packed since early November and I was eager to enter the Convent. I traveled by train to Tring and arrived at the station around 6:00 P.M. to be greeted by an Oblate Sister in a black habit and cloak. This was my first meeting with the Oblates. When Sr. Agnes de Sales asked me if I were Miss Hennessy, I was tempted to say no, but I did not. After a short bus ride, we arrived at the Convent where I was given a meal and met the community. For the next three weeks I cried myself to sleep every night and promised myself that I would 'go home tomorrow'. After a few days, I was given daily French lessons. For several weeks, I kept the money I brought with me, as well as my ration card. In England during the war, certain foods, such as meat, butter, tea and sugar, could not be purchased without the ration card.
Some time later that month, a young woman came to stay at the convent for a few days, seeking her vocation. She was surely an angel sent by God to strengthen my vocation as she appeared quite eager to enter the Convent. After her departure, my attitude changed for the better and I became interested in learning how to become a missionary to Africa.
Having completed two and a half years of postulancy at Tring, I journeyed to our Motherhouse which was then in Perugia, Italy. I received the habit there on August 27, 1947 and began my Novitiate year. The next Spring, the Motherhouse returned to Troyes, France where I professed my first vows on September 15, 1948.
Early in the Spring on 1948, Mother Jeanne de Sales Cussac, our Mother General, made her first visit to Africa. I mentioned to my Novice Mistress, Sr. Cecile Madeleine, that I had originally entered the Oblates because I wanted to be a missionary. I sent a note to our Mother General in Africa telling her this. She replied that I was really making life difficult for her since she had promised Sr. Cecile Agnes that I would return to Tring a few months after my First Profession. I soon started a nursing course to prepare me for work in the missions. The Sisters at the Motherhouse were aware that several of us were training and preparing to leave for Africa.
In 1950, Mother Jeanne de Sales visited Ecuador and stopped in the United States to see the Oblate Provincial, Fr. William Buckley, who was asking for Sisters to come to the USA. On June 4 th of that year, I was informed that I would not be going to Africa but to the United States instead.
And so, for more than fifty years now, I have labored with love for the mission God had prepared for me from all eternity. God be praised!