We learn about those who have gone before us not just to help us avoid their mistakes but also to be inspired by their virtues and their lives. This year, for a summer holiday, I planned a trek across a few European countries along a route which interested my two companions and I.
The thread that gently held the places together is the life a woman who was born in 1895 in the downland of Drominidy, Drimoleague, which is only a short hop from my homeplace. Kate McCarthy was born to Daniel McCarthy and Mary Driscoll on the 18th of December of that year. Her father was one of the McCarthy Sowneys – a branch of the McCarthy family which is strong in the Drimoleague area. Her mother Mary was O’Driscoll from Moreagh, Dunmanway, and a sister of Fr Denis O’Driscoll who died as Parish Priest of Enniskeane in 1918 and is buried in the church grounds there.
Kate, the oldest of ten children, was only 16 years when she left home and travelled to north-eastern France to join the Franciscan Sisters of Calais who in 1805 had taken over the running of a hospital in a small town called Béthune, not far from Lille. So, 106 years later. I set off with a Drinagh native and a Darrara native to find out more.
The first leg of our journey took us to London where we visited the British Museum. Here, too, there are traces of saintly people who once tread our land.
Not too far away from the Museum, we visited St. Paul’s Cathedral — a vast church associated with many of the religious ceremonies in the lives of the British Royal Family.
Until the Reformation, St. Paul’s was a Catholic Church and has been a place of Christian prayer and worship since the earlier days of Christianity in Britain. That building burned in the Great Fire of London in 1666 and the present building was finished in 1708.
It is vast!
While we were in London, the dominant news item was the election of the next leader of the Conservative party who would automatically become the country’s next prime minister.
The air was dense with tension about the UK’s relationship with mainland Europe and the importance of that connection for trade and tourism especially.
A previous generation of political leaders in the UK chose to strengthen their relationship with the rest of the continent by co-developing an easier way of travel.
The tunnel under the British Channel was opened in 1994 but none of our party had ever used it. That was about to change.
We took the Eurostar train from St. Pancras Station, London, to Lille, France and before we knew it we were in another country and back in Euro-currency land!
Lille is a relaxed city and a good place to unwind. Many places don’t open their doors until 10am! Locals are happy to sit out in the cooler parts of the evening sipping wine and beer into the late hour while gently sharing the news of the day without any commotion. The area has elements of French and Flemish cultures combined.
For us, the most interesting building is the Catholic Cathedral which was completely transformed. The 19th Century building dedicated to Our Lady was virtually rebuilt in the 1990s so it is now a mix of Gothic and modern artistic styles.
The boldest part of the reconstruction was the complete removal of the main door and its surrounding façade in favour of a new wall of thin stone which lets light in and has a modern ‘rose window’ as a focal point.
We thought it works. It’s peaceful and prayerful and we could see that other visitors respected the place and its spirit, too.
Many of the city’s streets are pedestrianised and this makes them easy to wander in. The city is served by two railway stations: Lille Europe serves TGV and Eurostar services to major cities while Lille Flandres serves links to regional and local stations.
The Lille Flandres station was our connecting point to Béthune, about an hour away by train.
It’s a small town with a distinctly Flemish flavour to its buildings and food. It no longer has any trace of the convent or hospital where Sr. Kate McCarthy served but it is still very special to be in the town where she lived and served in difficult times.
She arrived here just before the outbreak of WWI and after spending time in America had returned here before the commencement of the Second World War.
She returned to her nursing post in Béthune during the Battle of France and she also joined the intelligence and escape network of the Musée de l’Homme, a significant organisation within the French Resistance movement. During this time she helped more than 120 Allied soldiers to escape occupied France.
However, following interrogation of locals by the Nazi military, Sr. Kate’s activities became known and she was arrested in June 1941.
The Nazi occupation of this area left a trail of death in its wake as evidenced by the war memorial in the town.
While many of the people who were arrested for such activities were executed, Sr. Kate was jailed and spent almost a whole year in solitary confinement in prisons in a number of German cities.
There is no trace of her story nowadays in Béthune though the impact of the war is recorded. The religious fervour of previous generations is evidenced too in the grandeur of the principal church in the town. Église St. Vaast has very beautiful stained glass windows.
However, the notice of Mass times on the notice-board displays the change that has happened. The five local churches are now served by one priest. Sunday Mass is offered each Sunday in St. Vaast but the other churches have Mass once a month, rotating on Saturday evenings between them. Perhaps a sign of things to come in Ireland soon.
We returned to Lille happy that we had tread on the soil in Béthune where Sr Kate had walked and prepared for our next leg of the journey to Brussels.
The first thing we noticed about this heart of the EU is the change in the pace of life: everyone’s in a hurry somewhere! And it’s very noisy all day and all night with a cacophony of sirens.
Secondly, its buildings are designed to also shout! Nothing subtle about the architecture here if the message is to be heard and understood in all the languages of the EU! One of the stops on the hop-on-hop-off bus route is an enormous Basilica dedicated to the Sacred Heart. The world’s fifth largest Catholic Church was commenced in 1905 but was not finished until 1971. It is 89 metres tall and 167 m long!
Inside, it has a number of churches with each capable of accommodating a few thousand people. We couldn’t help but feel that it is now very out of touch with its surrounding culture and environment and it’s difficult to imagine how it might ever be filled with people.
When it was built, it made a statement: to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Belgian independence. It was brash, bold and confident. But while Catholicism in Brussels is still strong, none of these terms apply now.
One wonders how the newer buildings of the EU institutions will be viewed in 100 years time.
Today they speak from their polished steel and glazed shapes of a light-filled and confident Europe which is all-embracing. Time will tell if that ambition can be sustained.
A side note to our visit to Brussels: a friend had recommended that we visit the city’s Military Museum which has insights into the impact of war and divisions in Europe. It’s in the Parc Cinquantaire.
We were not surprised to find when we arrived at 17.10 to discover that it had closed for the day – the sign says it closes at 5pm. We promised to return next day.
We headed to the museum in the afternoon after seeing some other sights. We arrived at 16:02 but were told that it was closed. It wasn’t – but the small print on the sign says last admissions are at 16:00 and even though we were just two minutes after this and we were due to fly out on the day after, there was no way the man was going to let us in, even if we would have been happy to pay the full amount and be out by 17:00. It was Saturday and he wasn’t for turning and he was packing up!
By sheer coincidence the following morning we encountered some of today’s Belgian Cavalry when we intended to go to Mass at the Cathedral. When we arrived the place was cordoned off by police and a crowd was starting to assemble. A policeman told us the Belgian Royal Family were at Mass in the Cathedral for the country’s national holiday. Curiosity took over and we found a spot at the barrier from which to watch proceedings.
As they left from Mass at the Cathedral, the Royal Family went to the barriers to meet and greet — and their admirers included three wardering Irishmen!
We leave Brussels and resume our journey in the footsteps of Sr Kate and head for Berlin. Our journey was a flight with Brussels Air but Sr. Kate had made this trek in stages – being imprisoned along the way in three different jails over the period of one year.
We based ourselves in Berlin and travelled from there to Ravensbruck where Sr Kate had been detained. The site of the concentration camp is preserved though most of the original buildings were destroyed during the Russian Army’s time there after the war. What was the headquarters of the SS in the camp is now a very well presented interpretative centre which details the sad history of the place and the people who endured it.
In April 1945 the Ravensbruck camp was liberated by the Swedish Red Cross and a few months later Sr. Kate McCarthy arrived in London, where she met her brother Dan for the first time since 1936.
After returning to France in 1946, she was personally decorated for her bravery by General de Gaulle and also by Winston Churchill.
Sr Kate returned to Ireland after the war and lived at the Honan Home in Cork where she was appointed Mother Superior. Following her death on June 21, 1971, she was buried in St. Finbarr’s Cemetery, Cork.
We walked back to the train station humbled by our visit to this place of sorrow and pain which now stands as a silent memorial to people’s capacity to reduce others to indignity and suffering. But it’s also a reminder of people’s capacity for good even in the midst of awfulness.