Edith, born on 3rd December, 1916, in Ballycally, Co. Clare was the 3rd in the family of five children of James and Catherine Dynan. Her brother and three sisters have predeceased her. Nieces, nephews and the next generation join us as we mourn the loss of a truly valiant missionary.. Edith had her secondary education in Berkshire, England and in September 1934 she entered religious life in Killeshandra. At her reception the following year, she was given the name Sebastian. (Yes, many of us remember her as ‘Mother Sebastian’) Two years later she made her first profession. Then she went to Craiglockhart Training College in Edinburgh, Scotland a course she completed in 1941. For the next two years she was Assistant Novice Directress, and then, at last, in 1944 she sailed to Nigeria, a country where she was to spend so much of her life.
On leave 1n 1954, Edith received what must have been a surprising assignation, as Regional Leader to the then newly -formed Region in Philadelphia, USA. That term completed, she was back in Nigeria in 1961 where with few interruptions she was to remain until she finally, reluctantly left in 2006 after celebrating her 90th birthday, the first Holy Rosary Sister to have a 90th birthday there. Even then she came back to Ireland, supposedly on “extended leave” because of poor health (she was leaving her options open!) – first to Brookville, then to Temple Road in 2007 and to Beneavin House in March 2011.
Much could be said of Edith – her talents, especially literary and artistic, her multiple interests, in people, in affairs of church and state, the ease with which she related to people of different cultures, the projects she promoted. Today we don’t like – or use – the word ‘superior’, but Edith had ‘something’, easy to perceive but not so easy to define – let’s call it ‘quality’, a dignity she retained over the years. In the 80s when she was living in community with Nigerian Sisters, they gave her an Igbo name, ADAEZE, which means mother of the king…maybe ‘Queen Mother’ (EDITED: PRINCESS or The King’s first daughter) would be our translation. That really suited her!
Next to her missionary zeal, her outstanding gift was her ability to adapt to whatever her circumstances were. Her early years in Nigeria were spent in localities then much less developed than they are today, what would have been termed ‘bush’ places. Her ministry was education and her firm conviction was that girls had a right to be educated. So she used her contacts with church authorities and chiefs to persuade the government of the need to train girls and young women. One Nigerian friend later described her as “a dogged fighter”. Today there still is an institution, “Sebastian Academy”, named in recognition of all she contributed to education in that area.
As already mentioned, in 1954 she went to USA, from 3rd World to the New World. And Edith fitted in, adapting to a very different milieu, helping to make MSHR known and requesting support for our African missions. She made many friends there and at the end of her term when she was returning to Nigeria, they presented her with a Mercedes. So she returned as Regional Leader with a brand new Merc when not even a bishop had the likes! She and Elijah her driver in splendid uniform were a familiar sight – but very soon, since she was back in a mission territory, she adapted and to use today’s term, she downsized to a Beetle Volks Then the driver was Bisi, a Moslem, and when Edith arrived, at lunchtime, invariably late, her one concern was that Bisi would not be given any food forbidden by his religion. She was not at all concerned for herself. When the Government decreed the phasing out of girls’ primary schools, Edith promptly got permission to use the buildings in one mission station as a girls’ secondary school. I think when Jesus said, “Be wise as serpents.” he had Edith in mind!
Her next major work undertaken in the 80s was called “Research on Bishop Shanahan”. This involved interviewing people who remembered Bishop Shanahan. Again she travelled extensively in Igboland to the missions set up in the early 20th century by Bishop Shanahan. She located elderly men and women who had memories reaching back into their childhood of this bearded white missionary who had baptised and confirmed them. These stories she recorded faithfully. Some years later she wrote the story of Bishop Joseph Shanahan, A Man for Everybody.At the end of the 60s while she was still Regional Leader, she was instrumental in the founding of the Sisters of the Nativity, an indigenous congregation in Makurdi Diocese – a big breakthrough in that area. Over the years she maintained a keen interest in their development and welfare. When her term as Leader ended, her next project was the establishment of the Conference of Women Religious in Nigeria – what corresponds to a female version of CORI in Ireland. In a country as large as Nigeria, this was a huge task and indeed an uphill one. With her farseeing vision, Edith realised its importance but convincing Sisters who were from different regions and language groups of the value of meetings was a major challenge. A lot of travel was necessary but with quiet determination she persisted.
In 1986, she had a short break and did a Scripture course in Milltown Institute of Spirituality. Again in Nigeria, she was engaged in Promotion Work, and in 1995 became Vice-Postulator for the Bishop Shanahan cause. She became frailer. At one time both her wrists were fractured but with her innate determination she remained on. At that time it seemed her resolve was to die in Nigeria. However on medical advice, she unwillingly agreed to come to Ireland on extended leave, first to Brookville, then in 2007 to Temple Road and last year to Beneavin House.
As her memory faded, in her mind she continued to live happily in Nigeria. Her conversation began and ended there. A prominent Irish politician on her TV screen was given a Nigerian identity; even as recently as last `month during the Eucharistic Congress, she focused her eyes for a moment on a crowded scene in the RDS and proclaimed “Onitsha”!
While I have mentioned some of her major activities – in education, with the Sisters of the Nativity, the Nigerian Conference of Women Religious, the Bishop Shanahan cause, her years in USA, Edith was much more than an achiever, a good producer of results. She was a deeply spiritual person, a great conversationalist, a mine of information, well read and fearless in expressing her opinions and indeed she loved a debate or an argument. Her sense of humour was ever to the fore, and above all, she was a truly loyal friend. Her family meant much to her and she rejoiced in visits from relatives.
Her final years in Temple Road and Beneavin House were peaceful and happy. There was a serenity about her that lasted up to her very last moments as she slipped away while prayers were being said. The phrase, familiar from the old Martyrology, “She fell asleep in the Lord..” comes to mind.
Edith, as we say farewell to you today, we thank you again for your presence among us, for your giftedness so generously shared, and especially for your great missionary spirit which is reflected in the hymns chosen for this liturgy. We say Slan abhaile, may you have eternal joy.