Sisters of the Past

Sister Bega - Hannah Downing

Profiled in May 2004

14 October 1893 - 11 October 1993

 In a humble Irish cottage on the outskirts of Killarney; Hannah Mary Downing was born - the fifth child in her family of nine. The Downing children were normal, carefree Irish children who laughed, sang, danced and roamed the countryside around the small piece of land which their father farmed.

On special feast-days they used walk into Killarney Cathedral for Mass - about a one hour walk from their home. When Hannah was ten years old her life changed dramatically. Her mother died and it was decided that she would leave school and take upon her young shoulders, the care of her younger brothers and sisters, one being only a baby. The older members of the family were at a crucial stage of their education so it was thought it better for them to continue their schooling. Thus Hannah became the ‘little mother’ of the younger Downing children. In between caring for the family she did some correspondence schooling.

In 1916 when Hannah was 19 and the younger members of the family were growing up and. able to fend for themselves, Hannah decided to emigrate to New Zealand. Ireland was experiencing very difficult times - no jobs, no money, no prospects for the future for young people, and hundreds of young Irish men and women were seeking a new life in new lands. Three or four of the older Downing children had already emigrated to New Zealand. So with great sadness Hannah fare-welled her father, family and friends and along with a group of about fifty other young Killarney emigrants took the train to Cork city, the Cork ferry to Southampton and there, embarked on the S.S. Ionic for New Zealand. Seven and a half weeks later she disembarked in Wellington, travelled by train to Hastings where there awaited her a warm, and loving welcome from her sisters and brother.

For a year she looked for a job and had planned to return to Ireland when she found a position as a doctor’s receptionist. She worked at this for two years. She then knew she was being led to be a religious, and on 1 April 1919 joined the Sisters of St Joseph in Wanganui. She chose the name of Bega (an Irish saint). And so Ireland's loss became New Zealand' s gain - and the real winners were the Sisters of St.Joseph. As Bega said, she never once looked back. Her seventy-five years within the congregation were years of loving, caring, faithful friendship with God, with the Sisters, with her family (Ireland and N.Z.) and with all people.

She was a great communicator. She lived life to the full. During Sister Bega's lifetime most other Sisters were engaged in classroom teaching. Bega's service lay more in behind-the-scene work. She kept the home-fires burning, kept the convents sparkling yet homely and cooked a great meal. She was noted for her Irish hospitality, humour and happiness.

Bega was able to belong to two countries with ease and affection. Ireland, the country of her birth, was deeply in her heart through-out her ninety-six years. Its successes and progress - its struggles and sufferings were all hers. At the same time she entered wholeheartedly into the life of her adopted country, New Zealand. Every aspect of N.Z. life claimed her attention - Church, politics, education, sport, reading, gardening, playing cards and so on. She was a great Irish Kiwi.

Above all, Bega's belief and faith in God was a shining beacon. Her faith never wavered. We hear the phrase 'The faith of the Irish.” Bega epitomised it. Her prayer was simple yet profound. It was all-embracing - and her political ideas defied all understanding - or did they? She was keen on all the parties and thought they should all work together as one for the good of the country. "They’re all sincerely trying to do their best" she'd say.

And so in 1993 a journey which. began in Killarney in 1897 ended on the other side of the world, in Wanganui. It seemed fitting that Bega died in the year celebrating Women’s Suffrage. She was one of the many unsung heroines - but to her sisters in religion, her family and relatives, her Nazareth friends, all who knew and loved her, she stands alongside those women who are honoured for their contribution to life.

Her death at Nazareth Rest Home in Wanganui was followed by a Mass of Requiem in St Mary’s Church. She is buried at Aramoho cemetery.

Gallery / Whakaahua

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