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Joanna Bridgeman (Mother Mary Francis)
(1813 - 1888)

A Sisters of Mercy nun and a nursing pioneer, Joanna Bridgeman was born in 1813 and baptised in St Tola's Church, Ruan. Her father, St. John Bridgeman and her mother, Lucinda (Lucy) Reddan of Drewsborough, Co. Clare were married in February 1811. The Reddans were descended from Maurice O'Connell of Dunminiheen (1680-1720), younger brother of John O'Connell who was a great-grandfather of Daniel O’Connell. Joanna was one of a family of two boys and two girls but her mother died in childbirth in 1818. Following her father’s remarriage, Joanna went to live with her aunt, firstly in Scariff, and then in Limerick. In Clare Street in Limerick her aunt, Joanna Reddan, founded the Magdalen Asylum for destitute girls. Joanna would later join the Sisters of Mercy in Kinsale in 1849, taking the name Sister de Sales. In 1854 she went to San Francisco as part of the founding group of a new convent. In 1832 during a cholera outbreak in Limerick Joanna Bridgeman helped her with nursing the sick.

The newly-formed Sisters of Mercy opened a convent in Limerick and Joanna became a postulant there in 1838. Following a very short noviceship she was professed in 1839 by the founder of the order, Catherine McAuley. She was now known as Sister Mary Francis. In 1844, as Mother superior, she went to Kinsale in County Cork, and with a group of other nuns from Limerick set up Saint Joseph’s convent. She worked with the sick and the poor there, receiving some financial assistance from Rome, America and from the Quakers. During the famine years they ran a soup kitchen and a school. An orphanage and an Industrial school was opened which catered for one hundred and fifty girls. During a cholera outbreak in 1849 the nuns were asked to take over the running of Kinsale Workhouse. It housed over two thousand people at the time.

It was in the Crimean War that Mother Jane Francis made her mark on history. Florence Nightingale and her nurses needed help in the Crimea and an appeal was made to the Irish Sisters of Mercy. Mother Bridgeman volunteered and took fifteen of her Mercy order colleagues with her. They nursed the wounded and dying during the year-long siege of Sevastopol and the battles of Inkerman and Balaclava. Their final six months were spent at the Crimean front. Here, it seems that some conflict developed between Florence and Mother Jane Francis, in particular on the issue of the vow of obedience that the nuns had to their religious superior. Difficulties were resolved through the intervention of hospital doctors and chaplains and their work continued. The Sisters were instrumental in introducing a system of management and nursing that was later adopted by Florence Nightingale. This scheme for military nursing was later submitted by Florence to the War Office but Mother Bridgeman and her nuns were never officially acknowledged by the British Government. In recent years, however, their input to modern nursing has been recognised internationally.

Mother Jane Francis returned to Kinsale where she remained for the rest of her life. The school continued to flourish with a thousand children receiving free education, and school meals during the winter months. She directed the establishment of daughter houses in Ireland at Clonakilty, Skibbereen, Newry, Doon, and Ballyshannon. She also set up houses in Derby, England and in San Francisco and Cincinnati, USA. She wrote God in His Works — a four-volume work on theology. Mother Jane Francis Bridgeman died on February 11th, 1888 at the convent in Kinsale.

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Joanna Bridgeman (Mother Jane Francis)