Sister Sheila O'Reilly, formerly Sister Rosary (Julia Esther)
who died in 2020 aged 87 and professed 66 years

Born

8 April 1933

Professed

1 August 1951

Died

11 April 2020

Sister Sheila was born in Dublin, Ireland on 8 April 1933 and grew up in Donnybrook on the south side of the City. She was received into the Congregation as a Postulant at Rosary Priory on 24 September 1949 and was clothed in the Dominican Habit on 25 July 1950, when she received the Religious name Sister Rosary. She made her First Profession on 1 August 1951.

Sister Sheila was one of nine children—four girls (of whom she was the youngest) and five boys. Her oldest brother Michael became a Dominican priest (Fr Philip OP), being ordained before she entered and assigned to Australia. Another sister, Maura, became a Sister of Mercy, serving as Matron of the cottage Hospital in Drogheda and Superior General of the Irish Sisters of Mercy. Sister Sheila joked that her family did everything in pairs: two priests—although one left and married; two Religious; two old maids, etc. Sister Sheila remained close to her siblings –especially Maura, Nora and Elsie—and travelled home to Ireland each Summer as long as she was able, as well as in times of illness.

After Profession, Sister Sheila was assigned to St Joseph’s Convent in Launceston, Cornwall where she gained experience in the School before returning to Rosary Priory for College. She trained as a Secondary School Teacher at Maria Assumpta Teacher Training College in Kensington, London and received a Distinction. Although she trained for Secondary, she spent her entire teaching career in Junior Schools. Her special interest was Craft, and the Principal of the College notes that ‘Sister Rosary has been a skilled and energetic worker who has handled her studies with particular intelligence and interest.’ She had ‘considerable skill’ in dressmaking and embroidery as well as weaving, fabric printing, basketry, bookbinding and play costumes. All these many talents and skills would serve her well during her years as a Junior School Teacher and Head. She retained the habit of collecting scraps of ribbons, cloth and odds and ends that ‘might’ be useful.

In the mid-1950s, when the Prep School opened at Rosary Priory, Sister Sheila was appointed the first Head Teacher, where she was admired and loved in equal measure by her pupils and their parents and staff alike. Always a consummate story-teller, Sister Sheila would recount tales of her classrooms—including reprimanding actor Roger Moore for distracting his little girl from completing her homework. At the time, the School had a number of children of well-known actors who worked at the nearby Elstree Studios.

When Sister Sheila came out of Rosary Priory School in 1977, she spent one year in Rome before she joined the Staff at St Catherine of Siena Primary School in Garston. She was an outstanding, caring and dedicated teacher, especially with the less able and disadvantaged pupils, always very encouraging of them in their studies. When one pupil was reluctant to respond to her pleas to learn, he responded ‘I don't need to learn how to write , Sister, I'm going to be a footballer so I need only sign an X on the paper.’ When pupils got into scraps she did not condone their behaviour, but she understood and did not condemn them.

Sister Sheila also served as Chairperson of the Board of Governors of St Joseph’s School in Storrington, West Sussex. She gave generously of her time, advice and experience to Staff and pupils. At the 1987 General Chapter, Sister Sheila was elected to the General Council for a period of six years.

When she retired from Teaching, Sister Sheila moved to St Michael’s Convent, Harpenden in Hertfordshire where began an amazing new ministry at Open Door in St Albans, a registered charity that runs a Refuge for Homeless people. She served at Open Door for over twenty-five years. She organised the cooking of a meal on Sunday and Tuesday evenings—52 weeks of the year—with volunteers from Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Harpenden and some of the neighbouring Parishes around the St Albans area. It was always a feast of tasty food, some of which she shopped for and some donated to Open Door. Sister Sheila was always on the lookout for donations and picking up bits and pieces for the clients. She spent Sunday morning preparing vegetables, then set off to oversee things in person, Cooking orders were given by Sister Sheila from a sitting position, and she missed nothing. Only the best was good enough for her people! When Sister Sheila was no longer able to attend one of them would ask ‘Is Sister Sheila not coming? She’s a grand lady.’

In 2015, Sister Sheila received a Lifetime Achievement Award and was recognised as a Finalist for her Service to the Community in a the St Albans ‘Advertise Community Awards’ She received a trophy and certificate at St Alban’s Town Hall and, after giving her vote of thanks was interviewed by the local newspapers. It was with great reluctance that Sister Sheila finally had to give up her ministry at Open Door when she became physically too frail to continue and her memory began to wane and dementia set in.

Sister Sheila was an extravert with a deep commitment to justice, particularly for the poor. She was a wonderful organiser and was renowned for her picnics and get-togethers for family and friends. On any trip, short or long, she brought along a flask of coffee and something to eat: she was not one to be spending her money in cafes or restaurants: if the poor cannot do it, nether would she.

Sister Sheila led the Life Ascending Group in Harpenden for many years, part of a national network of groups for so-called senior citizens, to provide a focus on growing in faith, prayer and love. She was well-loved by all its members. The various outings she arranged are still talked about! When she left Harpenden, she continued to attend Funeral Masses, and special occasions of the group as long as she could.

Sister Sheila is probably best known for her determination, strength and patient bearing of suffering. As a young woman, she was beset by severe rheumatoid arthritis which crippled her hands and feet in particular. This must have been particularly difficult for a young woman who, by her own account, had been a tomboy and so engaged in various sports. She underwent numerous surgeries over the years but remained undaunted. She was meticulous in her diet and exercise which enabled her to remain active. She travelled to Padua, Italy annually for treatment at the mud baths for her arthritis. In latter years she was accompanied by Sister Loretta Dooley for whom the journeys were memorable: the shared laughter was as good a tonic as the treatment itself.

Sister Sheila was a completely selfless Dominican, who cared for her Sisters, loved her family and friends, and was always prepared to go the extra mile for anybody. She did everything with a sense of humour. She was generous in Community, and particularly when it came to driving Sisters to and from various engagements or planning day trips and outings. She nurtured a life-long devotion to Our Lady and was a faithful pilgrim at the annual Dominican pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham in Norfolk. Her voice could still be heard in Chapel as she recited her Rosary day by day.

Sister Sheila remained as independent as possible for as long as possible, supported by the Community and Carers at Rosary Priory. In her final months, she became very frail but never lost her enthusiasm, sense of humour or love of telling a good story. She was admitted to Watford General Hospital with pneumonia on 20 March, only days before the country went into lockdown as the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 pandemic swept across Europe and the world. Because of the lockdown, visitors were forbidden. Sister Sheila was transferred to the Hemel Hempstead General Hospital where Sister Felicity and Sister Damien were able to visit her before she died. She was quiet and peaceful, and so she went to meet the God whom she had served so faithfully for more than sixty years.

Because of the pandemic, no Requiem Mass could be celebrated nor a funeral service held—according to Civil and Church regulations. Instead, the Rosary Priory Community gathered at the path to the Cemetery to process with Sister Sheila’s coffin for a simple but poignant burial service at her grave.

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