Nano Nagle: The Lady of the Lantern

This year, as the Presentation Institutions across the world celebrate Nano’s 300th birthday, we shall walk humbly in her footsteps to achieve her dream, a dream which she cherished over 275 years ago.

Nano Nagle statue in Ballygriffin near Mallow
A statue of Nano Nagle at her birth place in Ballygriffin near Mallow.

If she were to be alive today, she would be the kind of person who would win a Nobel Prize. Before she died in 1784, she had opened 7 schools for the poor children around Cork City (Ireland), established an almshouse for poor women, founded the Presentation Congregation, the members of which continue her education and social inclusion work today in many parts of the world including India. The Presentation Sisters, as they are known, have their communities in different parts of India like Delhi, Goa, Kashmir, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh and Tamil Nadu where they run number of prestigious educational institutions for young girls in particular.

Nano Nagle was born on 9 April 1718, in Ballygriffin, Cork, Ireland. Christened Honoria Nagle, her father affectionately called her “Nano”, a name by which she has come to be known ever since. Though she hailed from an affluent family, her sensitive heart heard the cry of the poor. Nano Nagle responded to this call when she saw the sufferings of the people on the streets, devastated by hunger and cold. The contrasts in the lives of people made a deep impact on her life. It was then that she promised herself to act as God’s instrument to uplift and care for the poor. She felt that people could only be uplifted through education.

Nano Nagle teaching children

So, with sheer determination and undaunted spirit, Nano set up her first school in 1771 in a two-room cabin, at Cork. Little did she realize then that she was going to create a huge impact on the world. Her mission was to impart knowledge to the poor, not just in Ireland but in the whole world. Without regard to her personal safety, she selflessly educated poor children during the day, and visited and nursed the sick during the night. As a result, she came to be known in Cork as “Miss Nagle, the Lady of the Lantern”, which is the symbol of the Institute of the Presentation Sisters she founded. Today, the people of Ireland attribute their emancipation to her and greatly revere her.

Nano was an embodiment of goodness, a beacon to dispel ignorance through learning. In the process of her committed work, she also realized the need for a group of committed people who would continue her work after her death. With this in mind, she founded the Institute of the Presentation Sisters in 1775. From the small beginnings, the Institute spread to many cities not only in Ireland but all over the globe. The pioneering members of the Institute reached India, in 1842.

This year, as the Presentation Institutions across the world celebrate Nano’s 300th birthday, we shall walk humbly in her footsteps to achieve her dream, a dream which she cherished over 275 years ago. Long days of constant walk across the city took a toll on Nano’s health. She died of tuberculosis on 26 April 1784, leaving behind for her Sisters the message: “Spend yourself for the cause of the poor.”

Each year, thousands of students pass out from the portals of the Presentation Schools across the world, all of whom are raised to love, care and be compassionate to all, especially the poor, apart from making a mark for themselves. Each one of them moulded and nurtured as Nano wanted them to be, is by itself a great tribute to her vision. Nano is their role model today, as she shows herself to be a torchbearer of universal education: to one and all.

A few years ago, I was blessed with the opportunity to visit the community of the Presentation Sisters, situated at Cork in Ireland. The atmosphere and environment, there, infused me with a sense of deep meditation and thought to learn how far and wide the message of Nano has spread.

Vyshnavi with her cousin at Nano Nagle’s grave
Vyshnavi with her cousin at Nano Nagle’s grave

I also visited her tomb wherein her saintly remains were laid to rest in 1784. It inspires one to ponder how far divinity seems to shape our lives. One begins to drive home the message that “man does not live by bread alone”. It is important for young people like us today to emulate her zeal and spread her message that we must work for the poor and the downtrodden, also realizing the truth that knowledge is the LIGHT that can dispel the darkness of ignorance, superstitions and social evils so very prevalent in our country.

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T. S. Vyshnavi

T. S. Vyshnavi is a Std XII student of Sacred Heart Matriculation School, Church Park, Chennai, (run by the Sisters of the Presentation Congregation founded by Nano Nagle). She is the Head Girl of the School.