Teresa Kearney

Teresa Kearney (Mother Kevin) (1875–1957) was a teacher, Franciscan Sister, and missionary. She was born in Knockenrahan, Arklow, Ireland on April 28, 1875.[1] At the age of 17, she became a Junior Assistant Mistress and taught in Essex, England.[2] On December 2, 1902, she left to begin missionary work in Nsambya, Uganda.[3] She worked as a Franciscan Sister of Saint Mary's Abbey, Mill Hill, London. In 1952 Kearney founded the Franciscan Missionary Sisters for Africa.[4] Kearney's work in East Africa resulted in the formation of multiple hospitals and training of nurses throughout the region. Her name serves as the root of the word Kevina, meaning "hospital" or "charity institute" in Uganda. On November 6, 2016, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Lugazi opened her formal beatification process earning her the title Servant of God.[5][6]

Servant of God

Mary Kevin Kearney
Photograph of Teresa Kearney in early twentieth century
BornTeresa Kearney
(1875-04-28)28 April 1875
Knockenrahan, Arklow, Ireland
Died17 October 1957(1957-10-17) (aged 82)
Brighton, Massachusetts, United States
Venerated inRoman Catholic Church

Early life


Teresa Kearney was born on April 28, 1875 as the third daughter to Michael Kearney, a farmer, and Teresa Kearney.[1] Three months prior to Kearney's birth, her father died in an accident.[3] Following his death, Kearney's mother remarried and had three more children. When Kearney was ten years old, her mother died.[7] Her maternal grandmother, Grannie Grenell, then raised Kearney in Curranstown, County Wicklow. Grannie Grenell had a profound impact on Kearny's spiritual beliefs and deep faith. When Kearney was 17, Grannie Grenell died.[2]


Kearney attended local convent school in Arklow following her mother's death.[1] In 1889, following her grandmother's death, Kearney went to convent of Mercy at Rathdrum, to train as an assistant teacher.[2] She did not have the finances to pay for training, and became a Junior Assistant Mistress.[2] A year later, she went to teach in a school run by the Sisters of Charity in Essex.[7]


Early work

In 1895, Kearney entered into the Franciscan Missionary Sisters of the Five Wounds at St Mary's Abbey, Mill Hill, London.[1] On April 21, 1898 she took the name Sister Mary Kevin of the Sacred Passion.[3] Her motto was "For Thee, Lord."[3]


Following the death of her grandmother, Kearney turned toward thoughts of religious life. She believed that God was calling her to be a sister, and she applied for admission to the Franciscan Sisters in St Mary's Abbey, Mill Hill, London.[2] She volunteered to work with African Americans in London.[3] She waited three years for a posting to the American mission, but when the call from a foreign mission came, it came from Africa.[2]

Missionary work

Path to Uganda

On December 3, 1902, Kearney and five other sisters left London for Nsambya, Uganda.[1] They were chosen at the request of Bishop Hanlon of the Mill Hill Fathers.[3] The sisters arrived on January 15, 1903[1] and established a dispensary and school in the Buganda.[2] "Their task was to care for the women and girls and to further weaken the association of Catholicism with French missionaries and Protestantism with British missionaries in the then British Protectorate."[2] Among the sisters were three Irish, one American, one English, and one Scottish woman.[2]

Kearney started her first clinic under a mango tree near the convent.[3] The first seven years of missionary work were tough for the sisters. Various diseases, from smallpox to malaria, ravaged Buganda.[2] The infant mortality rate was also relatively high due to the high frequency of maternal deaths.[2] In 1906, Kearney expanded the missionary and set up a hospital in Nagalama, twenty-three miles away.[1] Following Sister Paul's illness and return to the United States in 1910, Kearney was appointed the new superior of the convent.[3] In 1913, three more sisters arrived, which allowed Kearney to establish a third mission station in Kamuli, Busoga.[4] All three stations focused on medicine and education for the local population with a focus on primary and secondary education, training of nurses, and the founding of clinics, hospitals and orphanages.[2]

Role in World War 1

During World War 1, the Nsambya Hospital was used to treat the Native Carrier Corp, porters for European troops.[4] At times, Kearney was outraged by the treatment Europeans gave to the African porters. She worked to uphold the rights of African people caught up in the European war. On December 25, 1918 Kearney was awarded the MBE, Member of Order of British Empire, for her services to the wounded during the war years.[1]

Promotion of female education

Kearney is credited for promoting higher education in Catholic African women in her mission. In 1923, she founded the Little Sisters of St. Francis, a community of African nuns for teaching and nursing.[7] This program started with only eight local girls. A year later, Kearney and Dr. Evelyn Connolly, a lay missionary, founded a nursing and midwifery school in Nsambya.[7] Their goal was to promote the education of women throughout Uganda.

Creation of Franciscan Missionary Sisters for Africa
Mount Oliver, Dundalk motherhouse

In September 1928, Kearney returned to England to establish a novitiate exclusively for training sisters for African missions.[2] The novitiate was officially opened in 1929 in Holme Hall, Yorkshire.[2] Many women from England, Scotland and Ireland travelled to Holme Hall to assist the missionary efforts.[3] This created a shortage for the Mill Hill Fathers, who also needed sisters for their school in England and American missions.[3] Upon realization of this divide, Kearney and the Mill Hill Fathers broke off from each other. On June 9, 1952 the new congregation of the Franciscan Missionary Sisters for Africa was founded by Kearney.[3] Kearney was appointed the first superior-general.[1] Mount Oliver, Dundalk, became the motherhouse for this new congregation.[3] With the formation of the FMSA, Kearney expanded the missionary to Uganda, Kenya, Zambia, the US, Scotland, and South Africa.[3]


Photograph of Teresa Kearney in the mid-twentieth century

Kearney retired in 1955 at age 80.[1] During retirement, she was appointed Superior of a Boston Convent in 1955 and raised funds for African projects.[2] She travelled and talked to donors to garner support for projects in Africa.


On October 17, 1957, Kearney died at the age of 82 in Brighton, Massachusetts.[1] Her remains were flown to Ireland and buried at Mount Oliver.[3] Ugandan Catholics rallied to have her body flown to Uganda to be buried.[3] On December 3, 1957, Kearney's body was buried in the cemetery at Nkokonjeru, the motherhouse of the Little Sisters of St. Francis.[3]


Photograph of current members of FMSA

Kearney's legacy is evident today. In Uganda, the word Kevina means "hospital" or "charitable institute".[2] The Mother Kevin Postgraduate Medical School was named after Mother Kevin (Teresa Kearney).[8] The Little Sisters of St. Francis currently now has over 500 members throughout Africa.[2] The Franciscan Missionary Sisters for Africa currently works in Uganda, Kenya, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa.[3]


In 1918, Kearney was made Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) for her work during the war.[4] In 1955 she received Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE), as well as Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE).[1] In 1955, she was also awarded the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice from Pious XI, for her Catholic work in Uganda.[2]


  1. Bryan, Deirdre (2006-01-01). "From the Files of the "DIB": Mama Kevina, 'Flame in the Bush'". History Ireland. 14 (4): 66. JSTOR 27725494.
  2. "Mother Kevin, a prophetic woman - Catholicireland.net". Catholicireland.net. 1999-11-30. Retrieved 2016-12-12.
  3. "FRANCISCAN MISSIONARY SISTERS FOR AFRICA". www.fmsa.net. Retrieved 2016-12-12.
  4. "Teresa Kearney (Mother Kevin), Uganda, Catholic". www.dacb.org. Retrieved 2016-12-12.
  5. "1957". newsaints.faithweb.com. Retrieved 6 May 2016.
  6. "Cause of Beatification of Mother Kevin Kearney OSF (1875–1957)". armagharchdiocese.org. 2018-01-05. Retrieved 5 January 2018.
  7. Bourke, Angela (2002-01-01). The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing. NYU Press. ISBN 9780814799062.
  8. "Mother Kevin Postgraduate Medical School | Uganda Martyrs University". www.umu.ac.ug. Retrieved 2016-12-12.