Our tradition is drawn from two sources – St Elizabeth and Nano Nagle.
Saint Elizabeth was born in Pressburg in 1207.
She married Prince Louis of Thuringa at age 13 and built a hospital at the foot of the mountain on which her castle stood, tending to the sick herself, in opposition from her family and courtiers. She insisted she could only follow Christ's teachings, not theirs.
Once when she was taking food to the poor and sick, Prince Louis stopped her and looked under her mantle to see what she was carrying; the food had been miraculously changed to roses. Upon Louis' death, Elizabeth sold all that she had, and worked to support her four children. Her gifts of bread to the poor, and of a large gift of grain to a famine stricken Germany, led to her patronage of bakers and related fields.
In November 1231, she became ill and died soon after. Only four years after her death she was canonized by Pope Gregory IX on account of the frequent miracles reported to have been performed at her tomb.
Elizabeth understood well the lesson Jesus taught when he washed his disciples' feet at the Last Supper: The Christian must be one who serves the humblest needs of others, even if one serves from an exalted position. Of royal blood, Elizabeth could have lorded it over her subjects. Yet she served them with such a loving heart that her brief life won for her a special place in the hearts of many.
Nano Nagle (christened Honora) was born in 1718 to a long-standing Irish Catholic family.
At the time, it was unlawful for them to open a Catholic school at home, or to travel overseas for their education. Through family connections, Nano and her Sister Ann were able to travel to Paris, smuggled, perhaps, in a cargo ship, where they received a full Catholic education and also enjoyed a sophisticated life in French society. But there they also saw the plight of the poor.
After their father's death, she and her sister returned to Ireland and went to live with their mother in Dublin, where they also found widespread poverty. When Nano discovered that her sister Ann had given away a valuable piece of silk to relieve a distressed family, it set her thinking about how she herself might serve the poor. At first this sent her back to Paris to find her vocation, as she though, in praying for them as a member of a religious order. However, it was while she was there that a perceptive spiritual director advised her to return to Ireland and take up the education of deprived children there.
She went back to Cork, where her brother Joseph lived, to set up her first little school for the poor, modelled on the "petites écoles" she had seen in France, in a rented mud cabin in Cove Lane, in defiance of the law, and in complete secrecy at first.
The first school in Cove Lane had about thirty children, all the poorest of the poor, in accordance with her purpose from the beginning. Support and pupils soon poured in; within a year the numbers had risen to two hundred: there were five schools for girls and two for boys.
By the time of her death in 1784 she had set up a whole network of such schools in the city, with over four hundred pupils in seven parishes. To support them she used her own considerable wealth, inherited after the death of her uncle Joseph, and when even this ran out, she became a beggar on the streets, at times looking so poor that she was offered alms for herself by passing strangers!
To put her schools on a more lasting and more professional basis, she decided to bring Ursuline Sisters from France to teach in Cork. But, for various reasons, the experiment as it materialised did not fit in with Nano's vision. This led to her setting up her own congregation of religious sisters under a constitution suited to their special vocation of educating the poor. Thus was established, on Christmas Eve 1775, what was at first entitled "The Sisters of Charitable Instruction of the Sacred Heart of Jesus", Nano's preferred title, which was later to become the "Presentation Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary" (PBVM), as they are still called.
Two years before her death, a Relief Bill in 1782 allowed Catholics to open their first schools in Ireland since 1695. Nano's 'little schools' had now emerged from the shadows; her vision had become a reality. Single-handedly she had laid foundations of an educational system, which was to inspire Blessed Edmund Rice, founder of the Presentation and Christian Brothers, and a number of valiant women such as Mary Aikenhead and the Sisters of Charity, Catherine McCauley and her Sisters of Mercy, and Margaret Aylward, foundress of the Holy Faith Sisters, to establish their own schools during the following century.
The full story of Nano Nagle is available from the Presentation Sisters website.