By Patrick Markey
After a decade of providing a soft landing for New York’s Irish immigrants, Sister Edna McNicholas is retiring from the Aisling Irish Center in Yonkers as she completes a masters degree and prepares for her possible return to Ireland.
Her 10 years with the young Irish began when the Mayo native opened a fledgling community center in a Bronx bar as the New York archdiocese tried to reach out to new immigrants flocking to the city during the early 1990s.
"It’s been very challenging. It’s certainly been very varied. I never knew when I arrived in the morning what I’d be dealing with during the day," McNicholas said.
As a chaplain for the Yonkers and Bronx, the Sister of Mercy has dealt with everything from sudden deaths among immigrant families to visits from the former Irish president Mary Robinson.
After she arrived in the United States in 1991, McNicholas worked with her fellow chaplains to create an outreach program for the Irish immigrants living in the city’s northern neighborhoods.
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They eventually settled on the backroom of the Inisfree Bar in the Bronx. With the help of volunteers, the Tir Na Nog Irish center became a hub of community activity.
"The wonderful thing about getting the center up was the marvelous community spirit, the community working together behind a project they really believed in," she said.
"One of the things I’ve been thinking about over the last few days is that I’ve met so many wonderful Irish men and women over the years. And maybe the women don’t get the credit they’re due. They’ve been the backbone of so many committees and the fundraising work."
In 1997, McNicholas and Fr. Tom Flynn opened the doors of their new Aisling Irish Center, which moved to McLean Avenue to accommodate the shift in the young Irish community from the Bronx into Yonkers.
After reporting to the center for the last time on Friday, McNicholas will take a year out to finish a master’s degree in transpersonal psychology focusing on spirituality.
Her replacement will be County Tyrone native Breige Lavery, a former immigration and administrative lawyer who is also a candidate for the Sisters of Mercy.