Ven. Nano Nagle secretly taught Irish children when the Penal Laws forbade Catholics to receive an education.
During the 18th century, England imposed what are referred to as the Penal Laws, a set of laws specifically aimed at persecuting Catholics in Ireland. One of the effects of the law was a lack of education and many wealthy Catholic families would send their children overseas to complete their education.
Such was the case of Nano Nagle, whose family had the means to send her to Paris to attend school. While there, she was active in the “high society” of Paris and enjoyed attending parties and her very comfortable life.
However, it was after one such party that her life was radically changed.
She was walking home from a party late at night (technically early in the morning), when she noticed a group of poor people. What happens next is narrated in the 19th-century book, Memoirs of Miss Nano Nagle.
[O]n turning a corner, her attention was attracted by some poor people standing near the door of a church. They were thus early, to hear Mass before their day’s work commenced. They were too early even for the porter who was wont to anticipate their matin call; and they waited near the door of the church … at the moment it was new and startling to her; and conveyed to her mind a serious and impressive lesson. What a contrast there was between their simple, earnest, self-denying devotion, and her frivolous, dissipated—she believed criminal, course of life … [she] heaves with powerful emotion, and big tears of regret flow down her young cheek, for in an instant her heart is changed, she determines on an entire change of life, and of devoting herself for the future to God.
After that incident, Nagle was determined to offer herself to God in religious life. Initially she wanted to enter a convent in France, but after consulting several Jesuit spiritual directors, she was confident that God was calling her back to Ireland to instruct poor children.
She returned to Ireland, but had to keep her activities a secret. Nagle could have easily been arrested for her mission, as setting up a school for poor children was illegal.
According to the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, “She often made visits late into the night, carrying her lamp among the alleyways. Before long, Nano became known as the Lady of the Lantern.”
Nagle wrote in a letter that she never expected her schools to be a success, but was determined to do anything in her power to save souls.
I assure you I did not expect a farthing from any mortal towards the support of my schools; and I thought I should not have more than 50 or 60 girls … I began in a poor humble manner, and though it pleased the divine will to give me severe trials in this foundation, yet it is to shew that it is his work, and has not been effected by human means … If I could be of any service in saving souls in any part of the globe, I would do all in my power.
Her work ended up becoming quite successful and she founded a religious order called the Sisters of Charitable Instruction of the Sacred Heart, later known as the Presentation Sisters.
After humble beginnings, Nagle’s religious order would go on to serve in various parts of the world and still exists today with over 2,000 sisters worldwide. Pope Francis recognized Nagle as “Venerable” in 2013, setting her on the path to canonization.