Sisters by Emma Decker – RTE Documentary on One

Photo by Emma Decker

It’s 1951. Cobh, County Cork. Jo Murray is 18 years old and stands at the railing of a westbound transatlantic ship flanked by four other teenage Irish girls.

But these aren’t just any mid-century Irish immigrants. They’re going to Texas, and they’re going to become nuns.

For the past three years Emma Decker has lived on and off in the convent these women immigrated to in San Antonio, Texas. Sisters Jo (Josephine) Murray and Gabrielle Murray from Ballinasloe, Co. Galway, are Emma’s grand aunts—now aged 80 and 85. The more they talked to Emma about growing up in the West of Ireland in the 1940s, about emigration as young single women, and arriving into a deeply polarized American South in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement, the more Emma wanted to know: how the heck did hundreds of Irish teenagers end up in Texas, and what became of that choice?

Sister Gabrielle, grand niece Emma Decker, and Sister Jo. Photo by Doug Decker.

The resulting story follows Emma’s grand aunts from the Roscommon dairy where they grew up to their roles as teachers in what was the first free Catholic school for African Americans in the State of Texas. A lifetime later, these days the nuns in Emma’s grand aunts’ convent are coming to terms with the end of their way of life.

Sisters Jo and Gabrielle Murray’s path from Ireland to San Antonio and the legacy they’ve left behind are both unlikely. In 1888, a widowed Irish immigrant established a pipeline between San Antonio and convents in Ireland so that she could staff an antebellum school for emancipated African Americans with young Irish nuns.

During the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 60s, this order of nuns defied the Catholic Church’s call to stay away from politics by marching with protesters and supporting the desegregation of schools. Many became influential leaders in their communities and the first in their families to go to college. These mid-century teenagers turned entering a convent—of all places—into an opportunity to be pioneers.

Sister Jo (left), and Sister Gabrielle (right). Photo by Emma Decker

Emma’s grand aunts are candid about the difficulties of being a nun, an activist, and an immigrant. After Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, one of Emma’s grand aunts overheard a teacher jubilantly shout, “Yes! They got him!” She remembers wishing she had hit him. The other aunt recounts meeting her infant niece for the first time, and realizing “that I would never have a beautiful baby of my own.”

The nuns in San Antonio are resilient, powerful women. They are bastions of justice and pillars of time. Soon, their stories will be gone and they are ones that need to be told — of the vanishing, the brave, and the silent forces of history.

Their memories chronicle a century of change in the institutions of the church, race relations, economics and politics. Closer to heart for Emma, the curious grand niece of Sisters Jo and Gabrielle Murray, is that their conversations reveal the evolution of Emma’s international Irish family and the women who built it.

Story by Emma Decker taken from RTE Radio1 Documentary On One


Sister Jo, second from right, on the ship to the United States, 1951. Photo courtesy of the Murray family

Sister Jo (left), and Sister Gabrielle (right), with their youngest sister Ann (center), who later left religious life. Photo courtesy of the Murray family

Sister Jo with her parents, Josephine and Patrick Murray. Photo courtesy of the Murray family

Sister Jo and Sister Gabrielle at the convent in San Antonio. Photo courtesy of the Murray family

Sister Gabrielle, left, on the family farm in Culliagh with two of her siblings. Photo courtesy of the Murray family

Sister Gabrielle holding a photo of her mother, Josephine Murray. Photo by Emma Decker

The St. Peter Claver Church and School, 1903. Photo courtesy of the Sisters of the Holy Spirit and Mary Immaculate

Students at St. Catherine’s School in 1914, where many nuns from The Sisters of the Holy Spirit and Mary Immaculate taught on the west side of San Antonio. Photo courtesy of the Sisters of the Holy Spirit and Mary Immaculate

The original Sisters of the Holy Spirit and Mary Immaculate convent in San Antonio, Texas. Photo courtesy of the Murray family

The new convent in San Antonio, built in 2010. Photo by Emma Decker

Sister Jo at morning mass. Photo by Emma Decker

Sister Gabrielle looking into a classroom at the Healy Murphy Center in San Antonio. Photo by Emma Decker