The homeland a San Antonio nun left behind more than 82 years ago hailed her 100th birthday with a special tribute that included a monetary gift from the Irish government known as the Centenarian Bounty.

Sister Mary Eustace Farrell received a visit from Ireland’s consul general, a personal letter from the country’s president, and 2,540 euros, equivalent to about $2,800. With proper documentation, Ireland awards the money to any citizen who reaches the age of 100, even if, like Farrell, they haven’t lived in Ireland for many years. On the citizen’s 101st and subsequent birthdays, the nation awards a special commemorative coin each year.

Farrell smiled throughout the event Thursday at The Village at Incarnate Word, the senior living community where she resides, and her face lit up as she cut her birthday cake.

Sister Mary Pezold, resident coordinator for the nuns at The Village, said Farrell knew the celebration was for her birthday, but has dementia and has difficulty remembering things these days, sometimes even her age.

“We kept reminding her it was her [100th] birthday, and she kept saying, ‘I just can’t believe it,’” Pezold said.

Consul General of Ireland Claire McCarthy traveled from her Austin office to attend the celebration and present the letter signed by Irish President Michael D. Higgins. McCarthy said because of the large territory each of just seven consul general offices covers nationwide, she doesn’t always get to present the Centenarian Bounty awards in person, but it’s an honor she enjoys.

“In terms of how we connect with Irish people overseas, this is one of the more special ways,” she said. “It means a lot to the people who get it.”

Irish Consul General Claire McCarthy speaks about the important role Irish immigrants have played in the United States.

Sister Teresa Maya, the congregational leader for the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, said about half of all the Incarnate Word nuns in San Antonio are from Ireland. 

Farrell was born into a devout Catholic family of six children in County Longford, Ireland, and joined the religious order in County Galway in 1937, when she was 17. In 1939, she came to San Antonio and eventually took her vows as she embarked upon a career as a nurse and hospital administrator.

She remains heavily involved in prayer ministry and still attends mass daily. 

Most of Farrell’s family, including two living siblings who are in their nineties, still live in Ireland, and a few of her relatives, including niece Mary O’Reilly, made the trip to San Antonio for the birthday celebration. O’Reilly described her aunt as unfailingly gracious and strong.

“Something [she] always said was how wonderful San Antonio was to her,” O’Reilly said.

O’Reilly said her father, Farrell’s brother, talked often about his sister, and kept in touch with her through her long, handwritten letters. 

O’Reilly was about 8 years old when she first remembers meeting her aunt, and she said Farrell arrived at their Ireland home looking somber and serious in the traditional long black habit required of nuns during that time period. Between that visit and the next, the Catholic Church changed its stance on nuns’ clothing, and O’Reilly found her aunt more approachable without the black robes.

“She was just this gorgeous, good-looking woman,” O’Reilly said.

Over the years, O’Reilly said she and her aunt grew closer as Farrell became a role model, and she often looked to Farrell for wisdom during difficult times.

“Her love is tough love,” O’Reilly said. “Her motto was you did the will of God, and you did it right, and you did it well.”

Before retiring at 88 years old, Farrell served at hospitals all over Texas, earned her bachelor’s in nursing and then a master’s in health administration. Farrell earned the respect of her colleagues, O’Reilly said, and won awards such as Outstanding Administrator of the Year from the Texas Hospital Association and Boss of the Year from a professional club in Paris, Texas, during a stint at a hospital there.

“The thing about the sisters is they really were feminists in the purest sense,” O’Reilly said. “Because they were fearless, they’re courageous, [and] they became very well-educated, very liberated.”

Farrell is the second nun in two years at the Village to receive the Centenarian Bounty from Ireland, and another will be eligible when she turns 100 in June of next year, Pezold said.

Jennifer Norris

Jennifer Norris has been working in journalism since 2005. She's a native Texan, but a new San Antonian who is excited to get to know the city.