Fearless missionary nurse and gentle and inspiring leader

Sr Dympna Hannelly: December 4th, 1922-January 9th, 1914

Sr Dympna Hannelly was born in Castlerea on December 4th, 1922, during the height of the civil war. She was 22 years of age when she was professed as a Medical Missionary of Mary.

When preparing to begin her nurse training, there was an emergency in Nigeria and she was asked to postpone her training and go in haste. The second World War was still raging when she left Liverpool.

“Our ship sailed in the middle of a navy convoy,” she recalled. “All we could see from the deck were battleships in front and beside and behind us, dropping depth charges as we moved ahead.”

She spent two years helping to build up the village-based services for people with the dreaded Hansen’s Disease, then known as Leprosy. That was before multiple drug therapy provided the means of bringing this disease under control.


When recalled to Ireland she completed her nursing and midwifery training. She became the sister-in-charge of the operating theatre at the Lourdes hospital in Drogheda, before being assigned to Tanzania in 1960 where she acquired the reputation of a being gentle and inspiring leader.


Five years later she took further studies in

public health, and subsequently specialised in training of trainers with the Africa Medical & Research Foundation in Nairobi.

In Kenya, she served in the Turkana Desert and then moved to Kitale where she became the director of nursing at Mount Elgon hospital – her salary from that posting was used to support the work of the order in the Turkana Desert.

In 1975 she took up her first assignment in Uganda, where she would remain for the next 27 years – first at Kitovu hospital, Masaka. In 1985, she was in Ireland for home leave, and on returning found that her way back to Masaka was blocked by the war that overthrew Idi Amin's regime. For six months she could not reach Masaka so offered her services to the Franciscan Missionary Sisters for Africa at Nsambya hospital in Kampala.

That war dragged on even after she made it back to Masaka. Eventually they were advised to evacuate from the hospital. Patients who could walk had already fled to whatever safety they could find in the bush.

"We brought nine nurses and the remaining patients with us to the seminary together with tutors and some students who could not get home. For nine days bombs were dropping all around us. It was very frightening . . . Some of the planes flew very low . . ."

Invading army
When they thought the coast was clear, they went to talk to the officer in charge of the invading Tanzania army to negotiate a safe passage back to Masaka.

“We were stopped every few hundred yards, but since we spoke fluent Swahili from our time in Tanzania they were very friendly. One of them even knew the Hospital at nDareda. After some time, life started to come back to normal but it took a long long time before anything like a lasting peace was established.”

Already holding the responsibilities of diocesan co-ordinator of community-based healthcare in Masaka, and co-ordinator of the Uganda Catholic Medical Bureau, she was appointed by the Ministry of Health as national training adviser.

When she was stationed at the more remote mission at Makondo, she became involved in helping communities to develop a network of shallow wells to replace the polluted water sources on which they previously depended.

On reaching 80 years of age, Sr Dympna reluctantly felt it was time to let go and return to Ireland. Far from retiring, she took up the work of providing hospitality at her community’s motherhouse in Drogheda. Her final illness was fairly brief, and peaceful. She said many times that she was “ready to go”. Her final call came in the evening on January 9th.