Sr. Celestine, (Catherine) was born to Julia and James Kavanagh on February 10, 1933, in Cranmore, Co Carlow, Ireland where she was baptized, received her first Holy Communion and confirmation as well as primary and secondary education. In her late teenage years, she decided to become a nurse and began this journey by enrolling in the National Maternity Hospital in Dublin, Ireland, to train as a midwife. She served as a student nurse at City General Hospital, Stoke-on Trent in Staffordshire, England graduating as a registered nurse in 1956. Two years later she returned to the National Maternity Hospital in Dublin where she received certification as a midwife in Ireland, England, and Wales.
She joined the Postulancy of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, Houston at St. Michael’s Convent in Carrigoran, Co. Clare on June 29, 1959, and completed this process by travelling to Villa de Matel, Houston, Texas on January 2, 1960, where she entered the Novitiate on August 15, 1960. The date of her First Profession of vows was August 15, 1962. She celebrated her Perpetual Profession on that same date in 1967.
When Sr. Celestine passed her state board examination in 1962, she immediately began ministering in the Congregation’s health care ministry at St. Joseph Hospital in Houston, Texas and continued serving as a Nursing Supervisor in Texas, Louisiana, and California for a total of 17 years. Meanwhile, events were happening far away in Kenya which would radically change her life.
On April 12, 1981, Sr. Loyola, CCVI General Superior, received a letter from Sr. Rosa Marta, CVI. She and her sisters were serving in East Pokot, Diocese of Nakuru in Kenya. In this letter Sr. Rosa wrote: “The Bishop told me that by September he needs a nurse to initiate a public health /preventive medicine project for approximately 3 years. She could live with us. The Bishop prefers a sister for this apostolate, but if there is none, maybe a very fervent apostolic lay nurse. Would you be interested in your Congregation helping with a sister for this need?”
In her letter dated May 18, 1981, Sr. Loyola responded to Sr. Rosa Marta saying: “I shared most of your letter with our Sisters in our April newsletter. I did not ask specifically for anyone to respond; but three of our nursing Sisters did so. I am asking Sr. Celestine Kavanagh to answer the call from Africa. In fact, I talked to her just a few minutes ago and she is excited and delighted at this new opportunity and challenge. Sister Celestine is presently stationed at St. Joseph Hospital, 1919 La Branch Houston, Texas 77002, U.S.A.”
In her own story about her Kenyan experience, Sister Celestine wrote: “It was my privilege to volunteer for a Kenyan mission in August 1981. My first 6 months in the country were spent learning the Swahili language and, in general, getting acquainted with the traditions, customs and rituals of the Pokot people with whom I would be working. I also got registered as a nurse and midwife in Kenya and became acquainted with the District Medical Officer (DMO). With his help I learned about my medical parameters in Kenya. The Health Promotion, Disease Prevention Project that I was to lead had 3 phases, Immunization, Antenatal Care and Basic Hygiene for Adults and Children. This task was approached by training groups of Health Extension Workers, selected, and approved locally by the elders in each area. They were assigned to an area to work closely with a goup of families to teach the basics of simple hygiene, use of household remedies, the making of oral rehydration drinks and basic childcare. In addition, they were given antimalarial drugs with specific instructions for use with recognized symptoms and signs of malaria.
Sister Celestine on a truck moving furniture, passing through the equator (1981)
Left: During the dedication ceremony of the flags on the Villa de Matel campus, Sister Celesine pictured with the flag of Kenya (2001).
Right: Sister Celestine enjoying a ride during the 2008 Nun Run.
At first, I visited each of the areas to support the Health Extension Workers and to resupply their needs. We held monthly ‘Integrated Clinics’ in each area, where, because the people walked a long way to the clinic and back home, we tried to care for many needs.”
In addition to her love for the Pokot people and her appreciation for the natural beauty of the country Sr. Celestine was especially grateful for the elders, the Health Extension Workers, and the friendship of other missionaries. She also was fortunate in meeting the U.S. Ambassador to Kenya, who provided two refrigerators for preserving medications. Before returning from Kenya on March 3, 1985, she wrote “Even though distances were enormous and tiresome, I found people helpful everywhere I turned, and so I kept from getting discouraged at the enormity of the task that lay ahead.”
Sr. Celestine had sabbatical time in Spokane, Washington and Hopedale, Arizona from 1985-1987. She was then missioned to St. Patrick Hospital in Lake Charles, Louisiana, and to St. Elizabeth Hospital, in Beaumont, Texas. She served as a Patient Representative in both places completing 38 years of health care ministry before retiring first to Marian Convent and later to St. Placidus Convent. She was known and loved as a peaceful, prayerful presence to all who visited her. She especially enjoyed visiting with our Sisters from Africa who are CCVIs today because of her pioneering ministry in Kenya.