The Missionary Congregation of Our Lady of Apostles (OLA) was founded in 1876 for missions in West Africa – at that time seen as one of the most neglected places on earth. The Congregation came into being as part of the missionary drive then stirring in Europe – notably in
France which was then recovering from the tumult of the 1789 Revolution and the Napoleonic wars.

The Founder, Father Augustin Planque was an apparently very ordinary man who achieved extraordinary things in his lifetime. Bom in 1826 in the small village of Wachemy in Flanders, Augustine Planque was the oldest boy, the fourth of ten children in a farming family. As was usual in farming families, he was expected to take over the farm. Instead, he became a priest, taught philosophy for six years, and then left his teaching post in 1856 to became one of the founding members of the Society of African Missions (SMA) in Lyons. In 1859 their leader, Bishop de Marion Brésillac, died of Yellow Fever in Sierra Leone, and with him the entire pioneering group of missionaries. Father Planque, then only 33, took on the formidable responsibility of continuing the new SMA.

From the beginning of the SMA missions in Africa, Father Planque realised the need for Sisters – “If there aren’t Sisters to train the girls there will be no Christian families”. Having failed to get Sisters from the home (French) congregations, he eventually accepted that a new Congregation was needed, specifically for the missions. So, in Lyons in 1876 the Sisters of Our Lady of Apostles came into being – an international body, drawing its early members mainly from France, Holland, Ireland and Italy.

Strange as it may appear, among the first Sisters sent from Lyons to Africa in 1877 were two Irishwomen – Margaret Riordan from Cork and Felicite Kirwan from Dublin. The SMA had been in Cork for some time, and had been recruiting vocations for both SMA and OLA. Since that distant date there has always been a steady stream of young women joining – with the greatest number always being from Cork.

From 1877 the OLA Sisters went to Africa, spreading along the West Coast, and later inland through West and North Africa and the Middle East. They tried to meet the greatest needs of the day – generally basic health-care and schools where none existed, and their special care was always for women, children and the family. The climate was unhealthy and living conditions were poor, and many died of tropical diseases for which the 19th century had no known cures. Up to 1900, the average life-span for Sisters on the West Coast was five years.

Yet others continued to follow: even within the same family, younger sisters would follow older sisters, knowing that when they set out for West Africa it was not likely that they would return. Ireland has its fair share of young Irish OLA’s in mission graves across West Africa from these early years. Our OLA cemetery in Ardfoyle has plaques commemorating them.

Over the 130 years of their story, the OLA Sisters have always moved with the times, trying to meet the needs arising at different historical moments – living through a lot of change and turmoil as the young African nations struggled for independence and through its aftermath.

The most recent developments were the sending of Irish OLA Sisters to Argentina – to promote the missions among Catholics there, and to Tanzania – to work along with people who seem to have been left behind while other areas developed. Since these new openings OLA Sisters from other parts of the Congregation have also taken on assignments in Argentina and Tanzania. Already the OLA in Argentina has several Novices and has already begun to send Sisters to mission in Africa. 

Though well-known in the African countries they have been in, back home in Ireland, the OLA Sisters have been relatively hidden. As most of them have always been working abroad, as a group they are less well-known here than the home-based Congregations. For many Irish people they would be best known for their Mite-Boxes with the picture of St Anthony, which so many shop-owners and business leaders have so kindly allowed on their counters throughout the country. Indeed it is the small change which people have dropped into these Mite-Boxes which has helped to finance all the missionary work undertaken by the Sisters – and they are forever grateful for the generosity of the people of Ireland which has enabled them to keep going.

Centenary Celebrations at Ardfoyle, Ballintemple, Cork
On 20th August 2007 the OLA Sisters at Ardfoyle opened their Centenary year marking the death of their founder Augustine Planque (1826-1907).
Among the events which marked the Centenary Year the Sisters and their supporters joined the SMA in their annual National Pilgrimage to Knock Shrine (4th Saturday in May).