On Sunday, November 18, 2018, when Sister Frances Kirk, SSJ, is honored by the Delaware Valley Irish Hall of Fame, it will be for a lifetime devoted to education and service. But it was as chairperson and organizer of Project Children for over 30 years that she was able to make an extraordinary impact on the lives of thousands of children in both the United States and Ireland.
Born in 1932 in Northeast Philadelphia to parents Frank Joseph Kirk and Elizabeth Rose “Lizzie” Falls, who had come over from County Tyrone in the early 1920s, Sister Frances has always embraced her Irish heritage. Nine of the 14 siblings in her mother’s family left their village of Glenelly Valley to make Philadelphia their home, but they kept in close touch with the ones who stayed behind. “Letters, letters, letters,” Sister Frances explained. “And money, money, money. Every letter had to have a five pound note in it. There was no money at home.”
The oldest of the five siblings in her own family, Sister Frances came to the convent at age 19. Though she took a year off after graduating high school to work, she had no doubt that her life would be devoted to the Sisters of St. Joseph.
“I knew in first grade that I wanted to follow in the footsteps of the nuns who taught me; I was very much influenced by my primary teachers. I went to St. Leo’s in Tacony, and then to St. Hubert’s High School. I wanted to do the same for the pupils I taught that they had done for me.”
Her dedication and assurance has served her well. Sister Frances is a graduate of Chestnut Hill College with a degree in business science, and she earned an M.A. at Glassboro College. During her career she has been both teacher and principal, and she continued her own education even as she was guiding and instructing her students.
It was in 1975, during the height of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, that Dennis Mulcahy founded Project Children. The Cork-born member of the NYPD’s Bomb Squad created the program as a way of bringing both Catholic and Protestant children over to the US from Belfast to spend the summer away from the violence that ruled their lives. It would also provide them with the opportunity to learn that kids who practiced a different religion weren’t the enemy.
That summer, Sister Frances was attending Rutgers University on a National Science Foundation Grant and preparing for a career change to a school in Vineland, N.J. She was living in a convent near Rutgers, and happened to see a photo of two girls from Belfast who were being hosted by a family in the parish. She immediately wanted to know more.
“I asked if anybody knew this family, and I got their telephone number so I could get in touch with them. I found out that they had 10 children of their own and I said, ‘How do you include two more children when you already have 10?’ And they said, ‘It’s easy.’
“When I told them I was interested, they told me that I would have to sell chances to raise money to bring the kids over. At that time, each child cost $300 for airfare and insurance. I said that I was about to start at a new school, and I would try to sell chances, but I didn’t know how it would go, that I’d be getting adjusted to a new environment.
“It went very well. I met people there who were interested in helping. There were several moms who knew what was going on in Belfast and one of them organized a spaghetti dinner at Sacred Heart in Vineland. She raised over $3,000. I was overwhelmed. Just overwhelmed.”
A few years later when she left Vineland and went back to Philadelphia, in addition to her career in education and promoting Project Children, Sister Frances also became the chaplain for the Ladies Division 39 of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. With their help, word spread among the Irish Community, funds continued to be raised and more families volunteered to host children for the summer. They brought over a “planeload of kids. Every year I went to New York and met the hosts. We’d take a certain amount on the bus, and they’d hold up welcome signs for the kids.
“In New York, they were met by the fire department trucks. They sprayed the Aer Lingus plane with green water, which overwhelmed the host families watching the plane land. But the kids didn’t realize it was just for them—they thought everybody got greeted like that!”
“I always had back-up host families, like my two sisters, who had kids. Mary had six kids and Peg had four, and they were there in case I got a call that a situation wasn’t working out. It happened. Sometimes the kids in the suburbs did not understand the kids from Belfast. Sometimes kids get along … and sometimes they don’t. If the families understood the conflicts in Ireland, they were better equipped to take care of these kids.
“But it always worked out. There are a lot of stories. One child said, ‘That cop was very nice to us.’ And you only had to know what he experienced. Once when I brought one of the kids into a house, they had a dog. And he said, ‘Soldiers shoot dogs.’ That was a realization for me. The soldiers came in tanks up the narrow streets of little Belfast, the dogs’ ears picked up that sound, and they would charge the soldiers, go to bite their boots. These soldiers were young Englishmen. Some of them were the children of Irish parents who had gone to England. They were scared too. And sometimes they shot the dogs. That was those kids’ life experience.
“It was an eye-opener for them to see how Protestants and Catholics got along over here. The Protestant kids were shocked that the Catholic kids were so nice. And the Catholic kids were shocked that the Protestant kids were so nice. They didn’t understand why it was so different in Ireland.”
Sister Frances knows that Project Children made a difference. Lifelong friendships were forged. Families here kept in touch with the children back in Ireland and many host families were invited to go over for the weddings of the kids who had stayed with them. Sometimes they were bridesmaids and groomsmen. Most importantly, walls were knocked down and prejudices were stripped away. In the words of Sister Frances at the end of our interview, “We all believe in the same God.”