An Irish nun who helped provide health services for the poor and sick for more than 50 years while working as missionary in Korea has been named Cork Person of the Month for June.
Philomena O’Sullivan, an 88-year-old Missionary Sister of St Columban originally from Lombardstown, near Mallow in Co Cork, may not be well known in Ireland, but she and her colleagues are heroes in the countries where they work, according to the organiser of the Cork Person of the Year awards, Manus O’Callaghan. “To this day Sr Philomena O’Sullivan is considered an iconic figure in South Korea,” he said.
O’Sullivan joined the order in 1949 and trained as a nurse at Mercy University Hospital in Cork before leaving Ireland for Korea in June 1955. “Sixty two years ago this month I arrived in Seoul with my companion, Sr Mary David Mannion. We travelled by boat from Cobh to New York and were met by sisters from our Boston house. From there we travelled on a Swedish freighter from Los Angeles via Manila to Tokyo, where we boarded a US army plane for Seoul, and then on by train to Mokpo, a southerly seaside town.”
South Korea was in a turbulent state following its war with North Korea. After establishing a clinic foundation in Mokpo, O’Sullivan moved to the north of the country, where she was to spend 17 years dealing with the aftermath of the conflict. Many of their patients had fled North Korea and were suffering from tuberculosis and malnutrition; others required treatment for land-mine injuries.
People used to queue from late at night at their clinic, for treatment using medicines the nuns sourced from the United States, including samples from doctors’ offices. “We were also able to source medicines from pharmaceutical companies, and we received help from the US army, which enabled us to treat the local people at our clinic,” O’Sullivan said.he was then transferred back to Mokpo, where, as regional superior, she continued her work with the poor and the sick at a local hospital.
O’Sullivan returned to Ireland in 1971, to study midwifery at St Finbarr’s Hospital in Cork. Three years later she returned to Korea, establishing a base on the island of Jeju. As well as a clinic, she developed weaving as an industry, to provide work for locals. She returned to Ireland to recuperate after a stroke in 1977.
Two years later she returned to Mokpo, where, along with two doctors and four other sisters, she opened a hospital. As well as working in paediatrics there, O’Sullivan cared for patients in a leper colony on Sorok Island.
She returned to Ireland in 2009, when she celebrated her diamond jubilee. Now living in retirement in Co Wicklow, O’Sullivan will go forward to compete for the overall Cork Person of the Year award.