Bridgeman, Joanna (Sister Mary Francis) (1813–88), Sister of Mercy, educator, and Crimean war nurse, was born in Ballagh, Ruan, Co. Clare, one of four children (two sons and two daughters) of St John Bridgeman and his wife Lucy Reddan. Her mother was a relative of Daniel O'Connell (qv). After the early death of her mother she was reared by her aunt, Miss Joanna Reddan, in Scarriff. She moved to Limerick in 1819. Joanna taught in St Peter's Cell poor school in Limerick (1834–8), and during the 1832 cholera epidemic nursed the victims in the improvised wards of the local Christian Brothers School. She entered St Mary's Convent of Mercy, Limerick, on 1 November 1838 and received the habit of the Sisters of Mercy five weeks later (4 December 1838), taking the religious name Sister Mary Francis. She was professed 9 December 1839, continued teaching in the poor school, and was engaged in home nursing and visitation.
On 19 April 1844 a Convent of Mercy was founded in Kinsale, Co. Cork, by the Sisters of Mercy of Limerick. Mary Francis was appointed superior of this foundation. The sisters commenced home visitation, taught in the local national school, and also taught children and adults for two and a half hours after the noon mass on Sundays. A new school accommodating 700 pupils was built and opened 19 April 1845. When Sr M. Francis discovered that many persons were too ashamed to attend Sunday mass in the parish church because of their shabby clothing, she invited them to mass in the convent and eventually provided them with good clothes. In 1847 a lace-making workroom was established, providing employment for many poor women and girls. Some girls earned their passage money to America. During the great famine Sr M. Francis set up a soup kitchen in the convent to distribute Indian meal, rice, and biscuits to children and adults. She received donations from the quakers, from Rome, and from America. The sisters nursed the victims of the 1849 cholera epidemic in the workhouse and fever hospitals and were granted permission to continue visitation of the workhouse when this epidemic was brought under control; the sisters later took up nursing duty in the workhouse hospital. In 1848 a House of Mercy and an orphanage were opened, the latter becoming a certified industrial school in 1869.
Mary Francis was appointed superior of the Irish group of sisters, known as the ‘Kinsale nuns’, who nursed in the Crimea during the war (1854–6). This group left Dublin 24 October 1854. They were under the authority of the medical officers instead of Florence Nightingale. This resulted in tension between Nightingale and Mother M. Francis, who with four of her sisters nursed in the barrack hospital in Scutari; on 29 January 1855 she took up duty with nine sisters in the general hospital in Koulali. It became known as the model hospital of the east. On 12 October 1855 she was appointed superintendent of the general hospital in Balaclava by Sir John Hall, inspector-general of hospitals. When Florence Nightingale took charge of the hospital in Balaclava towards the end of the war, Mother M. Francis resigned her nursing position and returned to Ireland with her sisters, leaving the Crimea 11 April 1856. Sir John Hall expressed his regret at their departure. She arrived in Kinsale 25 June 1856. Florence Nightingale used information obtained from Mother M. Francis in her ‘Notes on nursing’. Other Irish-born Sisters of Mercy who served as nurses during the Crimean included M. Clare Georgina Moore (qv) of Bermondsey, London, Joseph Crooke of Charleville, Aloysius Doyle (qv) of Carlow (who was awarded the Royal Red Cross in 1897 and published Memories of the Crimea in the same year), Stanislaus Heyfron of Carlow, Elizabeth Hersey of Baggot St. in Dublin (awarded the Royal Red Cross, 1897), Aloysia Hurley of Cork, Clare Keane of Kinsale, Clare Lalor of Charleville, Joseph Lynch of Kinsale (who subsequently nursed during the American civil war), Paula Rice of Cork city, and Agnes Whitty of Baggot St., Dublin. Shortly after her return Sr M. Francis was appointed mistress of novices, and in 1858 was reelected superior on the departure of her predecessor to Cincinnati, USA. Until her death thirty years later she was successively reelected to this office every alternate six years.
Mother M. Francis founded convents in Derby, England (1849); San Francisco, California (1854); Newry, Co. Down (1855); Clonakilty, Co. Cork (1860); Cincinnati, Ohio (1858); Skibbereen, Co. Cork (1860); Doon, Co. Tipperary (1865); and Ballyshannon, Co. Donegal (1867). Her foundations established thirty convents, schools, orphanages, and hospitals in Ireland, England, and the USA. Mother M. Francis Bridgeman died in Kinsale 11 February 1888 and is buried in the community cemetery.