Kearney, Mother Kevin (1875–1957), pioneer Ugandan missionary sister and foundress of Franciscan Missionary Sisters for Africa, was born 28 April 1875 in Knockenrahan, Arklow, Co. Wicklow, the third and youngest daughter of Michael Kearney, a farmer, and Teresa Kearney (née Grennell); she was baptised Mary Teresa. Her father died before her birth and, after her mother died in 1885, she was reared by her maternal grandmother in Curranstown, Arklow. She attended the local convent school in Arklow and in 1889 went to the Convent of Mercy at Rathdrum where she trained as an assistant teacher. After a year there, she went to Dublin to work. In 1893 she rejected a marriage proposal and moved to Essex to teach at a school run by the Sisters of Charity. However, allegedly following a premonitionary dream of working with ‘black people’ (O'Hara, Love is the answer, 13), she entered the fledgling congregation, the Franciscan Missionary Sisters of the Five Wounds, at St. Mary's Abbey, Mill Hill, London (21 November 1895). Upon her profession on 21 April 1898, she took the name Sister Mary Kevin of the Sacred Passion, and immediately volunteered for their mission in Baltimore to work among African-Americans. She was passed over for this but when, upon the request of Cardinal Vaughan of Westminster in 1902, six sisters were requested to establish a mission alongside the Mill Hill Fathers in Nsambya, Uganda, she was among those chosen.
Upon arrival on 15 January 1903, the sisters established a mission dispensary and school among the Baganda. By 1906, they had expanded to a second missionary station at Nagalama, some 23 miles away, of which Kearney became superior. When the superior of both convents went home in 1910 because of ill-health, Kearney returned to the Nsambya mission and assumed the leadership of both convents, taking the title Mother Kevin. In 1913, with the arrival of three more sisters, they established a third mission, this time in Kamuli, Busoga, east of Buganda. Their missions expanded quickly and encompassed both medical and educational work. During World War I, the convent hospital at Nsambya was utilised to treat the Native Carrier Corps, the porters for European troops. As many of the sisters had been sent to nurse at a military hospital in Kisumu, Mother Kevin and one other nun ran the hospital on their own. Her war work was recognised with the award of an MBE (1918). In 1919 she returned to England for the congregation's general chapter and sought permission to train as a midwife, having recognised the need for experienced midwives in Uganda. Permission was denied due to a canonical ban (1901) on women religious practising midwifery, although she was eventually allowed to take a course in obstetrics at a hospital in Alsace run by a religious group, with the proviso that she would not officially qualify and would never practise. By the time she returned to Uganda in March 1920, she was in charge of 14 sisters.
Mother Kevin is credited with promoting higher education for catholic African women, and with the help of Dr Evelyn Connolly, a lay missionary, founded a nursing and midwifery school in Nsambya in 1924. Over the next thirty years, she led the expansion of the mission throughout Uganda and Kenya, and founded numerous primary, secondary, teacher-training, and nursing schools. The sisters also ran schools for the blind, orphanages, clinics, hospitals, and two leprosaria. In May 1923 Mother Kevin oversaw the foundation of an ancillary African congregation, the Little Sisters of St Francis, when eight African girls approached her to enter the religious life. In 1927 the congregation moved from Nsambya to its own headquarters in Nkokonjeru, and by 1948 had over 200 members. Despite the addition of the Little Sisters to aid the missionary effort, a chronic shortage of missionaries continued, and in 1928 Mother Kevin sought permission to establish a separate novitiate exclusively for the training of sisters for the African missions. She returned to England in September 1928 to pursue this goal and the novitiate was opened in 1929 at Holme Hall, Holme-on-Spalding-Moor in Yorkshire. In 1935 the first Irish convent was founded at Mount Oliver, Dundalk, Co. Louth, and in 1937, this convent and Holme Hall, along with 19 missions in Uganda and four in Kenya became a separate African province of the Franciscan Missionary Sisters. Mother Kevin was elected the provincial superior and held this office until 1943. In June 1952 the province separated entirely from St Mary's Abbey, and became an independent congregation, the Franciscan Missionary Sisters for Africa, based at Mount Oliver with Mother Kevin as their superior-general. She continued in this office until she retired in 1955, aged 80.
Even in retirement she remained active, and in 1955 went to raise funds in the USA, where the sisters had a convent in Brighton, near Boston, Massachusetts. That same year she received the CBE for her service to the people of Africa. She remained in the USA until her death in Brighton on 17 October 1957, aged 82. Her remains were flown to Ireland and interred at Mount Oliver. Upon hearing of her death, Ugandan catholics rallied to have their ‘flame in the bush’ or Mama Kevina, both names by which she was popularly known, returned to Uganda, and on 3 December 1957 she received a second burial at the cemetery at Nkokonjeru, the motherhouse of the Little Sisters of St Francis. The influence of her fifty-four years as a missionary is reflected in the use the word ‘Kevina’ to mean a hospital or charitable institute in Uganda.