Kearney is the third daughter of farmer Michael Kearney and Teresa Kearney. Three months prior to her birth, her father dies in an accident. Following his death, her mother remarries and has three more children. When she is ten years old, her mother dies. Her maternal grandmother, Grannie Grenell, then raises her in Curranstown, County Wicklow. Grannie Grenell has a profound impact on her spiritual beliefs and deep faith. When she is 17, Grannie Grenell dies.
Kearney attends the local convent school in Arklow following her mother’s death. In 1889, following her grandmother’s death, she goes to convent of Mercy at Rathdrum, to train as an assistant teacher. She does not have the finances to pay for training, and becomes a Junior Assistant Mistress. A year later, she goes to teach in a school run by the Sisters of Charity in Essex.
Following the death of her grandmother, Kearney turns toward thoughts of religious life. She believes that God is calling her to be a sister, and she applies for admission to the Franciscan Missionary Sisters of the Five Wounds at Mill Hill, London. In 1895, she enters the St. Mary’s Abbey, Mill Hill. On April 21, 1898 she takes the name Sister Mary Kevin of the Sacred Passion. Her motto is “For Thee, Lord.” She volunteers to work with African Americans in London. She waits three years for a posting to the American mission, but when the call from a foreign mission comes, it comes from Africa.
On December 3, 1902, Kearney and five other sisters leave London for Nsambya, Uganda. They are chosen at the request of Bishop Henry Hanlon of the Mill Hill Fathers. The sisters arrive on January 15, 1903 and establish a dispensary and school in the Buganda. Their task is to care for the women and girls and to further weaken the association of Catholicism with French missionaries and Protestantism with British missionaries in the then British Protectorate. Among the sisters are three Irish, one American, one English, and one Scottish woman.
Kearney starts her first clinic under a mango tree near the convent. The first seven years of missionary work are tough for the sisters. Various diseases, from smallpox to malaria, ravage Buganda. The infant mortality rate is also relatively high due to the high frequency of maternal deaths. In 1906, she expands the missionary and sets up a hospital in Nagalama, twenty-three miles away. She is appointed the new superior of the convent following Sister Paul’s illness and return to the United States in 1910. In 1913, three more sisters arrive, which allows her to establish a third mission station in Kamuli, Busoga. All three stations focus on medicine and education for the local population with a focus on primary and secondary education, training of nurses, and the founding of clinics, hospitals and orphanages.
During World War I, the Nsambya Hospital is used to treat the Native Carrier Corp, porters for European troops. At times, Kearney is outraged by the treatment Europeans give to the African porters. She works to uphold the rights of African people caught up in the European war. On December 25, 1918 she is awarded the Member of Order of the British Empire (MBE) for her services to the wounded during the war years.
Kearney is credited for promoting higher education in Catholic African women in her mission. In 1923, she founds the Little Sisters of St. Francis, a community of African nuns for teaching and nursing. This program starts with only eight local girls. A year later, she and Dr. Evelyn Connolly, a lay missionary, found a nursing and midwifery school in Nsambya. Their goal is to promote the education of women throughout Uganda.
In September 1928, Kearney returns to England to establish a novitiate exclusively for training sisters for African missions. The novitiate is officially opened in 1929 in Holme Hall, Yorkshire. Many women from England, Scotland and Ireland travel to Holme Hall to assist the missionary efforts. This creates a shortage for the Mill Hill Fathers, who also need sisters for their school in England and American missions. Upon realization of this divide, Kearney and the Mill Hill Fathers break off from each other. On June 9, 1952 she founds the new congregation of the Franciscan Missionary Sisters for Africa. She is appointed the first superior general. Mount Oliver, Dundalk, becomes the motherhouse for this new congregation. With the formation of the FMSA, she expands the missionary work to Uganda, Kenya, Zambia, the United States, Scotland, and South Africa.
Kearney retires in 1955 at age 80. During retirement, she is appointed Superior of a convent in Boston, Massachusetts and raises funds for African projects. She travels and talks to donors to garner support for projects in Africa.
On October 17, 1957, Kearney dies at the age of 82 in Brighton, Massachusetts. Her remains are flown to Ireland and buried at Mount Oliver. Ugandan Catholics rally to have her body flown to Uganda to be buried. On December 3, 1957, her body is buried in the cemetery at Nkokonjeru, the motherhouse of the Little Sisters of St. Francis.
Kearney’s legacy is evident today. In Uganda, the word Kevina means “hospital” or “charitable institute.” The Mother Kevin Postgraduate Medical School is named after her. The Little Sisters of St. Francis has over 500 members throughout Africa, while the Franciscan Missionary Sisters for Africa currently works in Uganda, Kenya, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa.