The gallant wartime nurse who built St Aidan’s Church, Aviemore
On the 8th of September, 2022 St Aidan’s Church Aviemore celebrated the 70th anniversary of the Dedication of the Church.
The key person instrumental in the building of the church and who is buried at the church was a truly remarkable woman, Anastasia Keogh, sometimes known as as Alice Kehoe or Paddy.
Anastasia was a trained nurse who served during the first world war, was mentioned twice in dispatches and who may well have been awarded the Royal Red Cross (the nursing equivalent of the VC).
Mary Golden has written the following fascinating account about her great-aunt, the indefatigable Anastasia:
BY MARY GOLDEN
Anastasia or Alice Kehoe was born into a well-known farming family at Glenbawn, south of Ferns, county Wexford in 1886. Her parents were Myles Kehoe and Johanna Walsh. On her mother’s side she was descended from the family of Father John Murphy of Boolavogue, priest leader of the 1798 rebellion in Wexford. She was christened Anastasia but she was also known as Annis, Alice or Paddy, depending on where she was living and the circumstances in which she found herself. She trained as a nurse in the Royal City of Dublin Hospital, Baggot Street.
In 1915, Alice signed up to serve with the Queen Alexandra Imperial Nursing Service. We don’t know what influenced her choice but it would have been around this time that many Irish volunteers were opting to join the British Army at John Redmond’s request. It was also becoming obvious that the war would involve slaughter of a degree unseen in any previous war. As a trained nurse, she would have been a particularly valuable recruit. She was based in Alexandria at the Ras El Tin convalescent hospital, nursing British, Australian and “Kiwi”soldiers who had been evacuated from Gallipoli. She also appears to have travelled to Gallipoli on ships evacuating soldiers, as she said she was wounded there, contracting gun deafness (no doubt exacerbating the inherited family deafness). She provided nursing support to the allied campaign which entered Jerusalem, under General Allenby, in 1917. Her notes record that she was appointed acting sister of the first field hospital to be set up in the city. She was, apparently, mentioned twice in despatches. There is a surviving citation from General Allenby dated 5th March 1919, as follows:
The War of 1914-1918
Sister A Keogh
Was mentioned in a despatch
From General Sir E H Allenby
Dated 3rd March 1919
For gallant and distinguished services in the Field
I have it in command from the King to record his Majesty’s high appreciation of the services rendered
She said she received the Royal Red Cross (the nursing equivalent of the VC) but it does not survive in the family as far as we know. Her war experience made a lasting impression on her. When she came to build the church in Aviemore 35 years later, she dedicated it to the 51st Highland Division and the Lovat Scouts, many of whom she had nursed in Egypt and whose bravery she admired.
She qualified as a registered nurse in England and Wales in 1923. A few years earlier, in 1920, she had become a nurse/companion to Pearl More Smieton, a member of a Scottish family who made their money in linen and jute manufacturing at Carnoustie, near Dundee. The Smietons were an interesting and cultured family. As industrialists, they were known for providing facilities for their workers including a literary institute. They are also regarded as having made a significant contribution to Scotland’s cultural life in the Victorian era. Pearl’s grandparents both exhibited paintings at the Royal Scottish Academy. Her grandmother was the first Scottish woman to compose an opera. Pearl’s father John More Smieton, was an accomplished amateur composer whose Cantata, King Arthur, (1889) received over 100 performances across the UK prior to his death in 1904.
Pearl and Alice lived in Sevenoaks, Kent, until the outbreak of the war in 1939. To avoid the bombing, they moved to the Smieton’s Scottish hunting lodge at Kinakyle on the outskirts of Aviemore. Alice’s focus immediately turned to the Catholic farm and railway workers living in the area who were unable to attend Mass because the nearest church was at Kingussie twelve miles away. She started instructing the children herself and preparing them for the sacraments. Eventually, she decided she would build a church in the village. Pearl supported her financially through the project. Alice put all her own savings into the church and she organised a fund-raising campaign through the Catholic newspaper ‘The Universe’ which was a significant undertaking for a woman in her 60s. She also received financial support from family and friends. It was a mammoth task for one woman as, in addition to raising the finance, she also organised the construction of the church. She was a very determined person who, once she had decided on something would persist until she had seen it through. It is our understanding that Saint Aidan’s was one of the few Catholic churches to have been built in the Highlands since the Reformation. The dedication of the church on 8th September 1952 was a big event which received extensive coverage in the Catholic press at the time. The Bishop of Aberdeen performed the dedication, after which the church was handed over to the diocese. It is named for Saint Aidan, patron saint of the Diocese of Ferns in Ireland.
Alice’s health failed in the mid-1950s. She died, aged 70, in September 1956 and she’s buried outside the church. Pearl More Smieton wrote to Alice’s brother to express her sympathies and gave an account of her last hours. She mentioned that she had with her ‘her pet prayer-book (all in pieces) which she carried through her nursing career in the army’. Pearl responded to 172 letters of condolence she received following Alice’s death.