Shedding old habits: Sisters band together – Ireland

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Jo Cox is a 78-year-old retired doctor living in Cork city. Three days a week she makes the half-hour journey from the city to volunteer at Cuan Mhuire’s Farnanes centre in Co Cork. Here, in a beautiful wooded landscape, women are helped to deal with their alcohol, drug and other addictions. Many of those who come to the centre find great peace through Jo’s meditation and mindfulness therapies. Jo’s gentle and patient demeanour is often a giveaway. “Are you a nun?” she gets asked. Though wearing no outward giveaway such as a habit or a veil, it’s her personal qualities which prompt the question.

Sr Jo Cox is a member of the Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Apostles (OLA). She was one of four sisters in the Cox family from Galway city who joined the order in the 1960s. It was not that unusual at the time for an Irish family to have a number of children become priests or nuns. Sitting in the OLA convent parlour in Cork, she relates how she trained as a nurse and midwife before entering in the hope that it would rid her of the sense that she was being called to be a nun.

“I really felt the inclination to join the convent. I thought that by doing nursing, it would be gone by the time I finished my studies. But it wasn’t, so I said I would give it six months. But very shortly after I entered, I knew that this was it.”

She joined in 1963 when she was 23 years old; two Cox sisters had already joined the OLA at that stage. A third sister would follow later.

Sr Jo’s first profession took place in 1966 and then it was straight off to Nigeria to a place called Abeokuta where she served for three years as a nurse and midwife. While there, she was told it would be really helpful if she were a medical doctor. So she went back to Ireland and did her medical training for the next seven years. With that qualification under her belt, she returned to Nigeria, this time to the city of Ibadan. “I was there until I got a slight stroke in 2007.”

In recent years, nuns in Ireland have been vilified over the scandals over mother and baby homes, the revelations about the Magdalene laundries and the reformatory schools. For people like Sr Jo, whose order had no part in the running of any of those institutions, it is hard to come to terms with the anger and contempt so many exude towards the sisters, particularly as no one seems to want to acknowledge that good work was done by religious women.

Declining numbers

She herself believes she would never have had the opportunity to train as a doctor but for the OLA order. “If I had married, I would have had a family to look after. Nowadays, that isn’t such a barrier, but it would have been then. Financially, it would have been very difficult if I had been single, so I probably wouldn’t have had the opportunity.”

Sr Liz Murphy is executive secretary of the Association of Leaders of Missionaries & Religious of Ireland (AMRI) which represents 192 orders of religious priests, brothers and sisters as well as 22 contemplative women’s groups. There are approximately 8,000 religious in Ireland today. Though the number of nuns is declining, it is still substantially greater than it was in 1800 when there were just 120 nuns.

One of the challenges today is the ageing profile of those involved. According to Sr Liz, who is a member of the Mercy Sisters, “the average is probably close to 70 years.”

As a result, the care of elderly sisters is a now a priority for many congregations. The decline in religious vocations she ascribes to include factors such as the absence of role models in education; more options to follow God’s call without life-long commitment; less apparent practice of faith in families; and the loss of public support for religious life.

Ireland, she underlines, is not alone in the developed world in respect to the decline in vocations. “When we look to the future, the global picture indicates that there are and will be smaller numbers of vowed religious and there will be more focus on collaboration among ­religious congregations, particularly at local level.”

Fifty-year-old Sr Kathleen McGarvey from Falcarragh, Co Donegal is the provincial of the OLA sisters in Ireland. She is the second last Irish sister to the join the order which she did after she completed her degree in theology in Maynooth and a HDip in 1989. The last Irish member, Sr Mary T Barron, joined in 1992. She also hails from Co Donegal and last month she was elected as the congregational leader over 660 OLA sisters from 20 nationalities who serve around the world.

There are now 54 Irish OLA sisters, that is down from 272 out of 1,454 sisters in the whole congregation in 1970. More worryingly, the average age of the Irish sisters today is 78, whereas half of the 660 sisters currently in the congregation worldwide are under 60. According to Sr Kathleen, who has served on mission in both Argentina and Nigeria, one of the big shifts in the OLA order is the increase in the number of African sisters, who now make up roughly half of the overall membership.

“We are still open to vocations,” Sr Kathleen explains, and the most recent vocation joined in late July. But, as the Irish province is now linked with Tanzania, Linette, who is the first Kenyan member of the OLA, was received into the ­postulancy programme in Tanzania, not Ireland.

Overseas missions

While OLA vocations may be thriving in Africa, in Ireland, vocations to religious life as in most orders have dried up for now. But the sisters have introduced short and long-term volunteering overseas mission programmes. “We have an arrangement with UCC’s medical students,” Sr Kathleen relates, and this facilitates an overseas stint for trainee doctors and nurses in Tanzania. A separate volunteering programme allows teachers and those with specialist skills such as physiotherapy, radiography and medical laboratory skills to volunteer short term.

Now that sisters from Africa make up over half of the OLA’s membership, the order is inviting some of those sisters to come on mission to Ireland. It is a reversal of the Irish missionary endeavour. Sr Mary, who is Nigerian, has come to Ireland to promote mission awareness and promote vocations here. She is also getting involved in youth ministry. “Vocation promotion is about meeting young people and walking the journey of faith with them – it is not just looking for people to enter,” Sr Kathleen states.

One aspect of this South-North mission is the example it gives wider Irish society on intercultural living. Sr Kathleen explains that this is where the religious can give “an important witness in the world today, where many have serious difficulties in living together as peoples of different cultures and different religions. We religious, people of different cultures, are living together and sharing one mission and sharing all things in common.”

The sisters in Ireland on mission include Sr Juliana from Lebanon who is working with Arabic-speaking refugees; Sr Mary from Nigeria, who is working with young people and on mission awareness; Sr Lucy from Ghana is looking after the elderly sisters and Sr Janette is involved in ministry to Africans living in Ireland.

To have young sisters from around the world ministering in Ireland, “most of us would find that very life giving,” Sr Jo admits. “These sisters from different cultures make a huge difference to our lives, they really energise us, and they raise our spirits. We really love having them.” She backs this new South-North mission “1,000pc” but she also worries that “we Irish are a bit racist. I think we have a lot to do to make sure that the sisters are appreciated”.

Several religious orders of nuns have started new missions in Ireland in recent years and in Sr Kathleen’s opinion, “all are welcome – there is room for all of us and there is plenty to do in Ireland today”.

Sr Mara Grace Gore is a member of the congregation of the Dominican Sisters of St Cecilia in Limerick. Two years ago, Bishop Brendan Leahy invited the American order to establish a convent in the city. There are over 300 sisters in the congregation, and four of these came to Ireland as Dr Leahy wanted the Dominican life to continue in Limerick after the Dominican friars decided to leave.

Fresh blood

“Our congregation has many Irish connections. When the bishop’s invitation was accepted, there was a great sense of gratitude that we would be able to, in some small way, give back to a country which has given so much to America and to our congregation.”

When the Dominican sisters arrived, another American community, the Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal was already established in Drogheda. Another community, which is based in Spain but has several American vocations, moved to Ireland in May 2017, while the Apostles of the Sacred Heart, based in Connecticut, moved to Waterford in 2016.

“On a couple of occasions, for example Thanksgiving, we have been blessed to meet up with these communities and support one another as we adjust to living in a different culture from our own,” Sr Mara Grace relates.

In Sr Kathleen’s opinion: “Missionaries from abroad will bring so much in terms of the international face of the Church and new ways of being church that are good for all of us.

“I think there is a certain tiredness among priests and religious in Ireland. Fresh blood will surely bring new life to us all.”

Asked if she thinks there will be nuns in Ireland in 40 years’ time, Sr Kathleen notes how much things have changed in the last 40 years.

“I imagine there will be religious life in some form or another. Personally, I believe that it is a good and worthwhile life; I do believe God is still calling and that people will respond.”

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