By Dara Bradley based on an interview with Sr. Catherine
Every Galwegian knows Nun’s Island. We pass it most days on our way to College, work or the shops. But not every Galwegian knows that there are still nuns on Nun’s Island, at the Monastery of the Order of the Poor Clares. It’s been a hidden part of Galway for centuries.
As I make my way along the pathway leading up to the plain, pale blue door of the big, white Monastery, I am thinking, irreverently, of Whoopi Goldberg’s Sister Act, while humming irrelevantly, the feminist anthem, “Sisters Are Doin It For Themselves”. The person I’m about to meet turns out to have a flavour of both – a strong humane woman.
She is a member of the Order of the Poor Clares, the Second Order of St. Francis, an order of nuns in the Roman Catholic Church, founded by Saints Clare of Assisi and Francis of Assisi in 1212. It is an enclosed order with particular emphasis on the practice of poverty.
First question, then: Why would any woman want to spend their life in an enclosed order, where their existence literally consists of a life of work, prayer and penance? Most women – and men – in modern Ireland would baulk at the idea. Like Goldberg’s character, Sister Mary Clarence, in the popular 1992 film comedy, they would probably scream: “No booze! No sex! No drugs! ... No way!”
Not so for Sister Catherine, who in 1988 took the extraordinary step to give up life as she knew it and entered the contemplative community of Poor Clare sisters. As it’s an enclosed order, we don’t quite meet face to face – there’s an iron grille between us, in a plainly furnished room with a picture of Our Lord hanging on the wall behind her slight frame. Sister Catherine is about 40, dressed in a black habit and white wimple. A commitment ring decorates her right hand. She enthusiastically recalls how before she entered she was a fun loving, ordinary teenager, a practising Catholic but not particularly religious. She enjoyed going to discos and bopping to Status quo, Paul Brady and The Eagles. A glass of Harp was her favourite tipple and she thought “Tequila Sunrises were beautiful”.
“I’d loads of friends, a boyfriend, I enjoyed shopping and going to discos and I loved my job but it got to the stage that there was something missing ... I was looking for a deeper meaning in my life”.
She explains that it’s difficult to put words on it but “there was a yearning inside me that wasn’t being met and I said to myself “there must be more to life than this”.
The first signs of the deeper meaning she had been searching for came
In May of 1987 when a family friend asked her to go on a pilgrimage to the Marian Shrine of Medjugorje in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Her reasons for going on the trip were not particularly holy: “I said sure I might as well go because I’d get some sun and the nights out would be cheaper!”
She took part in all the pilgrim activities and it was these, rather than the cheap booze and suntan, that compelled her to return to Medjugorje five months later when she had a more spiritual experience at the popular Christian pilgrim site.
On this return journey she entered the local chapel again but this time she felt different: “I was on cloud nine, I was on fire! I just had this overwhelming sense of loving God and him loving me. I was really on a high – it was a foretaste of heaven I thought”.
This was a turning point. A week or so after returning to “normal” life working at Roches Stores she was walking by the convent in Nuns Island and felt interiorly that “a life of prayer and penance” was what had been missing. She went in and said to one of the sisters “Look, I’m on a high from Medjugorje, but this is what I feel”.
Sister Catherine was wary of the nuns at first and for a full year she would visit the convent to get information off the nuns about their life. She didn’t want to go inside the convent even brought a friend along with her “for fear they’d brainwash me or tried to manipulate me into joining”.
But there was no manipulation, just a magnetic draw from God, and in September 1988 Sister Catherine felt that she had “experienced Gods love” and decided that “I just wanted to give my life to God and be with him all the time”.
Entering an enclosed order can be similar to bereavement for the family and friends that are left behind, so did those close to her feel as pleased about her decision as she obviously does?
“My friends thought I was completely stone mad” she laughs, “but my brothers and sisters were very sympathetic”.
“It might sound like a paradox but my relationship with my family has deepened because they share more about their experiences and personal life with me and they open up in a way they wouldn’t if I saw them all the time”.
Poverty is another vow the sisters must embrace upon entering: “I haven’t a cent to my name! Because Jesus became poor out of love for us we voluntarily embrace and accept detachment from material things”.
Their main source of regular income is the making of communion breads for the diocese of Galway and beyond. She says any donation she receives goes to the order for the purchase of candles and the general upkeep of Monastery.
The nuns have a vegetable garden but this only sustains them for three months of the year and so the vow of poverty means also that they are heavily dependent on the generosity of the people of Galway.
Sister Catherine is still visibly struck by the big-heartedness of the woman who she met at the gate who handed her a packet containing cheese, bread and a can of beans one day she was returning from a rare excursion out of the monastery for a hospital appointment. The time a workman, who was repairing a broken wall in the Monastery, handed her a bag of potatoes because the ones she had been cooking were particularly bad that day, is another example of kindness that sticks with her:
“That kind of generosity is just incredible” she says. “The people of Galway are wonderful… we never go hungry but we don’t have a menu for dinners, we are totally dependent on what comes in through donations. Minor miracles happen, I might pray that something would come in and as sure as God it would”.
Slap-up meals however are not something that she longs for but there are aspects of life she does miss from the outside and she says there are times when she’d love to go for a walk on the Prom in Salthill.
“I’m still human so I do miss my walks or going shopping in town or I used to love weekends away. But I don’t go around the whole time thinking about the Prom. I gave it up for a greater love and a higher good – I knew what I was taking on when I entered, it’s like marriage you have to make sacrifices.”
The Sisters are often criticised for running away from “the world” when other nuns are called to teach or nurse and their work is tangible and visible.
“Look” she says frankly “I wouldn’t stay here if I didn’t believe in what I was doing. I believe absolutely 100% that me being here praying for the diocese,the country and the world has more of a benefit than if I was working on the outside.”
She says there’s a need for prayer and spirituality and that the enclosed orders are what keep this element of the Church ticking: “We are the heart of the Church and if the heart stops ticking – if we stop praying –what will happen to the Church?”
And that heart keeps getting new blood – recruitment is steady with three young women currently in formation and another expected to join the existing 16 Galway Sisters in this year alone.
The sisters each have assigned duties within the Monastery and there are plenty of jobs to keep them busy. As well as making altar breads, they must prepare meals, launder, tend to the garden and care for a sister who, due to a stroke, is paralysed.
Praying, however, is the main activity of the nuns and they get up at 5.30am each day to do just that. As well as daily mass, meditation and independent prayer time and scripture reading, the sisters observe the “canonical hours” and come together seven times a day as a community to pray, twice a day for silent meditation and they even interrupt their sleep and get up in the middle of the night for worship.
Despite being physically cut off from society – excursions to the dentist or doctor are rare and they only read Catholic newspapers and listen to a radio news bulletin once a day – it is surprising how knowledgeable Sister Catherine is about the problems that are affecting Ireland. This understanding stems from the people who call to the door in Nuns Island or write to her asking the Poor Clare’s to pray for their intentions.
In many ways the letters are a microcosm of Irish society’s problems: “Sickness, marital breakdown, problems with parents not being able to relate to their children or drug and alcohol abuse by young people, help for couples having babies or trying to adopt; you name it we’ve been asked to pray for it. We also get the lighter requests asking us to pray that such and such a team will win the All-Ireland or that I meet the right girl/boy for marriage. There are no limits to what we are asked to pray for – one person even wrote asking us to pray he won the lotto!”
On those rare occasions when she does get out of the monastery she has noticed considerable changes and she still seems bewildered about the fashion trends amongst the youth. This works both ways she says: “When people see us dressed as we are, they quickly grab their cameras or mobiles and shoot. I suppose we are rare species!”
She also senses unhappiness among people despite our recent economic success story: “People are very sad looking on the street. When I’m out I might smile at people, and a lot of the time they just look at me blankly and, despite all the wealth, they look like they are searching for a deeper meaning in their lives”.
As I say my good-byes and leave the tranquil surroundings to back into the hurly-burly of the city, I wonder would Galway be better off without a secret powerhouse in its midst? I wouldn't bet on it!
The ancient spiritual tradition of the Church, explicitly connects the enclosed-contemplative life to the prayer of Jesus "on the mountain", or solitary place not accessible to all but only to those whom he calls to be with Him, apart from the others.
The enclosure therefore, even in its physical form, is a special way of being with the Lord, of sharing in Christ's emptying of Himself by means of a radical poverty, expressed in renunciation not only of things but also of space, of contacts, of so many benefits of creation.