An­swer­ing the call: ‘You’ll never have a bad hair day’

SARAH Mac DON­ALD talks to the Belfast or­der that counts a for­mer BBC po­lit­i­cal cor­re­spon­dent among its num­bers

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - STATE OF THE CHURCH -

Ayear af­ter Pope John Paul II’s visit to Ire­land, a French or­der of nuns es­tab­lished their first con­vent on the Falls Road in 1980. As the Trou­bles raged, the Ado­ra­tion Sis­ters’ con­vent of­fered an oa­sis of peace in be­lea­guered West Belfast.

Scroll for­ward al­most 40 years. This month, one of the Ado­ra­tion Sis­ters’ new­est re­cruits will fea­ture among a host of high-pro­file jour­nal­ists in a new book on the Trou­bles.

Sr Martina Purdy is a for­mer BBC po­lit­i­cal cor­re­spon­dent who cov­ered the Good Fri­day Agree­ment. In 2014, the glam­orous, self-con­fessed “clothes horse” shocked the me­dia world when she quit her job and left her make-up and stilet­tos be­hind, don­ning a brown habit and a veil in­stead.

Grow­ing up in Canada, she at­tended a con­vent school but re­li­gious life “didn’t ap­peal to me at all”. Grad­u­at­ing from univer­sity in the 80s, she had a dream of be­ing a jour­nal­ist and so she “went for it and it ful­filled me for a long time”.

She got to meet all the main po­lit­i­cal play­ers at a piv­otal mo­ment in North­ern Ire­land’s his­tory, but as time went on, she started to feel “there was more that I wanted to give. I felt I was liv­ing a self­ish life and I wanted a more mean­ing­ful life. I started go­ing deeper into my faith and the deeper I went, the more this call started to grow — what was a fleet­ing thought be­came a burn­ing am­bi­tion.”

Bar­ris­ter Sr Elaine Kelly, who gave up her own law prac­tice in her 40s and took vows of poverty, chastity and obe­di­ence in the same year as Sr Martina, was also a “late vo­ca­tion” and says it is still “mind­blow­ing”. The 50-year-old be­lieves “peo­ple get caught up with want­ing a high and seek it through dif­fer­ent es­capisms, but our hearts are made for God — the supreme hap­pi­ness.”

Th­ese days the Belfast na­tive from Turf Lodge doesn’t ap­pear to miss the le­gal pro­fes­sion. “I love the work; I am mostly en­trusted with the mak­ing of the al­tar breads. We man­u­fac­ture them here at our bak­ery.”

In the or­der’s hey­day, the Ado­ra­tion Sis­ters had 300 mem­bers in con­vents across France. Now there are just three con­vents, in Paris, Belfast and Ferns, Co Wex­ford. Though the over­all num­ber of nuns has re­duced, in re­cent years they have been bol­stered by four new mem­bers in Ire­land and two in Paris.

Sr Martina has “ab­so­lutely no doubt that vo­ca­tions will flow from Pope Fran­cis’s visit. It might take 10 or 20 years, but the seeds will be planted”. Mean­while, another late vo­ca­tion, Sr Anne Ca­ha­lan from Ro­screa, Co Tip­per­ary is pre­par­ing for her first vows with the com­mu­nity.

The old­est sis­ter in the con­vent is 98 years old and next to her is 93-year-old Sr Mag­dalen who is orig­i­nally from London and was a mem­ber of Church of Eng­land. She “sur­vived Hitler’s bombs in World War II”. Young at heart, “she watches the news and tells us what to pray for,” Sr Martina ex­plains.

The youngest mem­ber of the com­mu­nity is 37-year-old Sr Máire McA­teer from Agh­yaran in Co Ty­rone. Af­ter Ir­ish stud­ies at univer­sity, she taught and en­joyed a great so­cial life, but the call to be a nun, which she first heard at four years of age, “never left”.

On the streets of West Belfast in their dis­tinc­tive brown habit, the Ado­ra­tion Sis­ters are of­ten stopped and asked for a prayer, par­tic­u­larly if they are walk­ing in the grounds of the nearby hos­pi­tal. “Some peo­ple are re­ally dev­as­tated be­cause some­one they love is dy­ing.”

Wear­ing the habit, Sr Elaine ex­plains, “re­minds peo­ple that we’re just pass­ing through this world”. Ac­cord­ing to Sr Máire, “it cre­ates unity among us — we’re a fam­ily; fam­i­lies do things to­gether and share the same traits”.

“And you’ll never have a bad hair day!” quips Sr Martina.

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