Shedding old habits: Sisters band together
They are ageing and increasingly reliant on missionaries to reinvigorate their communities, but Irish nuns believe religious life will survive the current doldrums, writes SARAH Mac DONALD
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.
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.