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

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

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.

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