Ilearn something of the impact that the Magdalen Laundries scandal had on the Mercy nuns themselves reading the personal testimony of Sister Phyllis Kilcoyne. Sister Kilcoyne is part of the Leadership Team of the Western Province of the Mercy Order.*
I suppose every sister reacted in her own way, but Phyllis’s reaction went back to the time when she told her mother that she was joining the nuns, and her mother’s tearful plea that she reconsider her decision.
Her mother’s experience of nuns at primary school was quite negative. She remembered them as being harsh and uncaring. When Phyllis told her of her vocation, she cried for weeks. Her father accepted her decision, and tried to act as peacemaker, but her mother was never really reconciled to her daughter’s decision. Phyllis joined the convent directly from school. Her mother visited her regularly and, clearly disapproving of her daughter’s choice, told her that she would always be welcomed home. It was a difficult time for both women.
‘At one level, I thought I was doing a good thing. But at another level my choice was hurting her.’ Her mother’s upset caused Phyllis to seriously reconsider her vocation. She questioned some of the practices within the convent, some of which she thought were nonsensical. She particularly objected to the fact that her mother’s letters were read before she got them.
For the next decade and more, Phyllis still questioned whether it was the life that she really wanted. But, in her mid-thirties, after a prolonged retreat with the Jesuits, she knew that the religious life was her true calling.
She would give it everything she had.
She never looked back.‘ Over the years the pain around the relationship with my mother had wounded me, and caused me to falter in my faith many times. But now I am at peace with whatever comes my way.’
When Justice Sean Ryan’s report of child abuse was published in May 2009, Phyllis felt embarrassed and ashamed.
She remembered her mother’s disappointment that she was joining the nuns, and her negative experience of them as a child. Over the years a sadness had grown between them.
Although they were very caring to each other, there was ‘ an unspoken barrier’. But one evening they watched the orphanage story on television together, when her mother was in her nineties, and in a nursing home. Phyllis instantly understood her mother’s long time concern. ‘It helped me,’ writes Phyllis, ‘ to hear her story in a new way.
It was an insight for me, and a release for her, and it brought tears to us both.
In a mysterious way I felt God was offering me this truth to help bring about a reconciliation in my heart with my mother. This indeed happened. I was with her when she died.’
A lower energy
Phyllis had never worked in an orphanage but she talked with sisters who did. They all acknowledged the pain that was caused by what happened, and its revelations. ‘I am happy that we, as an order, did apologise to the victims of abuse; but it still cast a big cloud over all our lives. I found myself dealing with sisters who were very vulnerable around the story.
All of that lowered our energy considerably. But I do believe that good will always triumph over evil, and that the truth will always set us free.’
Phyllis was born in a county Sligo village, the eldest of three and the only girl. Her family were not particularly religious. She attended a two-teacher school, and was the only girl in the class. She was on her own most of the day. But in secondary school, the Mercy nuns were caring and interested in her and their students, enough to attract Phyllis to join them immediately after school. She became headmistress of the school, but after the Magdalen revelations, she moved from the school into family therapy, and has played a vital role in finding new directions for the Sisters of Mercy. That quest is still on-going.
‘Our opportunities as Mercy sisters are endless now. If there is an idea that we have that we would like to set up some little project, or do something for any group in society, there are few regulations around that. But sadly our energy and our numbers are diminishing. There is the contradiction. When we were younger we had the energy, but felt restricted in what we could do. Now the reverse is the case.’
Next Week: What is the state of faith in the Ireland of today? At least in the older generation belief in God is still strong in many people’s lives. Presidential candidate David Norris, however, wants to always retain ‘the principle of positive doubt’. So do others.
NOTES: * Credo - Personal Testimonies of Faith, compiled and edited by John Quinn, published by Veritas, which will be launched at Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop at 6.30pm this evening, by acclaimed harpist Mary O’Hara.