A Magdalene Rose: Another nun's story

A story of a remarkable encounter with a Catholic Nun

The encounter took place in the UK and outside Frank's research into the Magdalen issue. It revealed so much of attitudes toward this controversial issue

Hello and welcome to my latest podcast; thanks for joining me today. 

I’ve recently finished the final draft of my book ‘A Magdalene Rose’ and within that book, there is a Chapter called ‘The Nun’s Story’. It is about the time my wife and I met with some nuns in Galway City, as we endeavoured to find out what happened to my Grandmother and Dad. As I was looking through the Chapters the other day, it brought to mind an encounter I had almost forgotten about, which had taken place about 5 years ago. 

This story of another encounter with a nun was quite unexpected and it revealed and dangerous groupthink which required nothing else but compliance. 

At the time I was visiting my wife, who was recovering from an operation in hospital in Birmingham. As is usual in British hospitals, she was assigned to a ward along with 5 other women, all recovering from their treatments. 

Visiting times were strictly enforced and so when I arrived, I joined the throng of family and friends, clutching their cards and gifts for their loved ones as we entered the ward. When I reached my wife’s sub-dormitory, I could hear my wife’s voice along with other women; the exchanges were peppered with a seriousness along with what sounded like sceptical laughter. 

As I approached the bed, I was surprised to see a nun seated next to her, dressed in a blue nuns habit and their accent revealed that she originated from a country outside of the UK which had in recent years been evangelised by the Catholic Church bringing forth a new crop of vocations. 

My wife called out: “My Husband’s here, he can tell you himself if you don’t believe me”. 

“Tell me what”, I said as I walked into this unexpected scene; the nun turned around to face me. 

“We’ve been having a debate about religion in society and we got onto the Magdalen Laundries, and I tried to explain to the nun what happened to your Grandmother”, my wife said. 

I looked at the nun and smiling I said to her, “What don’t you believe about the Magdalen Laundries?” 

She said nonchalantly, “It’s all been made up by the media; it just didn’t happen”. 

Now I confess I was taken aback by this woman of the cloth, who had clearly come onto the ward to tend to the Catholic’s amongst the ward. How I wondered, could she sit there and  make and make a comments that was factually incorrect? 

I said to her, “I don’t think that’s correct, have you not seen what has been happening in countries across Europe and in particular Ireland?” 

She said, “I have seen these stories, but they’re just not true; priests and nuns would never do such a thing; it’s contrary to Church law”. 

“But sister”, I said, “In Ireland there’s been a report produced by the Irish Government into the Magdalen Laundries and it is clear that many thousands of women were made to work whilst they were held in captivity and abused by those nuns who controlled the Laundries”. 

“That’s a shocking thing to say”, she said, “Are you a Catholic?”, she asked. 

“Yes I am sister”, and before I could say anything else she said to me, “You are truly lost”. 

I was once again taken aback, and sat down next to her and started to explain the story of my Dad, his Mother and her Partner. I explained to her the journey that they had all taken, all under the watchful eye and control of the State and the Church. 

Throughout my story, she sat there with disbelieving eyes, shaking her head whilst holding onto the cross around her neck. 

“You do know what you’re saying is a sin; the Holy Father has made it clear how sorry he is to hear these accusations, because that’s all they are; you should not be saying things like this; it’s a sin and a sin against the Holy Church”, she said. 

I hadn’t got time to react because I was so shocked. 

“Sit with me and pray, and bring yourself back to God and the Church”, she added. 

In that moment I felt a rising anger but also a calm. I leant toward the nun and said: 

“I don’t care whether you are a nun, a person who’s taken Holy Orders, but what you have been saying is not just disrespectful, but deeply offensive” 

I went onto say: 

“To deny what is clearly documented, to dismiss what is a deeply personal issue for me and my family, and many thousands of other families, to ignore the evidence, which I encourage you to research, tells me that your attachment to your vocation is built on sand and an insult to many thousands who’ve endured the failures of the Church”. 

By now she was flushed with anger, but simply said, “You are wrong, pray with me”. 

I replied, “There is absolutely no way I will pray with you; what is your name?” 

“I will not tell you my name”, she said somewhat indignantly. 

I said quietly to her, “I want you to leave me and my wife now, if fact, please leave the ward because you are clearly upsetting people around us”, noticing that the sub-ward was quiet, with family and patients’ looking on at this remarkable scene, some were shaking their heads. 

With that, she stood up and quietly said to me, “I will pray for you”. I immediately responded by saying, “Don’t waste your time, pray for yourself because you and those who hold these offensive and ignorant views need to learn that the Catholics of today will no longer tolerate your point of view and for that matter, the Church’s”. 

She was clearly angry with me, as was I with her, and she stood in the middle of the ward just staring at me. In that moment I did the only thing I could do and I took myself to the nurses station and made a complaint about her; it was the only way I could bring this painful encounter to an end as moments later she was summoned to the nurses station. 

Over the years I have very briefly thought about that encounter and how my faith or beliefs had been challenged, and more importantly, how the very truth of my Dad’s life and that of my Grandmother was made small; irrelevant; invisible. 

On that day, if I had been awed by a person of the cloth, I would have clasped my hands and eventually begged for forgiveness, but of course I was not so awed. As the living voice of my Dad, my Grandmother and my newly found Grandfather, this would have been the ultimate betrayal of them. 

As I saw it then and do now, there is a gulf between a religious truth or revelation and the people, separated by centuries of man-made ritual, dogma and institutional failures. Those who are trapped in this sea of dogma, only kid themselves that they are close to this religious truth or revelation, a position they hold out to the community at large that because of this revelation or spirituality, they are somehow above us, untouchable. 

But as I discovered many years ago on a trip to the island of Patmos, the pathway to spirituality is both simple and pure. On the island, where St John had been banished to, he only offered a few words to impatient followers, who sought that very same spirituality. When asked what they had to do to achieve that closeness or spirituality to God, he simply replied, “Love one another; as long as you do that, this is all that God requires of you”; he did not feed his followers with a greater set of requirements. To gain a spirituality is hard, but John’s words hold an even greater truth that is found in the very essence of all religions, and it is to that, that I subscribe to, but not so it seems the nun on that fateful day. 

Equally, it is difficult to subscribe to the notion that the nuns or religious orders that I am currently engaged with, follow the same spirituality of John. How could they when they allow money  and secular law to be principal factor in their operations? How could they when they hold onto records and deny access to its safely held secrets? How could they when they delay, obfuscate and feed breadcrumbs of a family’s truth at their pleasure? There are many more indicators which suggests that they are trapped in that sea of dogma, never it seems to reach the true spirituality just beyond their grasp. 

I do not pray for them, but I do pray for the day when they find that slit in the door from which they can escape to the spirituality contained in St John’s words. In that moment they may well recall a prayer: 

“And God shall wipe away all the tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death; neither shall there be sorrow or crying; neither shall there be any more pain, for the former world has passed away”. 

I look forward to the day when those who are the inheritors of the Magdalen scandal, and the nun I met in the hospital, will have their eyes cleared, and that the pain that they once delivered to our loved ones and now unto us, will be swept away. 

That surely is the promise of the Kingdom of Heaven and where Justice for all the Magdalen victims will be found? 

Until the next time, take care

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