Friday 28 October 2016

A nun's story: Sister Olive Cooney spends her days washing the clothes of the homeless

It is a life that illustrates the Christian spirit that many celebrate at Easter


Published 04/04/2015 | 10:36

It was a chance encounter with a passing stranger that first instilled in a young Olive Cooney her desire to help the homeless.

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This was the early 1930s and, as one of eight children growing up on a farm in Co Westmeath, she was used to sharing everything. But one day as she came down for breakfast before the long walk to school, there was no porridge left.

Olive was surprised but her mother explained that a homeless vagrant had come knocking at the farmhouse door the previous evening, looking for shelter. Although many in the same circumstances would have turned him away, Mrs Cooney made him a warm bed in the barn among the hay bales and then invited him inside for breakfast in the morning.

"She told him to help himself to the porridge, and, as the poor man clearly hadn't eaten in such a long time, he just kept on and on, helping himself, until it was all gone," Sr Olive who won our Woman of the Year in the Voluntary sector award for her work in Belfast, recalls.

As she looked out at the distant stranger who was walking away down the path, back towards the village, brushing the straw from his hair as he went, she had a sudden realisation about her own path in life.

"I may have gone hungry for one morning, but it taught me a lesson for a lifetime. It was at that moment that I realised it was my duty to be charitable and to help others, just like my parents had always done. Mother taught me that the comforts we take for granted everyday are far more than many people can dream of and that giving to the needy is one of our most important duties in life."

True friend: Sister Olive at the Dominican Convent in west Belfast
True friend: Sister Olive at the Dominican Convent in west Belfast

Sr Olive certainly stuck to her word. Now aged 83, struggling with painful arthritis and having spent her entire adult life serving God, the church and the community as a Dominican nun, she works tirelessly in the laundry of the Welcome Organisation, a Belfast charity which offers shelter, food and support to the homeless and vulnerable. It was for this role, which she carries out come rain or shine, in sickness and in health, without question or fuss, that she was nominated for the Volunteer category at Belfast Telegraph's Woman of the Year Award and she duly - and joyfully - won.

It's one of the most strenuous and unrewarding tasks that anyone could undertake at the centre. The laundry room there is small and cramped, with no windows or natural light, but with four steaming washing machines and tumble dryers churning away, on the go, around-the-clock. It really is back-breaking work for anyone, let alone an octogenarian racked with arthritis.

Those who've been sleeping rough on the streets, or those who simply cannot afford any utilities of their own, bring in their clothes, their bedding, even their sleeping bags and, with a beautiful beaming smile she takes them as willingly and as happily as though she's been handed a fragrant bouquet. To them, she offers a lifeline - not just by providing them with a crucial service cheerfully and without charge, but by showing them the care, thought and concern that their lives are possibly missing.

"I love to give their clothes back to them all freshly and neatly folded," she says. "It's important that everyone has a sense of dignity, no matter what their present circumstances may be. But the gratitude that they show me in return is, for me, the best thing of all. That in itself is so valuable and fills me with such joy that it is I who should be grateful to them."

Sr Olive's work at the Welcome Centre is just a tiny fraction of an extraordinary life that has been completely devoted to serving others.

In the summer of 1949, at the tender age of 18, having just completed her secondary education at Dominican College in Dublin, Olive Cooney made the decision to join the Dominicans herself.

Although in the past she had always thought - and talked - about a career in medicine, her love of the Dominican way of life, of its ethos and its aims, now fired her imagination more than anything else ever had. As a farmer's daughter, she could understand and relate to the patron saint's simple message.

"St Dominic taught us this: 'Scatter the grain and bring forth fruit'. This is what I was preparing to do."

In her heart, Olive was certain that to do so was her calling, but that year she spent the holidays thinking it through carefully. By the end of the summer, after much contemplation, she was ready to share her news.

Olive told her parents -and her seven brothers and sisters of her decision, and it was a relief that they were all equally proud and delighted for her vocation.

"They gave me their blessing, but my father took me to one side to remind me of something. He said 'This is your choice, Olive, and we are happy for you, but never forget, our door will always be open for you here, no matter what, no matter when'."

The Westmeath woman joined the Dominican Order as a novice on October 9, 1949.

Since that day to this, there was never a moment's doubt in her mind that she made the right decision.

During her career she has been located and relocated across the length and breadth of Ireland, north and south, working in various capacities as a teacher, a pastoral counsellor, a manager and carer for those in need, while maintaining and observing the Dominican way of life every step of the way.

One big upheaval took place in 1964, when Sr Olive was sent to St Mary's College, Belfast on the Falls Road to take up the position as a home economics teacher which, in those days included a vast range of subjects including physiology, biology and economics as well as cooking, dressmaking and other creative skills. Although it was a daunting prospect undertaking a new path, in a new place with a completely different education system, she loved the relationships and interaction with the younger generation, whom she treated like they were children of her own.

Indeed, many of her past pupils and students kept in touch with her after leaving school and, to this day, still write and visit. "This was a very challenging time for me, but the things that I had missed by joining a religious life, like family, relations and friends, were all now there for me but in a different way. Working with these children and being a part of their enthusiasm for life and learning made every day feel worthwhile," she recalls.

During some of the worst periods of the Troubles, she remained there, right slap-bang in the middle of a war-torn city, going about her business of teaching and providing pastoral care to children under the most trying of circumstances. Bomb scares and evacuations were commonplace, but this was just part of the job and, like everything else in her life, Sr Olive just got on with it without a fuss.

From there she moved across town to Aquinas Hall at Queen's where she embarked on another chapter of her life, as the superior sister, providing support and assistance for students in residence at the university. But by 1993 and aged in her early sixties, when most of us would be seriously considering retirement, Sr Olive decided it was time for a career change.

She enrolled in the Clerical Pastoral Education Course at the Royal Victoria Hospital and, once that was completed, she became a chaplain at Musgrave Park Hospital, offering friendship, counselling and consolation to patients of all denominations. "This was a time of great sadness and great joy for me. It was difficult to see people in pain and suffering, but I got a great deal of satisfaction and peace of mind knowing that I had been there for them when they needed someone to talk to or just to see a friendly face."

Sr Olive stayed there as a chaplain for six years, which brings us back to the present and her position at the Welcome Organisation, where she remains as a volunteer to this day.

As we're there at the Townsend Street Drop-In Centre, taking pictures of Sr Olive working in the laundry, it's easy to see the effect her selfless and tireless work has on the homeless community.

One by one, poor, disadvantaged and vulnerable people call out to greet her. Big burly men, with scars and bruises on their faces and the weight of the world on their shoulders, straight off the street after a night of sleeping rough, literally wait in line to see Sr Olive. And she knows all their names and greets them like long-lost friends.

I ask Sr Olive if she has ever had any regrets about the path her life has taken. "No, dear," she replies without a moment's though. "I have been blessed throughout my life, meeting so many wonderful people. I don't feel like I have missed out on anything, far from it. I feel like I have a huge family. These people are family to me and the love that they show me only confirms my faith in my choices, in human nature and in God."

Seeking out truth and beauty

Sr Olive is a member of the Dominican Covent in Belfast, which is situated within the grounds of St Mary's Grammar School on the Falls Road

The Dominican Order is a Roman Catholic religious order founded by the Spanish priest Saint Dominic de Guzman in France, and approved by Pope Honorius III (1216-27) on December 22, 1216. Membership in the Order includes friars, nuns, active sisters, and lay or secular Dominicans

The Dominican Sisters share a way of life marked by a freedom and respect for each individual, and is positive, joyful and celebratory. There is a strong devotion to Jesus Christ and to setting a high value on being human and seeing good in all created things

Their aim is to seek out truth and beauty wherever they are to be found and to preach the word of God through work in the areas of education, ecology and justice.

They also engage in pastoral work in the wider community across Ireland, South Africa, Portugal, North America, Argentina, Bolivia and Brazil

The Dominican Sisters describe themselves as "Searchers for God and for Truth".

They live a comtemplative existence in community, sharing everything with each other, supporting one another and praying together in communion each day

A typical day of a Dominican sister

6am: Breakfast and quiet prayer, followed by Morning Prayer/Lauds centred on the Psalms and Scriptural texts

7.30am: Daily Mass in the chapel

8.10am: Daily house duties including kitchen, refectory and laundry. Also teaching or voluntary work within the local community

Noon: Scripture reading

1pm: Lunch followed by recreation in the gardens or inside the convent

Afternoon: Teaching, meetings and assorted duties within boundaries of education, the church and its communities, scripture and theology. Voluntary work within the community

6pm: Community Vespers, the evening prayer of the Church, and then dinner with the community

7pm: Free time to read, listen to music, contemplate.

9pm: Oratory to pray before bed.

10pm: Lights out

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