Tuesday 25 June 2019

Answering the call: 'You'll never have a bad hair day'

Sisters of Adoration: Sr Martina, Sr Elaine and Sr Maire. Photo: Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker
Sisters of Adoration: Sr Martina, Sr Elaine and Sr Maire. Photo: Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker
Martina Purdy during her days at the BBC

A year after Pope John Paul II's visit to Ireland, a French order of nuns established their first convent on the Falls Road in 1980. As the Troubles raged, the Adoration Sisters' convent offered an oasis of peace in beleaguered West Belfast.

Scroll forward almost 40 years. This month, one of the Adoration Sisters' newest recruits will feature among a host of high-profile journalists in a new book on the Troubles.

Sr Martina Purdy is a former BBC political correspondent who covered the Good Friday Agreement. In 2014, the glamorous, self-confessed "clothes horse" shocked the media world when she quit her job and left her make-up and stilettos behind, donning a brown habit and a veil instead.

Growing up in Canada, she attended a convent school but religious life "didn't appeal to me at all". Graduating from university in the 80s, she had a dream of being a journalist and so she "went for it and it fulfilled me for a long time".

Martina Purdy during her days at the BBC
Martina Purdy during her days at the BBC

She got to meet all the main political players at a pivotal moment in Northern Ireland's history, but as time went on, she started to feel "there was more that I wanted to give. I felt I was living a selfish life and I wanted a more meaningful life. I started going deeper into my faith and the deeper I went, the more this call started to grow - what was a fleeting thought became a burning ambition."

Barrister Sr Elaine Kelly, who gave up her own law practice in her 40s and took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience in the same year as Sr Martina, was also a "late vocation" and says it is still "mind-blowing". The 50-year-old believes "people get caught up with wanting a high and seek it through different escapisms, but our hearts are made for God - the supreme happiness."

These days the Belfast native from Turf Lodge doesn't appear to miss the legal profession. "I love the work; I am mostly entrusted with the making of the altar breads. We manufacture them here at our bakery."

In the order's heyday, the Adoration Sisters had 300 members in convents across France. Now there are just three convents, in Paris, Belfast and Ferns, Co Wexford. Though the overall number of nuns has reduced, in recent years they have been bolstered by four new members in Ireland and two in Paris.

Sr Martina has "absolutely no doubt that vocations will flow from Pope Francis's visit. It might take 10 or 20 years, but the seeds will be planted". Meanwhile, another late vocation, Sr Anne Cahalan from Roscrea, Co Tipperary is preparing for her first vows with the community.

The oldest sister in the convent is 98 years old and next to her is 93-year-old Sr Magdalen who is originally from London and was a member of Church of England. She "survived Hitler's bombs in World War II". Young at heart, "she watches the news and tells us what to pray for," Sr Martina explains.

The youngest member of the community is 37-year-old Sr Máire McAteer from Aghyaran in Co Tyrone. After Irish studies at university, she taught and enjoyed a great social life, but the call to be a nun, which she first heard at four years of age, "never left".

On the streets of West Belfast in their distinctive brown habit, the Adoration Sisters are often stopped and asked for a prayer, particularly if they are walking in the grounds of the nearby hospital. "Some people are really devastated because someone they love is dying."

Wearing the habit, Sr Elaine explains, "reminds people that we're just passing through this world". According to Sr Máire, "it creates unity among us - we're a family; families do things together and share the same traits".

"And you'll never have a bad hair day!" quips Sr Martina.

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