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Garry O'Sullivan: Our nuns are living in fear, that if they get so much as a cold they'll be packed off to the other end of the country to die alone

IN France recently two elderly nuns went 'on the run' to avoid being transferred to a nursing home hundreds of kilometres from their convent.

Now Irish nuns are saying they could well be forced to do the same and are speaking out on the pressure being brought to bear on them, when they become elderly and sick, to get out of their convents and into nursing homes.

Some have been moved far away from other sisters, after spending more than 60 years in community living with daily Mass and prayer, they are sent to a nursing home where they are lucky to get communion once a week and rarely if ever get Mass. It's not a dignified end to a life lived in service and prayer.


Some members of the Sisters of Mercy Southern Province have taken the unusual step of writing to the Vatican for help on this issue. It's a very real problem. Most nuns are now in their twilight years having spent decades in hospitals looking after the sick or in schools teaching.

Many didn't retire at 65 but kept on working quietly in their communities until old age made it too difficult. These women are someone's aunt, cousin and it is an issue that has affected many families around the country who are aghast at how their family nun is treated.

Nuns generally live in community in convents or small houses. They have daily Mass and pray together and generally share their lives together. Many are private people who feel that the little they have asked for in return for their lives of service and self-sacrifice is dignity in their old age and to die in their community is not too much to ask for.

As always, money is at the heart of the issue, and the leaderships of some nuns' congregations are worried about the cost of caring for nuns in large old convents.

Under the Government's Fair Deal scheme, the cost to religious orders is greatly reduced if they send their members to nursing homes rather than bear all the costs involved in keeping them in their convents.

But this is causing huge amounts of fear and trepidation among elderly nuns.


"I am frightened even to get a cold,'' one sister told a reporter, "in case they say 'you can't look after yourself anymore' and pack me off to a nursing home at the other end of the country.''

Elderly nuns also complain that their salaries as teachers and nurses went directly to central funds for decades and that they should have some recourse to financial security in their convents now.

Yet at a time when the institutional Church is dealing with an ever ageing number of clergy and nuns, other religious orders have purpose-built apartments for their elderly.

The monks in Mellaray monastery in Waterford want their elderly to die on campus and the Jesuits have also spent a lot of resources allowing their elderly live on campus in Milltown.


The Vatican's inspection of the Irish Church in October, as ordered by the Pope, will examine religious orders among others. This is likely to be a very hot potato for the inspectors and likely to be highly embarrassing for the leadership of many religious orders.

For years religious orders have lectured Irish society on justice; the question is are they being just to the most frail and vulnerable in their midst?

It is time for transparency and answers from religious leaders.