Our community’s experience of the COVID-19 pandemic

Saint Catherine’s Dominican Convent, Belfast, Northern Ireland

Compiled by: Sr Eileen O’Connell OP, Congregation of Dominican Sisters of Our Lady of the Rosary and Saint Catherine of Siena

Greetings from Belfast!

For 150 years, sisters from the Congregation of Dominican Sisters of Our Lady of the Rosary and Saint Catherine of Siena have lived on the Falls Road, first in St Dominic’s Convent and now in St Catherine’s Dominican Convent. At present, St Catherine’s is home to a community of nine sisters: Sisters Alicia Mooney, Eileen O’Connell, Kathleen Fitzsimons, Leila Newman, Maeliosa Byrne, Majella Fitzpatrick, Noreen Christian, Olive Cooney, and Sheila McKinstry OP. We range in ages from 47 to 91 years.

Community – St Catherine’s Convent Belfast

Invited by the Bishop, Dominican Sisters came to provide education for girls in the rapidly expanding city that was Belfast of 1870 – a thriving port, an industrial giant and birthplace of the Titanic. Those first sisters could never have anticipated that their descendants would continue to educate girls – from preschool through to university level – through two World Wars and three decades of the Northern Ireland Conflict and into a time of relative peace that followed the Good Friday Agreement. They would not have imagined Belfast as it now is – a vibrant university city and popular tourist destination. Once again, the city faces challenge and uncertainty as it grapples with the consequences and impact of COVID-19 and of Brexit.

Falls Road Murals

While our sisters in Belfast are no longer in schools and most in our community are retired, we continue to maintain strong connections in the community. During this time of restriction and confinement, we are forced to think who we are and what we are called to be and to do in this city at this time. At a recent community meeting, we shared how COVID-19 has impacted on us personally, in terms of our relationships with family and friends and to each other in community, and in connection to our ministry. As sisters shared information about ministry, we named the challenges and opportunities that COVID-19 poses for us and for those we minister to and with. We experienced this meeting as a blessed time, an instance of honest, authentic communication and of deep sharing with one another.

We share with you some of our reflection on how these months of pandemic have affected our ministries.

Sr Alicia is our Prioress. She feels that the pandemic has not impacted very much on her ministry because, as Prioress, her occupation is mostly within the Convent. Nevertheless, she gives more thought to the sisters in our community because some are very restricted in this time. Additionally, she spends more time talking by phone and sending emails and texts because people cannot visit our community. After over 40 years, Sr Alicia is back in her home city. While her ministry as Prioress would allow for her to arrange times to meet her family, the pandemic has prevented this. At the moment, even visiting her sister who is sick in hospital is impossible. In these months of restrictions, Sr Alicia shares: “I value more the power of prayer for my community, family, friends and the whole suffering world in this pandemic.”

Sr Eileen shared on her current ministries and potential future ministry. Until the lockdown in mid-March, Sr Eileen’s main ministry was as Assistant Chaplain in The Catholic Chaplaincy in Queen’s University Belfast. This role was for one academic year only (2019-2020). Due to the pandemic, events connected to some of her other ministries did not take place: a holiday week for 100 children organised by St Vincent de Paul (Sr Eileen volunteers as a leader for this week); Knockadoon Music and Liturgy Week; an annual Religious in Formation Group Conference; walking El Camino with a MSC Father and a group of young adults. Some aspects of these, along with her other commitments, continue to be possible, albeit only online at present. There is a sadness and sense of loss in not being able to meet with the people she ministers to and with. While continuing to connect with and support individuals using virtual means, being present with people is missing. She continues to discern ministry opportunities in Belfast and has been in contact with various individuals and projects. There are many exciting and worthwhile possibilities but becoming involved is not yet feasible. For Sr Eileen now, the challenge of the pandemic lies in patiently waiting for restrictions to lift and doors to open once more.

Sr Kathleen is a family therapist and works with Spirasi (an NGO, founded by the Spiritan Fathers). Spirasi offers a psychological rehabilitation programme for people who have come to Ireland and have experienced torture in their homeland. Sr Kathleen engages in therapy with 15 families. Prior to the pandemic, this took place in Spirasi’s centre in Dublin city and families travelled from all parts of Ireland to attend. Now, these sessions take place using zoom. While it has been an adjustment for both families and therapists, zoom offers advantages too: families don’t face the difficulty of travelling long distances, often using public transport (for some families, this can mean spending almost a full day travelling to and from their therapy session); it can be easier for children to be in their own home and they can move away while parents speak of more sensitive issues. Also by zoom, Sr Kathleen facilitates conversation for a group of 15 mothers who have come to Ireland. Not all speak English but, using interpreters provided by Spirasi, these meetings are an opportunity for these mothers to understand the challenges of parenting in Ireland when it is different from parenting patterns in their homeland.

Sr Lelia is part of numerous groups, largely with a focus on peace and non-violence. While unable to go out in the current situation, she continues to maintain contact with some of these groups. She told us a little about her work with Pax Christi and of that organisation’s work on Christian non-violence, something she sees reflected in the content of Fratelli Tutti.  In 2007, Sr Lelia was recipient of the Pax Christi Peace Award.

Since retiring from school, Sr Maeliosa works as a volunteer with Miss Denise Flack, Catholic chaplain for all the Dioceses in Northern Ireland (under the auspices of the all-Ireland National Chaplaincy for Deaf People: NCDP). Pastoral care is very important to the Deaf. Sr Maeliosa says that “They like us to be present with them, accompanying them and interested in them. In some cases, the COVID-19 regulations add to the sense of isolation already felt by many, especially the elderly Deaf. They tell us they miss us if we are not with them.” Sr Maeliosa’s ministry involves preparing and projecting powerpoint for the Deaf at Mass and other liturgies in Belfast, Derry, Armagh, Enniskillen and other parishes in the northern dioceses, preparing and participating in residential retreats and pilgrimages, attending funerals, visiting families etc. All means of communication are used. If the priest can sign, it is a bonus; if not, Denise or another interpreter will translate in sign language. Deaf people will sign readings and prayers – the interpreter will speak for the hearing people. British Sign Language (BSL) and Irish Sign Language (ISL) are used depending on the group. Sr Maeliosa shared some of the challenges of working with Deaf people when face-to-face meetings and gatherings are not possible. Operating within the restrictions, her colleague Denise continues to connect with the Deaf through on-line Signed Mass, prayer services and creating ‘virtual’ pilgrimages to places we hope to visit in the future. Sr Maeliosa looks forward to attending Mass and being fully involved in the life of the Deaf community once more and hopes will be soon.

Sr Maeliosa also has responsibility for our community’s archives with expert help from archivist, Miss Patricia Kernahan who hopes to resume work very soon when restrictions permit this.

Sr Majella sees her primary ministry at this time as offering support to the school principals of two local schools: St Dominic’s Grammar School and St Paul’s Primary School. The wisdom gained by many years’ experience of school and of being a principal makes her well-suited to this. She describes her ministry as “keeping them (school principals) sane in all that faces them in their role.” She provides a listening ear and sound advice to assist them as they negotiate various situations with both staff and students and with the families of students.  In lockdown conditions, when Sr Majella cannot meet the Principals or go into schools, she supports them by telephone. The pandemic adds a great degree of uncertainty and anxiety in terms of keeping the school community safe and well, navigating continually changing health and safety regulations, planning for when a student or member of staff becomes unwell.

For Sr Noreen, most of the areas of ministry and connection in which she is involved can happen now only by zoom. This works as an alternative in some instances. However, not everything can be adapted to online formats and these are on hold during this time, e.g. monthly Taizé prayer evenings in our convent chapel and twice monthly Centering Prayer gatherings in our library do not take place at the moment. Sr Noreen regularly attended a monthly Centering Prayer group in Dublin. Just recently, this has recommenced but rather than meeting physically, it takes place using zoom. During these months, Noreen reconnected with a long-lost friend, Gail, now living in Australia who is delighted to be able to join this online prayer morning.

Sr Noreen reflected on the wider impact of this time on us as a community. Living opposite the Royal Victoria Hospital, which is very much involved in the diagnosis and care of COVID patients, is a constant reminder to us of their plight. Being prohibited from showing any loving gesture of care or support feels very alien, inhuman, and unchristian yet, unfortunately, this has to be the policy in a situation of pandemic. Prayer, as individuals and as a community, is the only loving avenue available to us and we walk it many times daily.

Sr Olive does much to assist people who are homeless or rough sleeping in Belfast. Until the lockdown, she spent a full day, 8am to 4pm, in the Welcome Organisation, a Belfast charity which offers shelter, food and support to the homeless and vulnerable. Sr Olive ran the laundry, washing, drying and folding the clothes of those who came to the centre – she lives this maxim: “if I can do anything, I will do it the right way and the best way.” Twice, Sr Olive has been awarded the Person of the Year Award for her dedication to those who are homeless and her care for them. When the pandemic struck, the Welcome Organisation was closed. Now it has reopened, but only for a short time each day and to limited numbers. While Sr Olive cannot work in the laundry at present, she continues to minister to those she knows as a result of being there – when she meets them in the city, she talks with them and goes with them to a café so that they can choose what they would like to eat before she buys it for them. Yet, she misses her time in the Welcome Organisation and feels a real sadness at the limits that COVID places on her contact with the people who attend there. Additionally, Sr Olive helps two pensioners by doing their shopping for them, once or twice a week and delivering it to them. She has gifted her time and friendship to these two individuals for over 40 years now and continues to do this throughout these months. Each afternoon during lockdown, Sr Olive prayed – over the phone – with a person who is sick and confined to their home.

Each day, Sr Sheila visits Clare, an older lady who lives alone and shops for items for her. Present restrictions mean that now, Sr Sheila cannot enter Clare’s home but must instead stand at the door. Even so, Sr Sheila’s daily call means that Clare has someone to talk to and knows she can get food and medicine that she needs.

One sister reminded us that we have to our ministry in our community, to one another, something that is always part of our life but perhaps is even more important during this time. We need to be mindful of one another and of how each one is and to be aware that this time has impacted us all differently. It is important that we reflect on how we can listen to each other and know how our sisters really are.

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