As reported before on our website, 18 Australian Pilgrims visited Ireland in September 2011 to immerse themselves in the footsteps of Mary Aikenhead. Here two of the pilgrims share some of their reflections on their visit...
The first account comes from Lesley Jordan, General Manager, Mary Aikenhead Ministries
Whilst there were a number of highlights during the pilgrimage there are a few experiences that I know all of the pilgrims will hold close to their hearts.
• We had the opportunity to visit Donnybrook the final resting place of Mary Aikenhead and other Sisters of Charity, including Sr Alicia Mary Baptist DeLacy who travelled to Australia in 1838 to establish the Australian Congregation of the Sisters of Charity.
• The pilgrims were delighted to enjoy the company and hospitality of the Congregational Leader Sr Mary Christian RSC and the General Leadership Team at Sandymount. We were treated to a wonderful meal specially prepared by Sr Mary Christian, which for many resembled a Christmas Dinner, brimming with a wonderful selection of food and wine.
• Glendalough provided a welcomed quietness to our busy schedule and an opportunity for pilgrims to reflect in this very sacred and spiritual space. The experience enhanced by the workshop on Celtic Spirituality provided by Fr Michael Rodgers.
• A highlight for pilgrims in both Dublin and Cork were the Mary Aikenhead Trails ably led by Sr Josephine McDonald in Dublin and Sr Miriam Twohig in Cork. We felt very privileged to have had the opportunity to share in the life of Mary Aikenhead. A story shared with us by two Sisters who in addition to a great knowledge also showed such passion and willingness to share her story.
• Our dinner with the Sisters of Charity in Cork at the Ambassador Hotel was a delightful evening which enabled us to get to know the Sisters and develop a deeper understanding of their ministries in Cork.
A pilgrimage provides differing experiences for each pilgrim but we all left Ireland with a greater understanding of the charism of Mary Aikenhead and an appreciation for Ignatian Spirituality. All of the pilgrims are very appreciative for the opportunity to walk “in the Footsteps of Mary Aikenhead” and wish to extend our appreciation to the Trustees of Mary Aikenhead Ministries and the Sisters of Charity, in particular Sr Elizabeth Dodds and Sr Patricia Lenihan. We are also extremely grateful to all of the Sisters of Charity and staff within the ministries we visited, who so openly welcomed us and showed us such wonderful hospitality.
The second account comes from Chris Heffernan, St Columba’s College, Melbourne
(Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie, 2009)
Sr Patricia Lenihan RSC introduced us to this theme on day 1 of the pilgrimage. She was charged with presenting an overview of the Charism of the Sisters of Charity, and she began with a video-clip of Chimamanda Adichie (quoted above). In this presentation, Chimamanda spoke of the power of story to subjugate the heart of stereotypes held by everyone – even well-meaning, kind people – and how these stereotypes limit all of us. Hearing only one version of the story of a people or nation leads to ignorance. She says the truth is revealed by many tales.
As the pilgrimage days unfolded, I became increasingly sensitised to Sr Patricia’s intent in introducing this theme. Our visits to various Sisters of Charity facilities revealed widespread diversity in their ministries.
One example is their OASIS Centre, in the northern inner city of Dublin, which offers one-on-one counselling and therapy services to those of low income. Fees for services are not fixed; rather, the client and counsellor agree to an ‘affordable amount’. No person is denied counselling because of a lack of finances.
Another example is The Sanctuary, a meditation centre in the heart of Dublin. Founded by Sr Stanislaus, Kennedy in 1998, most of the programs here focus on practising ‘mindfulness’ and finding ‘stillness’ to live contemplatively in a contemporary way. Added to this is the provision of 4 different yoga practices (Hatha, Mindful, Somatic and Satyananda) and other programs that feature dance, poetry, storytelling and art. The Sanctuary aims to give its visitors the time and space to reflect, renew and re-energise. It is a highly regarded and well patronised service, particularly at this time in Ireland’s history where stress and its side effects (especially from unemployment or balancing family and work commitments) are making huge claims on people’s physical, mental and emotional resources.
A third example is St Mary's Day Care Centre, within the grounds at Donnybrook. Here we were introduced to the staff and volunteers who cater for 100 aged people in the local community and who prepare 120 meals daily for a meals-on-wheels service. The Centre depends on fundraising and only receives minimal government assistance. Many of the people who come to the Centre (whom we also met) are those who are otherwise ‘shut in’. It is a second home for them, with the daily program including exercises, singing sessions and meals. It exudes warmth, comfort, companionship and hospitality. As pilgrims we experienced this first-hand through the testimonies of some of the locals and the entertainment extended our way. The latter included the recitation by an 87-year old local of W. B. Yeat’s poem The Wild Swans at Coole (pitch perfect and chapter and verse), and a spontaneous ‘karaoke’ of traditional Irish songs (how adept they were with microphone technique, and no music machine necessary!). It was a delightful experience!
I could expand on these examples, and there are many more, in particular Focus Ireland, also founded by Sr Stan. It is a national organisation that aims to advance the rights of homeless persons and works to prevent and alleviate homelessness. Its growth and achievements over a decade are remarkable.
Suffice to say that the Sisters of Charity in Ireland and other countries are in no danger of having a single story other than, of course, that of the ‘carpenter’ who inspires them and of their foundress who urged them to hear the cry of the poor and respond as she did with ‘a great heart and a willing mind’.