‘We’re sisters, not nuns. Nuns are another breed’
Half a century ago, she left the man she loved to become a missionaryin Africa. Now retired, Sr Cora Richardson (78) was this week honoured for her services overseas
“People think I’m a bit odd,” Sr Cora Richardson announces cheerfully. She takes her feet out from under the table to show me her shoes. “My shoes belong to a sister who died,” she explains. “They’re a little big, but I wear thick stockings. I think you have to be odd and stick your neck out a bit in life.”
Last year, Sr Cora (78) returned to Ireland after spending close on half a century in South Africa as a missionary Sister of the Holy Rosary. Earlier this week, at a ceremony in City Hall presided over by Sabina Coyne, wife of President Michael D Higgins, she was one of some 70 former Irish missionary brothers and sisters acknowledged for their services overseas.
Sr Cora grew up in Rossduff, Co Waterford, not far from Dunmore East. Their household took missionary magazines, such as the Far East and the African Rosary, which she credits with making her aware of a wider world.
“The main thing in my head is that even as a child, I felt very blessed, and I wanted other people to have the same chances as me,” she says.
We’re talking in the house in Artane that is acting as a temporary home for four Sisters of the Holy Rosary, while their bigger residence is being extended. Worldwide, there are less than 400 sisters in the community; half of whom are African. The house being extended will, over time, accommodate some 50 retired sisters.
Sr Cora finished school at 16, and went to Belgium for a year to learn French. She had already informed her parents she wished to enter as a missionary sister. “We’re not nuns, we’re sisters,” she says briskly. “Nuns are another breed.” Her parents insisted she first receive an education before they would consider her desire to enter religious life.
“So I did law and history at UCD, and I lived in a flat in Merrion Square. In those days, the park was locked, but we had keys. It was a wonderful life. And meantime, I fell in love with someone and when I finished college, he asked me to marry him.”
Despite all this, she couldn’t ignore the pull of religious life. “God had put his hand on me in some way. I can’t explain it,” she says now. And so, not really expecting to stay, she entered the missionary order of the Holy Rosary in Killeshandra, Co Cavan.
“The hardest thing I ever had to do in my life was say goodbye to that young man,” she says. Her father stopped the car so she could call him from a public phonebox en route to Cavan from Waterford. “He had come over to the house the night before to say goodbye, but this was the real goodbye.” She cried in the phonebox while her father waited outside in the car.