‘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
That was the beginning of what turned out to be the rest of her life. She did become a nun, and as the order trained its sisters for overseas work, shortly after being professed, she was sent to South Africa.
“I was the first sister from our order to go out by plane. Everyone else had gone on the ship. It took three weeks. I would have loved to have gone on the ship,” she says wistfully, more than once.
She worked as a teacher in various communities near to Johannesburg for many years. Apartheid was still in place, so the schools were not mixed at that time.
“I never agreed with it, naturally, and I was shocked to discover that some sisters wouldn’t even know the people in the kitchen – the African people who did the cooking.”
By her own admission, she says she was “always in trouble. My phones were tapped and my letters were opened”. This was because she tried to be inclusive. One of the things she did was start adult education classes for members of the black community in Sharpeville.
“Straight away I met opposition from people, including the local parish priest. I wonder should you put that in? I suppose it’s a long time ago now. The whites thought apartheid would last forever.”
It was seven years before she came home for the first time. “I was so struck by the waste – the waste of water and electricity. I still am.”
Sr Cora returned to Ireland for good less than a year ago, bringing with her only one suitcase and a handbag. “I gave away almost everything I had before I came back.”
Has she got anything she’s kept over time? She thinks. “I have a little penknife that I had from before I entered,” she volunteers. “I use it to peel apples.”
She is still in a kind of reverse culture shock. “I’m very ignorant about Ireland. People talk about things and I don’t know what they’re talking about – the Tiger, things like that. I didn’t really keep up with news from Ireland when I was away. There wasn’t the time. It’s a bit of a mystery to me how the country is functioning.”