First Encounters: ‘We both embroil people in projects’

Sister Stanislaus Kennedy and Lelia Doolan


Sr Stanislaus Kennedy on Lelia Doolin:
I’d heard of Lelia when she co-wrote Sit Down and Be Counted [about her and her co-authors’ experiences working in RTÉ]. I was a student in UCD then, and met her during the Combat Poverty days in the 1970s: I was chairperson of a pilot scheme and Lelia came to work for us as a project leader in Belmullet on the Erris peninsula.

I remember going up in the middle of the night to meet the Belmullet committee to tell them they’d got a grant. I told Lelia I’d be leaving at the crack of dawn: “Oh no,” she said. “You’re not leaving without coming to see my group.” So we got in her Citroën Dyane in the winter’s night and headed out the peninsula, bumping up and down in the car. It was amazing what she was doing. She had introduced the arts into the community there, she had music, dance, drama and had these older ladies doing beautiful patchwork quilts. She had introduced a new dimension to community development, made me see it in a totally different light.

Lelia was always very impressive and would look at things quite differently. She was senior to many of the other project workers, madly radical as they thought – but Lelia was much more radical than any of them. We became friends immediately. I came to Dublin in 1983 and did research on homelessness amongst women, a study she helped with. I spent a year with eight young homeless women, just to understand their lives better. It was around this time Lelia went to live in Galway. We have less contact now but you can ring her and you’d think you’d been talking to her yesterday.

It’s true that I’m known as an activist but the contemplative side was always calling me. Once the Sanctuary opened, all sorts of people came. I’d love to see a residential house attached to the Sanctuary, a place where anyone could come to stay and rest and find peace and stillness.

Lelia is very spiritual and has contributed two essays to the new book. She’s what you’d like to be as a human being, a most caring, generous woman, a lovely person – she cares about everyone, can relate to anyone, from the poorest to the most important person in the land. You could ring her in the middle of the night and she’d come to the phone, be there for you. The other thing is her humour: I roar laughing having a conversation with her, she’s able to laugh at herself, laugh at the silliness of us all. I wouldn’t have too many personal friends, but they would be very important to me, and Lelia’s one of those.

Lelia Doolin on Sr Stanislaus Kennedy:
I think I met Stan when I applied for a job in Combat Poverty – she had just been made head. It was looking for researchers and project leaders and there was an opening in Erris in Mayo. I had been living in Belfast from 1974 to 1978, studying anthropology, and in 1978 went to work for Croiste Forbacha Tobal Iorrais. Erris is way out on the western corner of the universe, the most lovely, beautiful place. I treasure the people there, feel humbled by the great courage they’ve shown in the Corrib Gas debacle.

I think that’s the first time I actually met Stan; I knew her name, her quality and her character, to a certain extent. So there she was, a rather tiny figure, a wisp of a thing, quite young – I outstrip her by about half a dozen years. I just found her very likeable, very easy to get on with, very good to talk to; she has a great laugh, enjoys a joke.

I only stayed with Combat Poverty for about a year. Then she began to work on homelessness: we got together brainstorming, she’s a great woman to gather people into a room and pepper them with ideas, torture them to be thinking up things and then of course, to be doing things. She was researching and recording stories of homeless women. Stan has a passion to change the world, she’s remarkable and inspirational. Very quiet, very able, immovable in her intentions to get something done but very charming.

I would know Stan as a woman of action, but the real heart of the matter, the engine of the whole affair, is her spiritual life. I didn’t always know that as clearly as I now do. As I came to know her better, visited the Sanctuary, saw the stillness that was created there, I realised she’s got a good old core of calm and that’s the heart of everything. Of course, she never stops giggling either.

It isn’t that we see each other all the time but you can pass her at any given time and pick up the conversation, talk to her on the telephone and she’s got a new idea. It’s usually “will you do this?” . . . I’m probably just as bad. We both embroil people in projects. We’ve never had an argument, not at all, I’d say we respect each other far too much and I dunno, are maybe a little frightened of each other! Ah, I doubt that . . . I must say I find her the most enjoyable companion, she’s great fun and you know, if you don’t have a sense of humour, what the hell is life about?

Day by Day, a treasury of meditations on mindfulness by Sister Stan is published by Transworld Ireland, €12.99

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