At about 1pm on September 14th, 1983, a woman walked up to 1470 Borgoño, a notorious detention centre in Santiago where prisoners of the Chilean military dictatorship were tortured. The woman gave a signal. Suddenly, a small group of people - composed mainly of priests, nuns and lay Christian activists - lined up and sat across the street. Together they chanted slogans, sang the chorus of the resistance anthem Yo te nombro Libertad and blocked traffic. The onlookers, as historian Morna Macleod notes, greeted the protestors with an "astonished gaze" or by turning away. Among those participating in this act of resistance to the regime of the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet were two missionary nuns, Bridget Coll from Co Donegal, Ireland, and the love of her life, Chris Morrissey from Canada.
Remembering that September day when they first participated in a Chilean protest together, Morrissey recalls how her own legs were “like lead” before the signal to protest was given. Coll, however, had no fear: “She turned around and looked at me and said ‘Come on, they’re starting. We’re gonna miss it’’. The story of Coll and Morrissey’s shared lives and activism provide an insight into histories of Irish religious emigration, the anti-Pinochet resistance and Canadian immigration law. It is also a love story.
Born in 1934, Bridget Coll grew up one of 12 children in Fanad, Co Donegal. In oral history tapes compiled by QMUNITY's Stories of Older Queers project, now held at Simon Fraser University, Coll described her childhood in Fanad. "Everything was Catholic," Coll remembered. She emigrated to England when she was 16 and joined a women's religious community, the Franciscan Missionaries of St Joseph.
The community sent Coll to a convent in Albany, New York in 1960. It was here that Coll met the woman who would become her lifelong partner: Chris Morrissey. A fellow nun, Morrissey was born in Leicester, England and raised in Prince George, Canada. Coll dated the start of their relationship to 1977. In that year, both of her parents died within weeks of one another. Coll remembered that Morrissey was the only person at that time who sincerely asked her how she felt about the loss of her parents. “That’s how we really got together, with that question,” Coll recalled in her 2009 oral history interview.
As Coll and Morrissey drew closer to one another during the 1970s, they also learned from other women religious returning from Latin America about what was happening on the continent. Events such as the 1980 assassination of Archbishop Óscar Romero and the murder of Maura Clarke, Jean Donovan, Dorothy Kazel and Ita Ford, four women missionaries in El Salvador, reverberated around the world. In the early 1980s, Morrissey received a letter from the Mother Superior offering a posting in Chile. Morrissey accepted and Coll decided to join her there too.
Many in Chile remained loyal to the vision of radical social justice once articulated by Salvador Allende, the Chilean socialist whose democratically-elected government was deposed in a 1973 coup. This Liberation Theology-inspired spirit of solidarity created clandestine coalitions between secular leftists and religious activists in Chile. Coll and Morrissey arrived in Santiago in 1981 conscious of this ongoing struggle. They were determined to play their own role within it.
Monica Hingston, who arrived in Chile from Australia in 1983 as a Mercy nun, vividly remembers the two women and the cause they shared. After arriving in Santiago, Hingston met and fell in love with another nun, Peg Moran. Coll, Morrissey, Moran and Hingston became close friends. Hingston remembers that Coll was such a feisty Irish woman’ who ‘just oozed courage’. All of the women were involved with the Chilean protest group known initially as the Movimiento contra la tortura (Movement Against Torture) and later retitled the Movimiento contra la tortura Sebastián Acevedo.
As they participated in protests against the military dictatorship, the divergence in ideals between the Church hierarchy and this defiant group of women grew ever more acute. On one occasion, a superior who was visiting Chile asked Coll and Morrissey to direct her to the nearest Church. They had no idea. The only formal church they had entered in Santiago was the Cathedral, where they protested the Chilean Catholic hierarchy’s complicity with the regime. The couple had only ever entered the building once because police water cannons them inside. Addd to that the Catholic Church’s backwards stance on the love these women shared. In 1989, with the days of Pinochet’s rule numbered, Coll and Morrissey decided to return from Chile to Vancouver, Canada, leave their religious community and to live together openly as a couple.
Life in Canada was the beginning of another activist story for Coll and Morrissey. In 1992, Morrissey initiated a legal challenge to the Canadian constitution alleging discrimination based on sexual orientation because her partner, Coll, was not granted the same visa rights as heterosexual spouses. In Vancouver, the couple met others from Canada’s LGBTQ+ community who faced similar immigration difficulties. The important factor for Coll and Morrissey in taking the case was that their actions would ultimately benefit other couples like them.
In 1999, Coll and Morrissey were chosen as the grand marshals for Vancouver Pride in recognition of their advocacy. Coll, who died in 2016, lived with dementia in her final years. The couple spoke openly about the impact of Coll’s diagnosis to help others navigating similar situations. Morrissey notes that every step on their activist journey together in Canada had its origins in Chile. “What we learned in Chile,” Morrissey said “was the importance of showing people you were not alone.”
This Extraordinary Emigrants article was written by Dr Maurice J Casey, DFA historian-in-residence at EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum, in Dublin’s Docklands, an interactive museum that tells the story of how the Irish shaped and influenced the world