The nuns’ side of the story

 

Sir, – Diarmaid Ferriter says we need to hear the nuns’ side of the story (Opinion, October 27th). Where would one begin?

First, the majority of so-called “nuns” are not nuns. Nuns are cloistered religious women with solemn vows. “Apostolic religious sisters” is the correct name for those who have simple vows, inhabit and use the world and its resources for the benefit of others in education, healthcare and mission work. Each family of religious women is guided by the ideals of its founder(s), and there are many different families.

Dr Ferriter quotes from the editorial of the current Jesuit quarterly Studies (Autumn 2018) and asks (quite rightly), in the light of current negative narration concerning “nuns”, what is happening to the other narrative. By this I understand him to mean, the good news stories of women religious?

He quotes his UCD history colleague Prof Deirdre Rafferty, who has written extensively on the progressive erosion of the “reputation of the many thousands of immensely dedicated women”, and the “vast largely undocumented legacy” of religious women in the fields of healthcare, education and the missions.

Damage done by a few must be acknowledged and repented but cannot be allowed become the whole story.

It’s already a hopeful sign when Dr Ferriter’s female academic colleague from UCD, with her positive story about women religious, is given prominence in the press and that Studies dedicates a full edition to “the nuns’ story”. It is also healthy for the reputation of all academic work that “fuller narration” is requested so that bias might be challenged.

It is important too that changing “contexts” might be considered essential to research. One expects this as best practice in the academic world and among reputable journalists.

It may be regrettable that as religious women in the past we have not engaged more in “spin” or in the training of press secretaries for our congregations or that today many of us fail to embrace the “magic” of social media. Such a stance towards public image, in the context of the religious life ethos I grew up with, seems abhorrent. But there may still be time to change!

The contexts of our lives as religious over the years have changed enormously, a fact not easily grasped even in the academic sphere, where context is crucial to authentic research. Many religious today are witnesses to many different contexts, political, social and religious, that could scarcely be fully understood by modern generations.

Despite being a remnant of a generation that emigrated in the 1950s and never returned, we who remained are grateful for opportunities we embraced as women religious, to contribute to the life of our country.

In rural Ireland in the 1940s, the price of a bullock was enough to send a boy of 14 to the Christian Brothers School for a year – a vital investment. Boarding school education for girls was the only suitable option, yet fees stretched family budgets to their limit.

Holidays at home were rare, abroad unheard of! With no government grants available for education at second or third levels, the sacrifices made to educate us and for us to educate others in turn, can never be repaid.

Similarly, in the 1940s there were few if any “little white coffins” for still-born babies, just shoeboxes lovingly lined.

If history is to be written correctly, it must embrace all narratives and contexts which will allow posterity make a fair assessment of the services religious and their lay colleagues have given, (with many happy memories), to shape the heart and soul of our country. – Yours, etc,

Dr UNA AGNEW SSL,

Rathmines,

Dublin 6.