"I’m still in the communications business - only now I thank Jesus every day that I don’t have to explain Brexit."

If you had told me more than five years ago, that I would be living on the Falls Road, dressed in a brown habit, two doors down from the Sinn Fein offices where I used to interview Gerry Adams or Martin McGuinness, I would have said you were mad, that this was quite impossible. Of course, now I love to quote Luke 1:37: ‘’Nothing is impossible to God.’’

An appeal to Religious to offer themselves to RE departments & school chaplaincies: to be Christ for young people


By Brother James Hayes (Chaplain & Teacher), St. Francis Xavier’s College, Liverpool

Despite, or perhaps even because of the current environment in which teachers are having to work, the presence of religious orders in the education system in England seems to be potentially more important now than when I first joined our congregation 28 years ago. 

The Catholic hierarchy in this country has overseen a return to a more formal, catechetical approach to R.E., especially in the public exam syllabuses for G.C.S.E. and A-Level, and rightly so, in my opinion. Long gone are the wishy-washy platitudes of the "Weaving The Web" Key Stage 3 syllabus and its like that were all the rage in the 1990s. However, a new G.C.S.E. syllabus that involves delivering content relating to the topics of Creation, Incarnation, Trinity, Redemption, Kingdom of God and Eschatology to pupils of all ability (we still teach R.E. as a compulsory G.C.S.E. subject in most Catholic schools), as well as a detailed study of beliefs and practices in Judaism, could be daunting to some R.E. teachers who might not be specialists in the subject and who are helping out due to budget-related timetabling restrictions.

Religious order members - whether or not they work in the school full-time - can provide invaluable support and encouragement to their lay colleagues through teaching R.E. themselves, through Chaplaincy work or simply in a supporting, advisory role. This is not to say that today's lay R.E. teachers and Chaplains aren't doing a good job. Quite the opposite in fact, and we can learn a great deal from them. But through our training as religious and the mission opportunities that we have been blessed with, we have a range of life experiences to draw upon that are different from - but complementary to - those of lay people.

Religious can help a school to maintain a Gospel-fuelled focus on responding to the needs of the most vulnerable members of the school community, those “on the peripheries” as Pope Francis puts it, in a compassionate and caring way. This is in the context of a constant striving for improved public exam performance, for sufficient "rates of progress" and high "value added" scores that I believe has perverted the vision of what education is actually about: encouraging the holistic development and growth of each individual (intellectual, spiritual, emotional, artistic, physical...), creating an environment wherein each individual is respected and valued and has the opportunity to develop their gifts and talents for their own self-fulfilment and the fulfilment of others.

A term that comes up frequently in educational discussions nowadays is that of "pupil resilience" and the lack of it. There does seem to be a growing number of pupils coming into our secondary school in Liverpool with complex sets of educational, psychological and emotional needs. Older religious who maybe think that they have nothing more to offer the younger generations today can, on the contrary, provide invaluable support to these youngsters who may look upon them the way they might look upon a kindly grand-parent.

Some might read this and think, "Oh, he's only after vocations." This would be unfair. My own community is already fully involved in the school in whose grounds we live and as a congregation we still consider education and working with young people to be our apostolic priority. What concerns me more is how so many other congregations who used to be heavily involved in schools - and who, in many cases are more numerous as religious than we are - have withdrawn from that field of work, mainly due to dwindling numbers and the age profile of those who are left. Congregations have beaten a retreat at a time when Catholic education is more vulnerable than it has been in a very long time. 

I'm not expecting hoards of retired religious to suddenly start applying for teaching posts, nor am I suggesting that they should. What I am suggesting is that they seek to develop a kind of involvement in schools in their local area (both primary and secondary) that is appropriate to their situation in life. This may be one of accompaniment rather than authority. Religious should realise that their simple presence in a school corridor, on a playground, in one to one support of those with specific needs, in a staffroom, etc., gives opportunities for encounter, for dialogue and for them to joyfully bear witness to their faith and their vocation as religious. 

To teachers and Head Teachers in Catholic schools: invite members of religious orders into your schools. Let them share their vast life experiences with your pupils and colleagues. We are very fortunate in the north-west to be in a region that is still heavily populated by religious orders, both female and male. I know that in other regions, for example, much of the east coast, religious are much more scattered. But look them up in your diocesan directory. You might be surprised how many of us there are in your area.

To religious: you still have so much to offer the young people of today! Reach out to them, but be true to yourselves. Go to them as you are. Don't think that you have to be up to speed with the latest online games or trends in social media. A little bit of preparation may help, but it's not crucial. The most important things are your smiles, your love, your compassion, your time... Be Christ for them. Help to make him "better known and better loved" by young people, as our founder Jean-Marie De La Mennais put it. 

They are waiting for you. 




A tribute to lifelong friendship. From their youthful days in the navy, a Sister reflects on Margot & Iris - and on how our chosen paths shape our lives

l to r: Margot, Sr Isabel & Iris

l to r: Margot, Sr Isabel & Iris

By Sr Isabel Kelly FMSJ

“True friendship is a special gift – one to be treasured. Like a diamond, it is rare, tough, durable and it shines for all to see. When true friends meet, they too sparkle like diamonds.”

This is true of Margot, myself and Iris.  We all joined the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) in 1951, 1952 & 1953 respectively.   After training attachments in various locations I was drafted back to HMS Dauntless (near Reading)  as ship’s company: that, for many of the girls, was a great drawback because there were no sailors there!!

Soon after my arrival, Margot appeared and the following year Iris turned up. I was the one who showed Iris the ropes – naturally I led her astray!!  Because I hailed from Scotland and Margo from Rugby, we occasionally, on our time off,  went with Iris to her sister, Doris, in Ealing. Once we went for a long weekend without warning Doris; when Iris opened the door and was welcomed with open arms, we sneaked round behind her squealing “Hello Doris!”  We all loved those visits!

I went to many army & navy dances but my two friends stayed behind. I even went to Sandhurst once! Iris & Margot didn’t join me; I was always on the lookout for Mr Right but he never turned up!

Our friendship blossomed naturally like trees and flowers do. However our bond never withered or lost its leaves.  Even when I was drafted to the Solent, on the English south coast, we met up half way. Margot was the only one who married.

When I joined the convent, I was only permitted to write to my parents once a month and to no one else. However Iris and Margot could write to me and they did.  Before I rang the convent door bell, the last thing I did was ask the taxi driver to post a letter I had written to Margot on the train. Iris already had hers.

They came to see me after my first profession. During my more than 33 years on foreign missions, they kept in touch and whenever I came home on leave we met up in either Cornwall, Plymouth or London. Once, when returning to an overseas mission in Ecuador, my flight left from Heathrow and they came to wave me off!

Margot’s 90th celebration

Margot’s 90th celebration

Sixty-six years of friendship is a long time.  Sadly Iris died very suddenly two years ago. Shortly afterwards Margot had a very bad fall which has affected her mobility greatly. She misses the weekly phone call from Iris. Now each time I have a meeting near London, I make a point of paying her a visit at her son’s house. On her 90th birthday last year, we so missed Iris’ company and her snorting laugh. But I believe she was with us in spirit.

 I thank God for our long friendship.  So to all good friends, I say to them:




An extract from the eulogy I gave at Iris’ funeral in 2017:

Margot & Sr Isabel

Margot & Sr Isabel

Sr Isabel with Iris

Sr Isabel with Iris

Margot was the lady of our trio!!  She smoked when she was young – but would she hold a cigarette in her hand? Not she! She had a cigarette holder!! Iris and I laughed over this and teased Margot no end. When I was 21 we all arranged to meet half way in Guildford.  Iris and I had a plan. When Margot produced her cigarette, Iris and I (who didn’t smoke) would get out our prepared cigarettes in cigarette holders and ask Margot for a light.  You can imagine the laughter that ensued.  On another occasion (sorry about this Margot!!), we all met in London. One of us produced something to read and what do you think Margot did? She went into her handbag and brought out nothing less than a monacle!! Well, Iris and I doubled up laughing! Of course, Margot laughed with us on all these occasions. On another occasion, without Margot, Iris and I were going for the weekend to Dot’s in Middlesex. While we were on the bus, an alarm started ringing. It came from the alarm clock in my bag! We both did our best to pretend it was nothing to do with us but we failed miserably as you can imagine. Finally, Iris came to stay with me in Glasgow. When we went on the tram car, aged 20, the driver gave us childrens’s tickets!!!! He wouldn’t believe we were over 18!!  Those were the days!

……None of us expected to be here today to say our final goodbye to a friend or neighbour. Family members will still be stunned. The fact that Iris’ death was so sudden has shocked us all. Some of us may think it was better for Iris that she died so unexpectedly while others feel it would have been better if she had had some warning. Whatever way we think, that was the way Iris left us. I know she would have wanted to say her own goodbye, to give her thanks herself to all who have been in her life, in one way or another, and also to tell her final story. But that is not the way it happened and we have to trust that it really must have been the best way for Iris. She would not have wanted to be in a home – to lose her independence. She got that wish. I think anyone who has lived for a certain number of years knows from experience that God’s ways are not our ways and that His ways can sometimes be very mysterious. Iris’ death is one of those mysterious ways.

Iris would want us to be happy, not sad. That is why I have made this eulogy very light. May we always remember Iris with a smile – her smile and ours. May we try to make others smile like Iris did and may she always be a very happy memory in our hearts.


Sr Isabel has written her life story. All proceeds will go to anti-trafficking. To purchase, email: trachstkei@gmail.com. Pictured below: Sr Isabel on horseback in South America. 


A conference aimed at helping religious congregations learn how to put Laudato Si' into action


Fossil fuel divestment for a zero carbon future:A conference for religious on 14 February at Mount Street Jesuit Centre in London, to hear how Catholic institutions are responding to the urgent call on climate change by Pope Francis

By Fr Martin Poulsom SDB

Fr Martin Poulsom SDB

Fr Martin Poulsom SDB

Religious have long been at the forefront of engagement in the areas of justice, peace and the integrity of creation and this Conference will allow us to reflect on investment decisions that are being made by our sisters and brothers and to discern a way forward for ourselves. Responsible and ethical investment is now something that every religious order and congregation takes account of, and we will hear from investors who have discerned that investment in energy production and storage is an ethical issue, which requires action. In doing so, they are responding to the call of Pope Francis in Laudato Si’ to care for ‘our common home … which we all share’ (§ 13). Francis also points out that we ‘now know that technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels needs to be progressively replaced without delay’ (§ 165).

This message, that the time to act is now, is also supported by many other voices around our common home. A scientific study published this month in the journal Nature Communications indicates that the Paris target of 1.5oC is attainable, if a phase-out of carbon-intensive energy use and transition to clean energy begins immediately. This supports the most recent assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which spoke of the enormous benefits of aiming for the ambitious 1.5oC target, and of the need to act quickly to make it possible to attain.

Large numbers of organisations, both religious and secular, are already responding to these calls to action. More than 1,000 institutions around the world, including the Irish Catholic Bishops' Conference, Caritas Internationalis, the Passionists in England & Wales, the Columban Missionaries and the Franciscan Sisters of Mary in the USA have taken the step of divesting (disinvesting) from fossil fuel companies, in response to the global threat of climate change. New York City, the Royal College of GPs and the Church of Ireland were also among organisations to divest in 2018.

By announcing divestment commitments publicly, religious orders and congregations respond to our prophetic call, to be voices that speak in favour of those who are ignored and disregarded, to be people who put our words into action in our lives. In this way, we become prophetic witnesses of possibility, seeking to welcome in a future that God calls us to make a reality in our common home. As we discern the direction that God is calling us to take, we can take encouragement from Pope Francis, who encourages us to walk lightly together on the earth: ‘May our struggles and our concern for this planet never take away the joy of our hope’ (Laudato Sì, § 244).

The conference is free of charge, and participants are invited to bring something to share for a vegetarian lunch. Places are limited, so please book by Friday 8 February to avoid disappointment, by contacting James Buchanan at james.buchanan@operationnoah.org or calling 07801 570653.

Bright Now - the campaign for Fossil Free Churches www.brightnow.org.uk

A ‘hostile climate’ or place of welcome? Seeking asylum at the Home Office: a Sister describes an unending day accompanying a trafficked woman seeking leave to remain in the UK

patricia mulhall.jpg

By Sister Patricia Mulhall CSB

Two train journeys and a ten-minute walk from East Croydon station brought me, with a trafficked woman to Lunar House, the Home Office where immigrants, asylum-seekers or anyone wanting citizenship in the UK meets to have papers processed. It was a dreary day in October - dull, damp & grey without a hint of blue in the sky. Perhaps the dreariness of the day added to the weariness of the experience.

The first thing that struck me was the variety of faces and ages forming the long queue going through the door.  Like most people that day, we were hopeful for a good outcome or at least a pleasant experience. Weary is the only way I can describe it. The kind of outcome that would give my friend more days in the country, maybe even ‘leave to remain.’ We filed through the security with many more.  Having shown our documents, we were assigned to the second floor. Here we presented ourselves to the receptionist who told us to wait until we were called. It was about 9.30am. Our appointment was for 10am.  However, having a stated time didn’t seem to make much difference. In the waiting area, there were many of us.

Four hours passed.  Sitting waiting as patiently as humanly possible, without food (none can be eaten in the waiting area, nor can one use a mobile phone).  There are sandwiches and snacks on the third floor in the little café, but going to the third floor might risk missing the call. Best to stay put and wait. At least we had water.

To pass the time, I spoke to a young woman with two restless and tired children, 5 and 2 years ; she had travelled on the 5am train from Manchester. When we were leaving at 8.30pm, she was still there!

I befriended her children, offered to take them for a walk along the corridor, just to give this weary mother a short break. There was another young woman with a baby, waiting with her parents, hoping to relocate them from a war-torn country to live with her in the UK.  The daughter was there to translate for her parents who spoke no English. Opposite me was an African woman, on her own, there to seek asylum to join her friend, she told me. Another young woman approached me to ask for help. We used ‘Google Translate’ to talk to each other. She too was fleeing a conflict zone, hoping to be granted asylum. Because we were unable to use a phone in the waiting area, we had to go outside in the cold to hold our conversation. To get back, we had to come through the whole security process again. Two young men with whom I spoke were full of hope, as it was their second visit, they told me.

I began to put myself in the shoes of all who were waiting around me. The feeling of a ‘hostile climate’ was real now, not just mere words. If this is the way in which we ‘welcome the stranger’ into the country, I thought, then it’s a shocking state of affairs. Indeed, it is soul-destroying. It must equally be soul-destroying for Home Office staff. I’m told there is a very big ‘turn-over’ of staff. It does not surprise me. Those waiting and hoping for a sympathetic hearing, a welcome & leave to stay in the country are so often disappointed, turned away. Their hopes are dashed.  As the time dragged on, I began to feel less hopeful too.  I tried to imagine myself in the place of my young trafficked woman. Would I feel welcome?  Would I be granted status so that I could rehabilitate my life, look for work, realise my potential? As time waiting made me more weary, I was becoming less hopeful.

I reflected on the message of Jesus, “I have come so that all may have life and have it to the full.” My own life has been such a privileged one, at every turn I’ve had those opportunities to ‘live my live to the full’ and realise my dreams. Has our society moved away from that message? Have we lost our sense of human beings, each to the other as a common family,  sharing a common home?

It was now coming close to 2pm. I went to the reception desk, just to ask if by chance we had been forgotten.  No! the office was particularly busy and sorry, but we had to wait. Eventually, our name was called about 3.30pm. We responded for the ‘interview’ or so we thought. Alas! not the interview yet, but finger-printing. Another 2 hours passed. By now we were tired, in danger of falling asleep and missing the call. It was approaching 6pm. Surely the staff must finish at 5.30pm? Not knowing the procedure, I approached the desk again to ask the finishing time for staff. I was astonished to be told it could be as late at 10pm. It seems a ‘new’ set of staff come on duty in the evening.

Although we had ‘gone over’ the story of my friend’s trauma to help her English, the daunting task of retelling it to an official at the Home Office was terrifying. The longer we stayed waiting, the more nervous, even weary, we became. I could sense the feeling of dread in her. I tried to stay cheerful and positive even as I was feeling nervous myself. I didn’t know what to expect as it was my first visit. When at last the call came, she tried as best she could to tell her story. The young woman taking the notes on her computer tried her best to be accommodating and to make sure she was typing all correctly. To be fair, I thought she must have been weary too – it was late into the day and perhaps she was there from early morning? We went over the story, re-told it, made amendments where necessary. Finally, we finished. But then a further wait. When we were called again – about 2 hours later – it was to be told to ‘come back in a fortnight’ My heart sank! What, go through this all again? Seems so.

What a system! What a process! How daunting, actually intimidating, for someone fleeing danger, persecution or just wanting a better life, a new beginning in a country whose language, customs, culture, food, smells, sounds, way of life is all so new?

I feel great pain for those labelled ‘Immigrants’ (or more hostile names) who often risk their lives seeking peace and a new beginning in a country with a ‘hostile climate.’

I feel a great deal of sympathy for Home Office Staff too, who sit day after day to listen to often harrowing stories of those seeking asylum. No doubt they can feel powerless when it comes to the final decision about who gets to stay and who is turned away.

I’ve been to Lunar House many more times since that first visit. I’m wiser now but not any more hopeful!  One of the positive outcomes of these Home Office visits is to pray for the countless women and men who sit patiently waiting, hoping for the chance to live and work in this country. My experience is somewhat similar every visit, as I meet different people filled with hope of a welcome. I continue to befriend them, hear their stories, pray for a good outcome for them, pray that they be given a place to call home, a chance to breathe with dignity and peace where they can live life to the full.






Thoughts from a journalist who treasures her correspondence with Sister Wendy & recalls a joint connection with the Society of the Sacred Heart


By Sarah R Mac Donald

I interviewed Sr Wendy Beckett in a Kensington Hotel back in 2004 as a cub reporter for the Irish Catholic newspaper. Despite her exalted status as a world-renowned art critic, she was warm, kind, open and not in the least condescending. She was then 74.

We quickly established some mutual reference points. She had been educated by the Sacred Heart Sisters in Craiglockhart in Glasgow while her father was studying medicine in Edinburgh. My grandmother had trained as a teacher at the Sacred Heart Sisters teacher training college in Craiglockhart.

Sr Wendy was familiar with the buildings in which my Granny had lived while studying in Craiglockhart. Prior to their purchase by the nuns in 1919, these same buildings had served as a convalescent hospital for those wounded at the front in World War I. Among the most famous patients were the war poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. It was an ice breaker. I remember her delight as we chatted about her happy memories of her education by the Society of the Sacred Heart.

Then there was the Irish connection! Both of her grandmothers were Irish. Her maternal grandmother, Granny Sheehan, had converted her husband to Catholicism. She told me “My father Aubrey Beckett was the son of a very fervent Catholic family – two of his brothers became mayor of Johannesburg. His mother, who could have run a battleship, was a Catholic and converted his father.”

“I was the first born of my parents – both of them were thrilled and privileged to have a daughter who wanted to be a nun. I had wanted to be a nun since I could think. I never had to say to them ‘I want to be a nun’ – it was known.”

When I became Editor of The Word magazine in 2004, which was published by the Divine Word Missionaries, I asked Sr Wendy to contribute some articles on art and she duly agreed. We corresponded over these and sometimes shared about different aspects of our lives. Though I often found it very difficult to decipher her writing! Her articles were sometimes on religious art, and at other times, she showed readers how to see God in less overtly religious art.

I cling to her definition of beauty which she gave me in that interview in 2004. “My own definition of beauty is that which perpetually satisfies us, you look at it again and again and there is more of it to satisfy us. I would say that beauty is very much an attribute of God – he is essential beauty but only those of us who have been fortunate enough to have the faith know where beauty comes from. For others it doesn’t matter. If they are just responding to beauty, they are responding to Him – the pure free strong loving spirit of God.” 

She was also very wary of the dangers of Puritanism. “I think Puritanism is very attractive, it tempts because it narrows the world which means that you can deal with it better – beauty makes you vulnerable. You can’t protect yourself against it and beauty comes from all parts of the compass – it comes in the sunrise and it comes in the sunset, it comes in the people you meet – it doesn’t just come in art; beauty is everywhere.” 

“I think the temptation to narrow God down either to the ‘religious’ or to the intellectual, which is really what Puritanism is all about - confining God, is always going to be tempting because we so fear vulnerability. We so want to control things, which of course is exactly what religion is meant to be against – the whole faith is about surrender, let God be in control.”

Of living in Norfolk, as a hermit under the protection of the Carmelite nuns in Quidenham, she revealed that Julian of Norwich was one of her heroes, exclaiming “What a woman! What a mystic!”

But she also stressed that “Jesus is the defining figure in my theology - Jesus however he comes - and often he comes wounded and dirty and ugly as he often comes in the Church. Who can say that the Church is beautiful? If we are looking for beauty we’d say this Church isn’t beautiful. But this is his Church – it is ugly and stunted and makes very foolish decisions, but it is his Church. Jesus is the centre for me.”

When The Word magazine shut down in 2008, our correspondence sadly became more infrequent as I scrabbled to create work for myself as a freelance journalist. One of the last cards to me was in 2011 after I’d sent her a catalogue for an exhibition which she hadn’t been able to see. The exhibition had received mixed reviews and she was delighted “she could not make up my own mind” with the aid of the catalogue. 

She had seen the exhibition ‘Treasures of Heaven’ at the British Museum on which she was collaborating with the art critic Andrew Graham Dixon.

But what I value most in that missive was her kind inquiry for my health. I’d had an operation and she revealed that she’d had a heart attack. “I’ve been whisked off to hospital twice recently, but at 81 heart attacks are not rare. But you are young and need your health. Let’s ask the Holy Spirit, as we prepare our hearts to receive the gift of Pentecost, to give you health, peace and joy.”

I remember back in 2004 asking her about the decline in religious life. I liked her nuanced response which recognised that the boom in vocations in the early 20th century was exceptional and perhaps for the wrong reasons.

“I think that there were too many nuns. When I was young if you wanted to give yourself wholly to God the only thing was to be a nun. Now we realise that there are many other ways to give yourself to God. Even when I entered I could see quite clearly that some people wanted to give God the fruit not the tree – they wanted to be good people serving God – that’s not what being a nun is. A nun means that you give God the whole tree and all the roots. Other people should serve God in other ways – they should get married, they should be bus conductors, they should be explorers, doctors, journalists – whatever. So no, I think it is a very healthy thing that there are fewer nuns – as long as the ones that are nuns, are real nuns and passionately committed to God alone; and that is not given to everybody. It is a great privilege if you have got it.”

Sarah R Mac Donald is a freelance journalist specialising in religious affairs with the Irish Independent, The Tablet, NCR & CNS

Trauma, suffering & spirituality: Sr Imelda Poole IBVM MBE on the struggle of anti-trafficking

By Ian Linden, Visiting Professor, St. Mary's University - who blogs regularly at:


The illicit proceeds  from human trafficking and exploitative labour crimes in 2018 are estimated at $150 billion (up from $32 billion in 2011).  Sexual trafficking provides a significant part of these proceeds, $99 billion, going into the hands of  criminal gangs.  The dark underside of globalisation, the trade has been the subject of both documentaries and thrillers.  But what is far less well known is the extraordinary role nuns, Women Religious, have played  in caring for its victims and combating it.  

I was recently privileged to interview Sister Imelda Poole, IBVM MBE, about  her experience of working with trafficked women. 

Here is Sister Imelda explaining what brought her into this work....

Sister Imelda was then profoundly influenced by meeting trafficked women awaiting deportation in an Italian detention centre.  She describes what sexual trafficking means for its victims.  Sister Eugenia Bonnetti, mentioned below, is a founder of the movement to combat trafficking in Italy.

Work in Albania gave her considerable experience of the criminal gangs that flourished  in post-communist countries.  Many of these have found human trafficking safer, so more lucrative, than the drugs trade.  The gangs operate across borders. But this is also true of Women Religious whose congregations are found in many different countries. 

An important part of the mission of Women Religious involved in combatting sexual trafficking is setting up and maintaining shelters for women who have escaped their traffickers.  This has become  an ecumenical effort in the UK involving the Salvation Army as an important partner.  Below she describes the formation of the Medaille Trust which cares for trafficked women in a number of shelters in the UK.
* CLARIFICATION: The founder of the Medaille Trust is Sr. Teresa Ann Herrity, a Sister of St. Joseph, living with her community in Newport. In the video footage, we mistakenly named the founder of the Medaille Trust as Teresa Helm, who was in fact a key lay worker in the UK. Sadly, Teresa is now deceased.

After pioneering work combating sexual trafficking in Europe, Women Religious successfully engaged the Catholic hierarchy in their mission.  This engagement went up to the level of the Pope and  Vatican with meetings in Rome and is now an international movement (see santamartagroup.com which includes police and www.renate-europe.net which is a network of Religious in Europe).  I discuss with her the tension between protecting trafficked women suffering from trauma and the police's need for the women to testify in order to obtain convictions.

Finally we discussed what impact this work, which many would not associate  with nuns, had on her religious life.  In a  moving personal testimony, at times  struggling to put her experience into words, she places it squarely in a tradition of Christian spirituality.  

Healing through creativity : a Sister who helps the victims of human trafficking via art therapy


By Sr. Doreen Bradley SSMN

Reflecting on the work I do in offering therapeutic art sessions at Bakhita House, which provides a refuge to women escaping human trafficking, my thoughts have turned to the early days of our Congregation.

The Sisters of St. Mary of Namur were founded in Namur, Belgium in 1819. Prior to this, as a young man, our founder, Joseph Nicholas Minsart, had felt irresistibly drawn to the contemplative life as lived by the monks of St. Bernard. This call took him to the Abbey of Boneffe where he lived a strict monastic life. However, this was not to last due to the suppression of religious orders and the sale of their goods. The Abbey at Boneffe was pillaged and sold.

There came a time to rebuild:

In 1819 Fr. Minsart was wondering how to restore the Christian Spirit among working families, to help them escape from the appalling reality of having daughters forced to beg or to prostitute themselves. What could he do to ensure the “underprivileged youth could find bread for their souls as well as nourishment for their bodies?” (Taken from the Life of Nicholas Joseph Minsart written by a SSMN in 1995).

On the 11th November that year two young women joined Fr. Minsart in setting up a sewing workshop where the poor children and women came to learn and Fr. Minsart would regularly visit to catechise those present. 

Once again there came a time to rebuild…


A change of location in 2014 opened doors for me to volunteer at Caritas Bakhita House which opened shortly afterwards. Volunteering at Bakhita House returned me to my first love, art and crafts. I meet the most amazing people there, our guests, the volunteers and the most compassionate and dedicated staff.

My contribution is in the field of therapeutic art. I very simply open creative doors and journey with our guests as they rediscover their inner beauty and discover dormant and hidden personal giftedness. Many of our guests say that the art helps them to forget the pain for a little while. It is such a joy to work with so many amazingly gifted women. 

These sessions remind me that it is a time to listen with my ears but most importantly, to listen with my HEART. This work is about personal relationships but also setting healthy boundaries…it is about listening and in a way sharing pain but not carrying it, it is about loving, but not enslaving… it is about bringing the guests to an inner and outer freedom and supporting their great hope for a realistic future. There has to be great emphasis on truth at all levels…false hope is destructive.


It is important to say that volunteers are an integral part of the Bakhita House community. Putting the Bakhita experience into simple words, I would use the following: warmth, love, respect, dignity, support, hope, spiritual, challenge, all drawn into the true meaning of the word welcome. It is important to realise that joy and laughter are also evident in the midst of much pain.


Volunteering is a two pronged fork, we never give without receiving and what we do give we receive many times over. Art comes from the heart and when your heart is hurting, perhaps broken, art becomes a challenge and a release. I am so proud of our guests for trying whatever I suggest we do in the art sessions, but the real happiness for me is when I see the joy and the pride of our guests when they produce a work of art they didn’t think they could accomplish.

But as in a chemistry lesson, it is the unseen results that will help the process of recovery.

 St Josephine Bakhita pray for us.


If we're serious about ending slavery, we need to get serious about faith

By Luke de Pulford, Director of the Arise Foundation

On a recent field visit to India's southern city of Bengaluru, an unassuming looking woman stopped me on a street and asked: “What am I supposed to do with all the children?” Her searching, exhausted eyes had a serene authority that stopped me from walking away. She was a Catholic sister named Mary Elise who recently played a central role in the rescue of 300 forced labourers - mostly children - in Bihar, northern India. 

Three hundred children. That’s more than an average sized primary school. 

As I found out later, she had won an award for it.  But she wasn’t interested in talking about her achievements. She wanted to tell me that her organisation couldn’t deal with the numbers. There weren’t enough beds, school places, or counsellors to help them.

There was something hypnotic about this sister’s sense of purpose. As we talked I learned more about the daily difficulties she faces: scraping around for money to keep her work going; punishingly long hours; seemingly limitless bureaucracy; and the perilous risks she had faced including death threats and intimidation. 

It was clear to me that I was in the presence of someone who had given everything to this cause. A true abolitionist. 

Sister Mary Elise walks in a long and noble tradition of abolitionist sisters. Some have even paid for their commitment with their lives. On 21 February 2004 someone broke into the house of sister Doraci Erdinger in northern Mozambique, attacked her viciously and indiscriminately with a hammer, and strangled her. 

Sister Doraci had dedicated her life to fighting organ trafficking, loudly and courageously denouncing local gangs which had been abducting and mutilating children to supply genitals and other body parts for ritual ‘Muti’ medicine.

There are many others. In 2013, sister Marie Emmanuel Helesbeux was murdered after 42 years of charity work in Madagascar. Sisters Lucia Pulici, Olga Raschietti, and Bernadetta Boggian were murdered in Burundi in 2017. Sisters Anselm, Margherit, Reginette and sister Judith were murdered in Yemen in 2016, to name just a few. Some died working against modern-day slavery. All died serving vulnerable communities. 

This list barely scratches the surface, and comes nowhere close to capturing the global contribution of sisters to human rights and development. Of course, most aren’t killed. But nearly all spend decades quietly serving those in need.

Here’s the strange thing. The work of these courageous sisters is still viewed with suspicion in the development community. It’s the same for all faith-based charity work. There is a stubborn assumption that people of faith will only serve people of the same religion. Or that they simply won’t be able to offer help without trying to convert or proselytise. 

Anyone who has seen the frontline effort of sisters knows this to be plain wrong. Yet still so many struggle to look beyond their faith to their extraordinary work. 

It’s a major blindspot. More than 80 percent of the world is religious, so it follows that faith communities could be powerful cultural forces for good. More and more reports have been published demonstrating the critical role of religion in international development.

But there's no real evidence that the policy community is listening. In the overwhelmingly non-religious worlds of the UN and government aid departments, there is still far too much ignorance of religion. And this leads to an inherent bias against it. Faith-based charities are at the back of the queue when grants are being handed out. Some bodies even exclude faith-based work as a matter of policy. 

The effect is that the largest frontline forces in the world are far from realising their potential, and rarely given a platform.

The Arise Foundation isn’t a faith-based charity, but we see the contribution of these sisters and others like them for what it is: potentially game-changing. Just on its own, the global network of sisters working against slavery spans 80 countries.

These are workforces of thousands of activists, embedded in local, hard-to-reach communities. Workforces offering life-saving services and loving accompaniment. Workforces whose commitment is vocational and lifelong; and willing to give everything, like sister Doraci and sister Mary-Elise.

Working with them is an absolute no-brainer. If we are serious about ending slavery, we need to get serious about faith. 

Luke de Pulford was educated between England, Lesotho and Italy. Much of his professional life has focused on the UK Parliament, where he is well known for his work in defence of human dignity. Luke is co-founder and Director of the Arise Foundation with John Studzinski CBE, set up to close the gap between those confronting the reality of contemporary slavery on the frontline, and those wanting to help them. 


An African missionary looks back on decades spent overseas - and looks forward to joining a new mission in Liverpool


By Fr Terence Madden M.Afr.

When Cardinal Charles Lavigerie founded the Missionaries of Africa (White Fathers) back in 1868, he was responding to the needs of his times. Famine and disease raged in Algeria where he had newly become the Archbishop of Algiers. The priests of the Catholic Church only ministered to the French population and left the local inhabitants to their fate. Lavigerie knew that he could not stand by and watch, from the edges, the sufferings of the people. The words of Jesus Christ rang in his ears: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” Mt 25:35

He took these words to heart. He wanted the people to whom he had been sent to live the values of the Kingdom of God. In order to do this, he knew he had to eradicate the injustices from which they suffered. He had to bring an end to the diseases and hunger which crushed them. For the next 100 years this would be the way of his sons and daughters, Missionaries of Africa. They would preach the Good News of the Kingdom of God by the good works they would do in development, health care, education, and in sharing their faith through prayer and catechism.

The result is clear. The Church is now established and still growing exponentially in almost all countries of Africa. So is the mission finished? In its last General Assembly, or “General Chapter,” in 2016 the missionaries of Africa defined their mission in these terms: “We are sent out to the African World and wherever our charism is needed, for a prophetic mission of encounter and of witness to the love of God.”

For 150 years these missionaries could only envisage their mission in Africa. Mission during that period of time was understood to be the Churches of Europe and North America sending missionaries into Africa to announce the Good News and establish the Church, in the form of Christian Communities, throughout the African continent. Today then, with the community of believers established, what can the mission be?

The essence of mission is to be found in the words “encounter and witness to the love of God”. By this encounter and witness, the Church hopes to cooperate with God who transforms the lives of people and society in general by God’s love.

Maybe more in Africa than any other continent, society needs transformation: from hunger and thirst to clean water and adequate food; from war and mortal violence to peace and harmony among peoples; from corruption and the rule of the strongest to integrity and democratic accountability; from exploitation by the rich and powerful to respect for all. Only the God of Jesus Christ wills that we all live in a Kingdom of Peace and Justice here on earth. Only the Gospel can transform Society into the Kingdom of God.

The Church still has far to go to establish this Kingdom. Now that the Church has taken hold in Africa the African Church has, by its very discipleship in Christ, to be the Sacrament of this Kingdom; making it a reality among the peoples of Africa, wherever they may be: on the Continent of Africa or in the world-wide diaspora.

Missionary Societies like ours still have much to do in Africa. We are sent to the peripheries; to the areas of conflict, to the places where the Church still has difficulty to establish the Kingdom, to the vast slums of the cities, to the distant, unreachable societies far from the centres of urbanisation, to those infected by HIV and other life-threatening diseases, to the poor and uneducated. We are sent, too, by the Spirit of Christ at the Well of Jacob (4th chapter of John’s Gospel), in a spirit of encounter and dialogue, to meet people of the Muslim faith and of African traditional religions. United with them, we have more chance of transforming the societies of Africa into the Kingdom of God.

Today missionaries also have a new prophetic role to play, constantly encouraging the African Church to avoid falling into the trap of clericalism, but to remain faithful to its mission to the poorest of the poor. This year of our 150th Jubilee, we, Missionaries of Africa in Great Britain, have responded to this challenge of meeting Africa and Islam in the diaspora of these islands by opening a new community here. We have accepted the invitation of the Archbishop of Liverpool to open a mission in Liverpool where our main aim will be to welcome the stranger and to meet the believers of other faiths. I will be relocating to Liverpool to join the new community of Missionaries of Africa there. We believe that this is our way of remaining faithful to the Society’s mission:  “We are sent out to the African World and wherever our charism is needed, for a prophetic mission of encounter and of witness to the love of God.”

The African world is present in our midst. Islam is present in our midst. Our mission is to this world. We hope to assist the Church in Liverpool to welcome the migrants from Africa into its midst and to begin a new meeting with the people of Muslim faith.

(Terence Madden was ordained priest in 1981. As a missionary, he lived in Burkina Faso for 22 years, the Philippines for 5 years and Scotland for 5 years).

Full circle for Columban mission as Chinese ordination looms

Fr Peter Hughes is the Regional Director of the Columban Missionary Society in Britain. 

Fr Peter Hughes is the Regional Director of the Columban Missionary Society in Britain. 

By Fr Peter Hughes

“This is a Mass of Thanksgiving for 100 years of great missionary work and we pray that it will continue in the years ahead”   said Archbishop Peter Smith at the recent celebration of the Columban centenary at Southwark Cathedral.  The congregation numbered more than 850 people from around the country. It was the biggest ever gathering of the Columban “family” in Britain.

Our understanding of Mission has changed over the years.  Unlike earlier generations younger Columban missionaries build bridges not just between east and west, or north and south but all around the world. In earlier decades all of our priests were from English speaking countries. They spent their lives proclaiming the good news in East Asia,  Oceania and Latin America. Thanks to their labours.  and the efforts of so many,   including the local people,  the Church became firmly established in those places. Not only that but in recent decades, Christians in those countries have developed a deep sense of their own missionary responsibility. Consequently the majority of young Columban missionaries today - both priests and lay people - come from Korea and the Philippines, Fiji, Chile and Peru. Indeed since the last century we have travelled a full circle since there are plans to ordain the first Chinese Columban missionary priest during this centennial year.

Hailing from the west coast of Ireland, I studied for the priesthood in St. Columban’s Seminary  and was ordained priest in April 1977.  That same year I went to work as a missionary in Chile. There, I mainly worked in poor parishes in the city of Santiago and for a brief period in Valparaiso on the Chilean coast. I was founder and parish priest of the first parish in Chile named after St. Columban. 

I worked in Chile during most of the dictatorship of General Pinochet which lasted from 1973 until 1989. Like all the Columban missionaries during that period in Chile,  I was involved in the defence of the poor against the oppressive policies of the dictatorship of General Pinochet. Because of this work with the poor I witnessed at first hand the abuse and hardship that they suffered. Some of my Columban colleagues were expelled from Chile during that time because of their work for human rights. A French priest in a neighbouring parish was shot and killed by the security forces as he read the Bible in his bedroom.

I served as Regional Director of the Columban missionaries in Chile for seven years. During that time the Columbans in Chile began to welcome local Chileans as members of the Society of St. Columban. They also welcomed the first Lay Missionaries to Chile.   After having spent 27 years in Chile I was recalled to Britain to help in mission promotion and fundraising. As well as Regional Director I am also the Justice, Peace, Integrity of Creation (JPIC) coordinator for the Columbans in Britain. 

Our centenary Mass in Southwark had the theme ‘Sharing Gospel Joy.’  A special Offertory procession saw the presentation of symbols reflecting key areas of Columban work.  A swaying red Chinese lantern was presented by the Chinese Chaplaincy in coordination with Cultural Exchange with China, representing Columban beginnings as the Maynooth Mission to China. Columban priest Jim Fleming, who worked for several decades in Pakistan, presented a mat and shoes from that country representing Columban commitment to interfaith dialogue. Filipina and Fijian partners celebrated Columban commitment to caring for creation with a plant and a copy of Laudato Si, the environment encyclical of Pope Francis. A Lampedusa Cross was carried by Waling  from a migrant domestic workers organisation that the Columbans support.  Especially moving was a photo of Columban martyrs over the past 100 years – 23 priests and one Columban sister – and carried up the aisle by members of the Tierney family whose relative Fr Cornelius Tierney died at the hands of communist bandits in China in 1931, alongside Fr Ray Collier whose uncle, Fr Anthony Collier, was killed in Korea in 1950. The bread and wine were carried by Nathalie Marytsch, a Columban lay missionary from Chile and two Columban sisters, Kate Midgley and Anne Marie Smith.

Pope Francis is a rich source of inspiration, encouragement and challenge as we respond to our missionary call today. He reminds us that the message we proclaim is joyous Good News. The message is basically about the unconditional love, compassion and forgiveness of God reaching out to everyone to become a basic principle of all our exchanges. Pope Francis is very emphatic in saying that our missionary call is rooted in baptism.

“Every Christian is a missionary to the extent that he or she has encountered the love of God in Christ Jesus: we no longer say that we are 'disciples' and 'missionaries,' but rather that we are always 'missionary disciples'”. (Evangelii Gaudium, para 120)

As we look back on 100 years of Columban Mission here in Britain, we give thanks to God for all the gifts and challenges which have been showered on us. At this important moment in our history we commit ourselves with renewed energy to what the future may bring, confident that the God of Mission will continue to inspire and guide us.  We are very grateful to the British people who have supported us so well over the years. You are part of our Mission and you are  part of our Centenary celebrations and our discernment on what God may be calling us to in the future.

No profit from pain

Sr Silvana Dallanegra rscj is a Religious of the Sacred Heart. She works for Caritas Westminster, runs her Province's website and social media, and blogs at  All this life and heaven too .

Sr Silvana Dallanegra rscj is a Religious of the Sacred Heart. She works for Caritas Westminster, runs her Province's website and social media, and blogs at All this life and heaven too.

Here in the UK we've just been celebrating the 70th anniversary of the founding the National Health Service. Over those seven decades millions of lives have been saved, transformed, enhanced, cared for - with no eye-watering bills at the end of the treatment, however lengthy or specialised. Yes, it has its flaws, bureaucracies and problems, but nonetheless it is, quite rightly, a precious national treasure, of which we are all justifiably proud. It is, very much, what its chief executive has called “a unifying ideal – across this nation and down the generations. A health service that belongs to us all. 

Writing in The Guardian Maggie O’Farrell reminds us: “It’s tempting to get grouchy and huffy, to focus on waiting lists or delayed appointments or scrambled prescriptions, but we all need to incant this to ourselves, on a daily basis: the NHS is free, it is inclusive, it is, I believe, this country’s superpower.” And indeed, only those who have lived in countries where medicine isn't free, or who are old enough to remember having to pay, pre-1948, can truly appreciate what a remarkable system we have - and how selflessly counter-cultural, in a world geared to profit and personal gain. Selfless because our national insurance isn't personal - I pay in, and my sicker neighbour benefits; selfless too because it isn't run for profit. This has certainly been the theme to No profit in pain, an NHS tribute song by Gruff Rhys, who also reminds us not to take its continued survival and existence as a free service for granted.

Our celebrations have been filled with gratitude and appreciation: for the service itself, but especially for its staff, many of whom serve with extreme - and at times legendary - commitment, dedication, generosity and sheer, unstinting hard work. Even someone as relatively healthy as me has a list of people to thank: long-ago midwives and health visitors, opticians, dentists (yes, even though I dread every visit!), doctors, nurses and physiotherapists. And there is universal gratitude, too, for the memory of the NHS's founders, especially Nye Bevan, whose passion, audacity and conviction drove the idea forward and ensured it became reality.

Passion, audacity and conviction... these are the hallmarks, too, of those who founded our religious orders. Passion for Christ and his Gospel; passion too for the needs of the world and of suffering humanity; for the young, the sick, the elderly, outcast, materially or spiritually poor, the abused, the vulnerable... for whatever need or situation spoke most strongly to our founders' hearts. Audacity - simply to believe in and hold fast to their call and vision, often in the face of institutional opposition. And a conviction, centred in the healing, redemptive love of Christ, that this little group, this fledgling community, was called to be Christ's hands and heart and hope, however daunting the task or slender their resources.

And if we were founded with passion, audacity and conviction, we have certainly been continued with commitment, dedication, generosity and hard work. Each order has its own narratives, of pioneering spirits and sacrifices made; each order, too, has its own local heroes, serving - especially where the needs are greatest - whether as quiet presence or as tireless, feisty leader, as inspiration or self-effacing team-worker, as they continue their founders' legacy. 

And rather like the NHS we do all this selflessly. We make no profit from pain: pain – whether physical, spiritual or emotional - is what we endeavour to heal, in countless ways; to hold in prayer, to transform, to campaign against, to be alongside - freely. Whether in healthcare or education, in pastoral ministries, counselling or social work, in working with those who are lonely, abused, trafficked or otherwise vulnerable and disadvantaged, or in the silence of our prayer, we give, as freely and plentifully as we can, for love, and with love. 

Yes, we too (like the NHS) have, and have had, our flaws – which communities are addressing – but there is, I believe, an overall balance of goodness and goodwill, which has touched and transformed so many lives. And just like the NHS we also need more resources – in our case, not government funding or specialists, but great-hearted, generous vocations, ready and willing to give their lives for love.

Passion... commitment... dedication... generosity... selflessness… words we so rightly ascribe to the NHS, and all its staff. But wouldn't it be lovely, too, if people, hearing those words, would also automatically think of religious women and men? Not only the religious who work in healthcare, but also the ones they meet in parishes, projects, neighbourhoods and schools up and down the country? The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has described the NHS as “the most powerful and visible expression of our Christian heritage”: I’d love to think that we, who have pledged their lives to Love, could also be seen to be a powerful and visible expression of those very ideals and qualities...

Sr Silvana Dallanegra RSCJ