In July, Sister Ethna McDermott, from Derry’s Culmore Road, will take up a new role as the Provincial of the Good Shepherd Sisters in Ireland which will see her responsible for leading the order going forward.
Most people, when thinking of that job title, might picture a woman in a habit.
They might think of an existence of quiet contemplation, and one which is cut off from the harsh realities of everyday life.
But Sister Ethna in her her life to date has been more exposed to harsh reality than the average person will ever be.
Working with street workers and prostitutes from Belfast to the Czech Republic, she has witnessed women treated like objects, sold on with little or no personal freedom.
In her role as a good shepherd nun, the Derry woman has never shied away from confronting situations where women have found themselves in this position.
During her recent spell working in the Czech Republic, she went into nightclubs, praying with and helping women who were the victims of human trafficking.
She prayed on the street with women who were placed in spotlit windows for men to look at.
Twenty nine years with the Good Shepherd order have taught Sr. Ethna the importance of working on the ground, where she and others spread their faith and help the people they encounter in the most practical ways possible.
A former teacher, the Culmore Road woman taught in a number of schools in Derry – including Thornhill College and Steelstown Primary School – before entering the Good Shepherd order as a novice in 1985.
“Three of my eight aunts were nuns, so I suppose you could say it did run in the family to an extent,” smiles the 53-year-old.
She says it’s hard to pick one moment in particular where she felt she had a calling, but a “live in” weekend at the Good Shepherd base in Cork in 1984, convinced her that this was the road she wanted to go down.
“I’ll always remember that weekend,” she explained. “It was Easter time and I was still teaching, but when I went to Cork, I just thought ‘this is where I belong’.
“We were working with young girls from difficult family backgrounds and we were working with them in the day centre down there.
“It’s the kind of thing that people take for granted, but these were girls who would have been considered disruptive and we were teaching them social skills.
“We taught them cooking and sewing skills and working with those young people was fantastic, it was something I knew I could continue to do.”
Returning from Cork, Sister Ethna spent a year volunteering with the Good Shepherd Sisters locally before officially entering the order in 1985.
She spent time in both Derry and Cork, before being sent to Twinbrook in Belfast in 1988.
“The Good Shepherd order was originally founded to help women in prostitution, and in Dublin, the Sisters carried out that work.
“Where we were based in Belfast, there were literally women working right outside our door.
“We met those women and they would come in to us for coffee before going out to work on the streets. That was a key project.”
The work she was involved in in Belfast was a grounding for the kind of support Sister Ethna was able to offer as she moved beyond Ireland as a Good Shepherd Sister.
In 1992, she travelled to the Czech Republic, where she would spend ten years.
“I was there just after Communism had fallen in 1989, and it was fascinating,” she recalls.
“The first year that I was there, I was working with Sisters from Venezuela, Singapore, Portugal, Holland and the Netherlands and we all had to try and learn the language too which wasn’t easy.”
During that time, Sr. Ethna was integral in setting up a house for women and children, many of whom found themselves with little or nothing, and with nowhere to go.
“For us at the time, it was about treating people the way Good Shepherd Sisters had always treated people and we wanted to make ourselves visible and assert our identity there.
“We knew there was a need for the kind of work we were doing, and we could see that need.
“In recent years, some of the mothers from that project have made contact with me again and it’s been such a joy to see them.”
After her first period of time in the Czech Republic, Sr. Ethna returned to Ireland and studied for a year achieving a Masters in Pastoral Leadership.
In 2004, she was appointed Secretary General of the Good Shepherd Sisters in Rome.
“That was a big challenge but it was all administration, and up until that point my work had been very practicaly and focused on helping women on the ground.
“It was a challenging transition but I was working closely with congregational leaders from more than 70 countries worldwide and that was very interesting.
“I was also there when Pope John Paul II died.”
The Derry-born nun says it was thought-provoking to be in a location where the ceremonial aspects of the church were constantly on display, while her work constantly reminded of the practical efforts going on internationally.
“There’s a place for those nice ceremonies – but the church isn’t all about that, and it’s important to keep it in balance,” she says.
Since her time in Rome, Sr. Ethna has spent time working in Prague.
Since 2011, she’s worked as part of an international, ecumenical community on the streets.
It’s work which she says has awakened in her the awareness that people are “crying out for prayer.”
“We used to approach women and give out phone numbers where they could get help, and then we started asking them if they wanted to pray with us and the response was overwhelming.
“Now, that’s what we begin with, and men and women pray with us in nightclubs.
“Two things have really emerged from that type of work which have stayed with me.
“Firstly, the importance of ecumenical collaboration and, secondly, the impact of evangelisation.”
Over the past year and a half, Sr. Ethna has worked to preserve the house for mothers and children in Ostrava which she was instrumental in setting up all those years ago.
She’s now preparing to hand over the reins to a new director, before taking up her new role as the person who will lead the Good Shepherd Sisters here in Ireland.
“I think it’s still sinking in, to be honest,” smiles the Derry woman, who was elected to the role last week.
“I’m kind of excited about it but there will be challenges as well.
“It’s been a difficult period for the church here, but I think we’re starting to emerge from from that now.
“I look forward to the new role and what lies ahead.”