The green, sloping fields and yellow blossom on the whins, the happy childhood memories of family, neighbours and friends, called Sister Mary McCloskey SS.CC back home to Park to celebrate the Silver Jubilee of her calling to the religious life.
Speaking during an anniversary Mass celebrated in St Mary’s Church, Altinure, Sister Mary remarked that, in recent years, she seemed to be forever heading out on roads that eventually take her back to Park.
Born into the family of Susan and Paddy McCloskey, from the townland of Tereighter, the Dublin-based Sacred Hearts’ Sister reflected that, perhaps, it was only since all her family had left Park and she found herself coming home alone that it had become so important to her to know that there was a place where she belonged, where she had connections and knew familiar faces.
She added: “When I thought about celebrating my silver jubilee, I just knew that I wanted to come home to Park to celebrate it, to acknowledge my roots and the place that has shaped and formed me and my experience of God.”
Recalling an image she once had of nuns, “something black and white and cut off from the world”, the former Thornhill College pupil said that she never had any intention of becoming a nun: “After all my years studying, I expected that I would do something normal like marrying, not ever thinking in my wildest dreams that the eventual object of my desire would be of a whole other order!”
On leaving Thornhill, Mary went on to study French and Irish at UCD, but she wasn’t happy there so she took a year out and worked in a nursing home in Dublin, before going on to study French at university in Coleraine.
Staying on to do a doctorate in French Poetry, she took up an opportunity to work in Paris for two years as an English language assistant in 1983 and to finish her studies, through a university exchange.
“I ended up living in a flat in Pigaille, the red light district of Paris, and I remember I was petrified that someone would come up to me,” laughed Sister Mary.
She recalled her brother Patsy’s friend, who had entered the Sacred Hearts, coming to stay with her a few days after she moved to Paris: “At the time, there was a big drive for religious orders to go back to their roots, and he and others from the Sacred Hearts Congregation were visiting houses that had been founded by their Order in France.
“I had been very lonely, so I enjoyed their company and ended up joining them on some of their visits, and I remember being moved to tears at the sight of the old sisters, who were full of joy. I felt sad for them that there was no new blood.
“My life was about to change forever. During a visit to Lourdes I thought I was having a breakdown. I had an overwhelming profound and intimate sense that God was asking something else of me. I felt I was being called to the religious life and I just thought it was the worse thing that happened to me.
“I spent time alone at the Grotto and the baths and asked God to help me if this was what He was asking of me. I went back to Paris on the overnight train and the year after I entered the Sisters of the Sacred Heart.”
Describing it as an experience that turned her life as a 28-year-old upside down, yet made her feel as if she was coming home for the first time, Sister Mary remarked: “To not have taken this path would have been to undo something that has become part of the fabric of my being. God led me out into the wilderness in a way, away from all that was familiar, in order to clear a space so that I could hear Him.
“And He blessed me with friends who led my by the hand and helped me make sense of what was being asked of me, and He led me to a group of women and men, in the Sacred Hearts, with whom I can laugh and cry and celebrate.
“What I thought was the end of the world was the beginning of a whole other adventure, which has offered opportunities and experiences that I would never have had. God has used all that was part of my former life, nothing has been wasted.
“French, that I studied, is one of the main languages of our Congregation, and when I worked as university chaplain for years in London, all that I experienced before helped me to walk with understanding and compassion in the shoes of those that I was listening to, and led me to train in counselling along the way.”
In 2007, Sister Mary returned to Dublin to take over as sector co-ordinator, which involves overseeing her Order in Ireland, and this has enabled her to spend more time with her 94-year-old mother, Susan.
Remarking that a vocation doesn’t just arrive out of nowhere, Sister Mary said that the awareness of God that she grew up with was part of everyday life: “It is those experiences that shape our image of God and our spirituality. Every family has its own Joyful, Sorrowful and Glorious Mysteries. We have all been formed and shaped in a similar way.
“On visits home in recent years, I am often asked to go up on the altar and help with communion. I don’t find it easy to stand out in front of my own parish, however, when I do stand up here to give out communion and see the faces and hands of people that I have known since I was a child, I see hands that bear the scars of life, hands that have toiled and worked the earth, that have tended animals, fed and clothed children, and washed and cleaned, year in and year out.
“I often feel humbled and think that they should be giving me communion when they reach out for the Body of Christ.”
Renewing her vows during the ceremony, with the support of the Sacred Hearts’ Sisters who had travelled up from Dublin for her Silver Jubilee celebration, Sister Mary said afterwards: “Twenty-five years on it is more like a wedding, as now I know what it is like to be in love.”