Sr. Caoimhín Ní Uallacháin speaks of her ministry in Candle Community and Matt Talbot Community Trust
A ministry based on the faith that God Loves All Children
Sr Caoimhín Ní Uallacháin OP has spent much of her life working to support youth and families in Ballyfermot. She founded the Candle Community Trust in Ballyfermot in 1976 originally for young “lads” who had nowhere to go and which now, today is an established centre in the area, providing a space for both girls and boys to grow and develop physically, emotionally and spiritually. She later went on to establish the Matt Talbot Community Trust, and targeted government departments for vital funds to support her initiatives including raising money for a bus which would transport the Children and their families to Ballinascorney, in the hills above Tallaght.
Her determination and resolve to help the youth of Ballyfermot began when as a teacher in the Dominican secondary school, she started to support the children that were more disruptive in class and had behavioural issues. As she explains, “they were the boys with behavioural problems that nobody else felt they could teach.”
She recalls an evening being asked to help a boyfriend of one of her pupils. He came to the convent looking for help. He was homeless and had nowhere else to go. A couple of evenings later, four more young lads arrived at the convent door and so began the Candle Community Trust in 1976.
Caoimhín felt the need in herself that she had to befriend, as she calls them the “lads”. She wanted to work on the ground to help those who were so desperately in need. She believes it was a call from God. She began by borrowing a room in the local legion hall where the lads could meet to play games like Ludo and play guitar. “Their needs were basic”, she explains, “all they wanted was somebody to care for them, where they could get in out of the cold.”
Caoimhin’s training originally as a teacher in Scoil Chaitriona, the Dominican Secondary School in Eccles St and later as Principal was to prove invaluable to her in later years in Ballyfermot. She believed that education was the only key that could open the door of opportunity for the lads that would set them free and enable them to integrate back into society. She started to fight for their welfare and became a voice to represent them with the Departments of Justice, Education and Health. She also represented them and their families, making frequent visits to court and often to Mountjoy.
She admits that her vision for Candle could not have been achieved without the assistance from the people around her, the local community and the Dominican Congregation. The Parish Priest, Fr Rogers who always stood by Caoimhín gave her the land for the Candle building. One of her first projects was to offer a FAS course giving, the lads the opportunity to learn skills as well as formal education.
At one stage, she was visiting over 80 prisoners on a regular basis. She recalls at this time that there was a community from Ballyfermot in Mountjoy prison. She was in Wicklow on holidays, when she received a call from John Lonergan, the Governor of Mountjoy to come to the prison to intervene in a serious incident, which occurred when three prison officers were taken captive by a group of inmates. They were calling for Caoimhín as the only person they would talk to. She went directly to Mountjoy and intervened on behalf of the inmates who were armed with a knife and a syringe. She stayed for three days until the dispute was resolved.
Candle had now become well established as a refuge for younger lads and Caoimhín took the decision in the early eighties to step back from the day to day operations, moved into St Laurence’s Road in Chapelizod. Candle was now a wonderful centre, built on an acre of land with funding received from the Department of Justice and local community. It was in huge demand with over 200 children from the local area using its services.
As a result of the demand on its services, older lads were being forced to leave to make space for the younger children. Faced with nowhere to go, they again began to knock on Caoimhín’s door. She began to let them in. At the beginning, there were 5 of them who formed the original group of “Matt’s Friends”.
Matt’s Friends evolved into the Matt Talbot Community Trust. Named after the venerable Matt Talbot, he had managed after a life of addiction to turn his life around to help others in similar circumstances. The first staff member of Matt Talbot was a social worker called Denis Murray. Caoimhín admits that she couldn’t have started Matt Talbot without him. He wanted to give back to society and was prepared to work for little or no salary. Denis got things up and running. With no facilities, there were over a dozen lads coming to seek refuge in St Laurence’s Road on a daily basis. She pushed out the wall of the house to accommodate a bigger dinner table. She describes this as being like a scene from the Last Supper with a dozen or so lads eating their dinner around a big long dining table every night.
Sr Caoimhín needed vital funds to help her cause. This involved fundraising in the local community and using local media to help her. At one stage, she sold candles. At another stage, coming up to Christmas, the lads helped her to make cribs, making the figurines from a sack of alabaster that she had received from a local dentist.
She was gradually starting to get the trust of government, enabling her to raise funds to purchase an old bus. She was also fortunate to receive some acres of land in Ballinascorney, in the hills above Tallaght. Caoimhín had dreamed about being able to take the lads down the country and this was now becoming a reality.
Ballinascorney became a home away from home for the lads. They cleared up the house and extended it and built a septic tank. Caoimhín heard of a chemist closing and got the glass for a greenhouse. The lads were now learning the vital living skills of cooking and gardening.
Caoimhín’s work continued long after the Matt Talbot became an established Community Trust. Her door in St Laurence’s Road was always open to the local people who needed her assistance as she worked tirelessly to raise funds and help families to overcome problems caused by domestic violence and addiction.
Caoimhín now lives in Cabra. Her ministry, which was supported throughout by the Dominican Sisters in Cabra, was based on the faith that God loves all children. She took her lead from St Dominic, who had met the call of the needy and her call was from those in need in the Ballyfermot area. Sr Caoimhín knew that the local children needed to be loved and that she had nothing to give them except for love. In the words of Matt Talbot, “never give up on the man…”