When I was 12 years of age, I was travelling with my mother and my two sisters and two brothers in a train from Durban to Pietermaritzburg (Natal, South Africa). A thought or voice came to me “When I pass here again I will be a nun.” I was quiet for a time and then I forgot about it.
In Maritzburg, I attended a Convent school of the Sisters of the Holy Family, first as a day pupil and then as a boarder. The teachers were excellent and so was our religious formation. We attended daily Mass in the Parish Church, which was opposite the school, and could pray in the Sisters’ Chapel in the afternoons. A Praesidium of the Legion of Mary was begun by Ruby Roberts, who had travelled from Kenya, where she was working with Edel Quinn. The meetings each week and the work we were given deepened my prayer life, but I had no thoughts of “being a nun.”
My family returned to Ireland in mid-year 1944 and it was decided that I would go to the Dominican School in Wicklow. It was like entering another world and I was the ‘alien.’ I spoke with a South African accent, my hair was bleached from the sun and the girls in my class knew very little about the war raging in Europe and parts of Africa and Asia from where I had come. The Sisters were more understanding and they were my teachers. One Sister in particular, who was in charge of the boarders, was deeply understanding of how I was feeling and the difficulties I had in adjusting to school life. She was Sister Marcoline Lawler and she became my lifelong friend.
My three years in Wicklow was my real ‘novitiate’ where I came to know and love Jesus Christ. The religious formation was an integral part of our education and quite intensive: daily Mass, rosary and Benediction, retreats, study of the gospels and the Church and spiritual reading. By the time it came for me to leave school, my secret wish was to give my life to God. Would it be possible for me to enter religious life with the Dominicans? My family was returning to Singapore, I had no family in Ireland and I still felt a stranger in an unknown land. The Dominicans were willing to receive me, and my parents reluctantly allowed me to go my way (I had just turned eighteen years of age). It was the first and only time I saw my Father cry when he said goodbye to me. The years in the novitiate were not happy ones. Life was austere, restrictive and sometimes bewildering. I was very lonely for my family who were so far away. There were many things I would have liked to share with them.
All was not darkness! Sister Mary John of Gorcom was one of our ‘teachers’ and introduced us to the Divine Office, the Prayer of the Church, and my love for the Psalms began then. She also led us through Scripture, Church History, the great artists and their paintings, the constellations and, later on, Latin. From time to time, she would give us news of the outside world: we had no access to newspapers or radio. There were nine of us and she contrived to make our lives as normal as possible.
I made First Profession and, after one more year in the novitiate house, we were assigned out to a community. It was like being released from prison and joy of joys, I was sent to my beloved Wicklow! Once again, I had access to books, newspapers and radio, and to very enjoyable conversations at ‘recreation’ time. We lived a very full and ‘rich’ religious life. As well as the daily hours of community prayer, there were times for private prayer and spiritual reading. We had wonderful ten-day retreats from very good Dominican preachers and, during the year, we had local confessors who gave excellent spiritual direction.
After studying for a degree and diploma in education, I returned once more to the community in Wicklow and to the work of teaching. This was the late 1950’s. I began to feel a sense of uneasiness about the religious life and I expressed it to a Sister as stagnation. Something had to change and it did! A newly-elected Prioress General asked for volunteers to go to Alabama in the USA. I, and several other Sisters, volunteered. In fact, none of us were sent to Alabama, but to other communities in Ireland and South Africa and I was sent to Portugal. This was in 1962, when the Vatican Council II began in Rome and the Spirit of change was everywhere.
I have been in Portugal for 45 years and it is now my religious home and country. Our community life is prayerful, joyful and lively. We take an active part in the life of the people, the Church, and the Dominican Family, and have opportunities for being truly a Community of Holy Preaching.
By the way, I did pass through the Valley of a Thousand Hills again! I was attending a Leadership Conference in South Africa and travelled from Durban to Maritzburg, but this time, by coach along a wide motorway with the hills in the distance.
Sr Aedris Coates OP