Sometime during my final year at St Dominic’s High School, Falls Road, Belfast, in 1947, it happened.
We had been on Retreat and were assembling in the Study Hall for a choir practice. I was sitting on a bench swinging my black stocking legs and trying to make sense of the devastating news I had just heard. Miss May O’Friel was seriously ill and would not be back teaching until the following year. I was very sad and experienced a deep sense of loss. This led me to think of all the losses I had suffered in my young life. They started with my mother’s death on Christmas Eve, 1931 when I was 3 years old. The breakup of the family followed. My father kept Johnny, aged 11, and Margaret, aged 9, in Scotland. The three youngest, I, George (1 year and 10 months) and Patrick (1 week old) were transferred to Northern Ireland. Uncle Patrick and Auntie Maggie adopted Patrick. Auntie Rose and Auntie Teesie reared George and me.
It was nine years since I had seen Daddy or Margaret – 1938. Johnny died in 1939. World War II had raged around us until 1945 which restricted travel by boat. As a matter of fact I was not to see my father again until 1949 when I was already in Kerdiffstown, and it was 1968 before I saw Margaret.
Then I thought of all my loved ones – Auntie Rose and Auntie Teesie, George, Daddy, Patrick and Margaret. If I were to lose them, what would I do? Suddenly I heard myself saying: “Lord, please don’t take them. I’ll give them”. At that moment I made the decision to enter the Convent.
I knew it would be a Dominican Convent. I had heard of the Sisters chanting the Divine Office and I loved it.
So that was it. My mind was made up. I spoke to no one and just got on with the business of studying for my matric.
One evening, months later, we were in the Study Hall for some function or other. When it was over I walked down the hall towards the door. Sister Mary Callistus was sitting under the window. She beckoned me over.
“Come here”, she said, “and tell me where you are going next year”.
I hesitated and she said: “Come on. I know you are going somewhere. Tell me”.
I shuffled from foot to foot and then said: “I was thinking of entering”.
“With the Dominicans,” I said, “but I don’t know how to go about it”.
She told me that I would have to make an appointment with the Prioress General in Cabra, Dublin, and gave me the details.
Before I wrote the letter I said to Auntie Rose one evening: “Auntie Rose, would you mind if I became a Dominican?”
She answered immediately: “Rose, if you became a Dominican I would feel that anything I have ever done for you has been worthwhile”.
Auntie Teesie was not so happy. When I told her I was thinking of entering, she cried her eyes out.
After an exchange of letters, a visit to Dublin to be interviewed by Mother Reginald Lyons, another visit to Dublin to buy the requisite outfit at Gorrovan’s, I entered the Novitiate of Kerdiffstown (Scaredstiffstown, we called it) on 10 October 1947.
While following the regime of Kerdiffstown, I realised that the Congregation extended to the Mission Area of South Africa. I thought that I might as well go all the way, so I offered myself as a missionary candidate. Much to my relief my offer was rejected.
Then, just before I left the Novitiate, in August 1950, I was told that I would accompany Sister Eileen McCarthy to South Africa.
Thus it was that on 6 February 1951, I said good bye to my beloved family and with Sr Eileen, boarded ship at Dun Laoghaire. We sailed to Holyhead, caught a train to London and stayed a night at the Dominican Convent Portabello Road. Then on 8 February 1951, Sister Eileen and I walked up the gangway of The Winchester Castle at Southampton. Two weeks later, on 22 February 1951 we arrived at Cape Town.
This story of my Vocation is unusual. I did not ask advice, or discuss my decision with anyone. The topic of Vocations did not come up among my friends (I was the first vocation after a space of seven years and I was the only one). But I was aware of the Lord’s presence every now and then over the years – after Communion, while making a visit to the Blessed Sacrament or watching the sun go down in Donegal. I was confident that I was placing my future in the Hands of God and that I could trust Him, and I have never regretted my decision.
Of course, there have been many ups and downs, yes, but my motto: “Tibi se cor meum totum subjicit” or, “Lo to Thee surrendered my whole heart is bowed” has helped me to survive. Indeed, my life has been one of personal fulfilment. I know that I am loved by the Lord and I trust that when my time to go comes, I will walk into His arms and dance.