Sister Stanislaus Kennedy
Interviewed by Sue Leonard.
The moment you step into The Sanctuary, the stresses of Dublin City fall away. The trees, water features, and pathways that make up the centre of the square of this meditation centre, immediately induce wellbeing. Being in Sr Stan’s presence, only magnifies this sense of peace.
Handle’s Water Music is playing, quietly, in Sr Stan’s light filled office. Her black dog appears, is given a ‘forbidden’ chocolate biscuit, before he goes on his way.
“I walk Zeb in the Phoenix Park, every morning after mass,” she says.
Sr Stan’s social conscience grew from her childhood. Life was simple. Brought up on a small farm in the Dingle Peninsular, there was no running water until she was eight.
“It was a gentle life but we had to work hard. We all had jobs. I was in charge of the ducks as a small child and I hated it. Little things pleased us. I remember the excitement, at Christmas, of getting the candles ready to go in the window, and looking forwards to going next door for lemonade and biscuits. Everything was around ritual.
“We were a traditional religious family. We went to mass every Sunday and we said the rosary most evenings. But religious life was never discussed. There wasn’t a question of it in our house.”
The children did, however, learn to be just to the poor.
“I learned there were differences between people in secondary school. Those whose parents weren’t able to pay the fees were made to stand up. I thought that was terrible! When my sisters went away to train as teachers and nurses, my mother would strongly say, ‘be good to the poorer ones.’
“My calling was to help the poor. That’s why I entered the Sisters of Charity. Some people say they are drawn to the life to be with Christ. That was not my way.”
In many ways, Sr Stan was worldly. She was thinking of entering the order in October, and when it was suggested she went earlier, in July, she said,
“I can’t do that! There’s a carnival on then.” She laughs. “The nuns way of life didn’t appeal to me. I grew into the spiritual life. I was lured by God, but drawn in, in a different way.
“There were 70 in my noviceship. The rules and regulations were hard for a lot of us, but there was a lot of fun and good camaraderie.”
In the 1960’s Sr Stan worked in social services in Kilkenny. Developing a model for the rest of Ireland, she worked, closely with Bishop Peter Birch.
“He was a huge inspiration to me, and a good friend. He was a great man; a great mentor. Some priests didn’t like him because he was ahead of his time. He was the first to allow people with a learning disability to take communion. But he was a humble simple man.
“His philosophy was to find a solution, then people will discover the problem. I find that so absolutely true. It certainly applies to social issues or if you are trying to pioneer something new. We’re blinkered because the problem takes over and we can’t face it. The solution is a window which helps us forwards.
“I also learned from him, to use every opportunity to say something profound. Whatever he was invited to; however small, he would prepare a simple, but meaningful message. I try to do the same.”
When he died in his late sixties, of a massive heart attack after mowing his lawn, Sr Stan was devastated.
“I thought he’d be there forever. I felt a sense of loneliness. I missed I him in every way; with work, friendship, support, and as a reference point. It was great to have someone you could go to and say, ‘what do you think of this?’ I miss that still.”
Does she regret being unable to have a family?
“It’s made me sad at different times. Like when I saw friends getting married and having children. I think it’s the most wonderful thing to bring a child into the world, but I chose another way. I defer to my choice and am happy in what I have done.
“I’ve travelled a good deal, and you’d arrive at Heathrow from Africa, and, waiting for your flight, you’d hear people phoning home, saying, ‘I’m here now.’ That’s not a thing I can do. That’s a sadness.”
Having worked as the first chair of the Combat Poverty Agency, Sr Stan set up Focus Ireland in 1985.
“It’s a great organisation,” she says. “It started out so small and fragile and it grew. When I started it we became very clear about our vision. Everybody has a right to a place called home. And our values were to give back to people their dignity and self-respect, because losing that, we learned, was the harshest thing of all.
“We empower people. And to this day that is our vision and those are our values. It’s a great thing to have held those right through the 25 years of our existence.”
Sr Stan is a tireless worker. Never afraid to make enemies, she always stands up for the poor. Frank Cluskey, one time leader of the Labour Party once said of her, that she’d more courage than sense. But that can take its toll.
In the early nineties, she sank into a depression. And she simply couldn’t work.
“I was doing some work in Brussels. I was going on a flight on a Friday. I went to the airport and white horses wouldn’t put me on that plane. So I came home. The worst part was thinking, will I get over it?
“A psychologist said to me, ‘you are walking on a plank. You don’t want to look left or right, backwards or forwards. You can’t. But you will walk through that plank. You are going to be all right.’ And I was.”
Since that time, Sr Stan has practised meditation and mindfulness. She teaches it in the Sanctuary, set up in 2,000. And it’s become a part of her life.
“I really believe in the fruits of mindfulness. You notice you are kinder. You are gentler, and more accepting. We can then be present to problems and suffering, but not be overwhelmed by them.”
Sr Stan doesn’t stand still. In 2001 she established Social Innovations Ireland to promote the rights of Immigrants, and she also set up Young Social Innovators of the year; a transition year programme encouraging transition year students to become involved in social issues.
What is her place in the church?
“I have great devotion to Mass and the Eucharist. My work of service is what Christ asked. ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ I’m carrying out my work as a Catholic in service of the poor. I’m not linked to diocesan work, but I find the priests I meet and places I go for mass great places.
“It’s a hard time for the church, but a very important time. I think the church needs to change, and I believe it will change. We have to listen to the people who have suffered and who are suffering; the people who are on the margins. We have to allow them to change our lives. If we do that, a new church will grow.”
For more information.