Sr Colette of Poor Clares, Galway
Interviewed by Sue Leonard
Published in Reality Magazine. February, 2013
When Sr Colette left school, she was looking forwards to a conventional life. After studying business and commerce at University College Galway, she worked in accountancy, whilst studying for the exams. She enjoyed life; had boyfriends; and fully expected to marry and have children.
“I went to a school where there were nuns, but my aunts and uncles weren’t in religious life,” she says. “It wasn’t on my horizon. But I did continue to go to mass every Sunday, and every day during lent.”
Her main prayers, however, took place coming up to exams.
“I felt, there must be something more to my faith than just begging God to help me pass exams,” she says. “One of my friends, in particular, was exploring her faith. She showed me a video of Medjugorje. I was very impressed with the fact that Our Lady could be appearing in our lifetime.”
She started attending the monthly Medjugorje Mass, and began to attend Youth prayer meetings. Then she visited Medjugorje.
“Towards the end of the week I was at mass, and when the priest held up the blessed sacraments at the consecration, I just knew that was Jesus, and I felt utterly loved by God. My response was that I utterly loved God as well, and I thought, ‘whatever you want me to do, I will do. Even if you want me to become a nun.
“I was 24. I returned on a high, and talked to a Franciscan, Fr Des O’Malley. He advised me to finish my studies in accountancy, because the qualification would always stand to me. That was good advice. I wasn’t ready at that stage.”
Sr Colette passed some exams, failed and had to retake others, and she continued to enjoy socialising.
“But I was more involved in prayer meetings, and days of renewal. And I developed a lot of friends through those meetings, as well as keeping my other friends.”
Finally, the day came when she qualified.
“I remember the day vividly. It felt empty. All those years of study meant nothing. And the next day, I called into Mass on the way into work, and saw a book at the back of the church. It was called, ‘And Speak to her Heart,’ and it was about all the different contemplative orders of Ireland. Reading it, my heart was on fire.
“After work, I rushed back and read the book right through. And one particular phrase spoke to me. It was in the Poor Clares, talking about St Francis. How one night he went to the woods crying out ‘love is not loved.’ I had experienced God’s love, but it’s taken so much for granted in the world that he is not loved. I felt the Lord was giving me hints; it was like an invitation from God.”
When Sr Colette told her family of her decision to enter the Poor Clares, her sisters were devastated. Why did she choose an enclosed order?
“In the year before I entered I’d been to Assisi, and I felt I was being called to a life of prayer. The joy and freedom of St Francis attracted me.”
St Clare was a contemporary, and follower of St Francis of Assisi. She founded the Poor Clare Order in 1212 in Italy, and the order came to Ireland in 1629. There are six Poor Clare monasteries in Ireland. The monastery in Galway City, established in 1642, is an integral, and important part of the community.
“I visited various monasteries, and I felt at home at this one.”
Sr Colette joined in 1993, and is currently the Mother Abbess. Have there been moments of doubt?
“At particular points, when you are making the next commitment you think about it more seriously. After a year you get the habit; you’re a novice for two years after which you make vows for another three years. Then you make vows for life.
“At different times during formation it was a struggle. And there have been other times, but God allows us, I believe, to wrestle with those things. I remember, when I was a postulant, a friend had entered a Carmelite monastery. I felt if anyone was a Carmelite it was her. Six months after I entered, she left. It took the wind out of my sails. You wrestle, but it deepens your own faith.
“My response to God is so often not what he deserves, but he is so merciful. I aspire to praise him with my very life, but I often fall short. I felt, coming in here that I was doing this great thing for God, but actually, God is doing great things to me and to the community.”
The life of poverty revolves around prayer and work.
“We’re up at 5.15 am. We have adoration and the blessed sacrament, all day, interspersed with Divine Office seven times a day. After breakfast we have mass, then thanksgiving, then we work; cooking, cleaning, gardening, or distributing the altar breads. There’s always plenty to do. As Mother Abbess I have a lot of correspondence.
“In the afternoon we have study time, when we can do music, read, do art, or walk. That’s a good time to receive visitors. After supper we have recreation together, then night prayer, after which we can retire. And we’re up for an hour’s prayer in the middle of the night. That’s done on a rota.”
There are 12 sisters and one postulant. They may listen to the news each day, but may only watch television at Christmas and Easter, or for special occasions, like the Eucharistic Congress. They don’t use email, and have their Face Book page and website managed for them. But they don’t feel cut off.
“Our monastery is open all day every day and people call looking for prayers. They are telling us things they are not telling their friends. People are struggling financially. They are looking for hope, and for something to anchor them.”
The website was launched in 2003. At the time Pope John Paul 2nd asked Christian communities to create schools of prayer. In response the Poor Clares put prayers on their website. And now, with many additions, those prayers have been made into a book.
“We’ve taken traditional forms of prayer based on the writings of St Francis and St Clare, and we’ve adapted them for busy people. There are prayers for different occasions; like for when someone is sick, or taking exams.”
There are also prayers for those bereaved by suicide; for those suffering depression, or dealing with an unwanted pregnancy. And the book shows people how to pray, and how to incorporate silence and meditation into their lives.
“There’s a great need for silence,” says Sr Colette. “Even five minutes to sit and close our eyes, turn off the phone, and do nothing. St Clare’s writings relate to the modern world. She wrote about forgiveness, silence and surrender. All those things are important.”
Calm the Soul. A book of Simple Wisdom and Prayer. The Poor Clares, Galway. Published by Hachette Ireland.
© Sue Leonard. 2013.