Although I entered Religious Life with the hope of going to South Africa as a Missionary Sister, this dream was not fulfilled until forty years later. Last week I was amused to find myself saying I was a Newcastle Dominican rather than a Bushey Dominican (We say Bushey in England because our Mother House is there- If we say Newcastle people immediately think of Newcastle in the north of England, rather than its namesake here in South Africa where we were founded.)
I entered the Novitiate in Bushey near Watford because I wanted to become a Dominican. I hadn’t met a Dominican Sister in Ireland until one spoke to us in our school, and she had come from South Africa. (I knew something of the Dominican Order because I often went to St. Mary’s Church in Cork, and my Mam had great devotion to St. Martin de Porres who was a Dominican.) Later I came to know the Cabra Dominicans in Dublin.After my Novitiate I spent four years studying Theology in Rome, soon after the Second Vatican Council. It was a very exciting time to be a student, and I met and studied with many interesting people from many parts of the world. I didn’t realise it then but the seed of a call to Latin America was sown at that time. In 1975 I was sent to St. Michael’s Catholic Secondary School, Garston, Hertfordshire, which had been founded by our Sisters in 1955. I spent eleven very happy years there, teaching Religious Education and English. I was also in the Careers Department for two years, and I led the Religious Education Team for four years. I was a First Year Tutor and had contact with many of the surrounding parishes. I was then known as Sr. Finbarr before reverting to my Baptismal name of Eileen when I left the school in 1986.
I had been thinking of Latin America for a few years, and I decided it was time to acknowledge that call. A friend of mine told me I had been talking about it for ten years! I asked to go to Latin America and to my surprise the Council agreed. We didn’t have a mission there so it was agreed that I would live and work with the Irish Dominicans (Cabra) in their mission in various parts of Argentina. I studied Spanish at the Latin American College in Louvain, Belgium for three months, and arrived in Buenos Aires on St. Patrick’s Day 1987. I lived in Parana, Corrientes and Victoria for twelve years, mainly in semi-rural areas, and I loved the people there. I was doing pastoral work and was very much involved in Base Christian Communities. While there I learned from the people that my life and my faith were one, and God made himself known to me in everyday events. Visiting people in their homes was a priority for me, getting to know them in their daily struggles. We shared our faith and images of God, and I received much more from them than I gave. Our lives were mutually enriched as we met Christ in each other. My father visited me for a few weeks in 1988, and even though he didn’t speak Spanish, he experienced the love and hospitality of the people. He said he was treated like the Pope, and he remarked to friends “I met people who did not know where the next meal was coming from, but yet they seemed much happier than you or me.”
After twelve years I was asked to go to Wales. I regretted having to leave Argentina, but I knew I had only been on loan there. I’m very grateful to God and to my Congregation for that blessed time. I still have many friends there, and I keep contact with some of them. They taught me much about trusting in the Providence of God.
I spent two years in Aberdare,Wales, and was involved in pastoral work. The people there were very good to me, and we shared our faith journeys. While there I was asked to be Formator of Novices, and in preparation for this I followed the Formation and Leadership Course in Loreto House. This is run by the Irish Missionary Union (I.M.U) and it takes place in part of Willow Park School, Blackrock, Co.Dublin. It is an excellent one-year course on Personal Development. There were 21 of us and five Team Leaders, and we got on very well together. I was the grandmother of the group! We came from different parts of Africa, Asia and Europe. It was a life-changing experience for most of us. I had expected to be Formator in England, but at our Chapter in 2010 we decided to have just one Novitiate, and this would be in South Africa. Before attending the Course in Ireland I spent 6 months in South Africa and followed another short Formation Course here. So in August 2012 I finally came to live in Newcastle, South Africa.
I live in St. Mary’s Blaauwbosch- it is a semi-rural area about 40 minutes drive outside Newcastle. It is highly populated now, but it came into existence at the same time as the Dominican Sisters came to Newcastle, around 1891. The land where the people settled was owned by various farmers which still bear their names eg .Nkosi Stand. Our Sisters taught in St. Dominic’s Academy in the town itself, and moved to Blaauwbosch in 1982. Sr. Leo was here from the beginning and she started Rosary Clinic and the Pre-School next door. The Catholic Primary School, Sisizakele (We have been helped) was started by Fr. Duncan Campbell, a Franciscan priest from Scotland. There are 1,524 children in the school today. As a volunteer I teach English to four groups of children in Grade 7- the last year in Primary School. These are learners who have difficulty with English, but are very willing to learn. I spend Wednesday in the school, and am constantly amazed at their command of the language, as they only speak it at school. English is the second official language in South Africa as there are several African languages. The people here speak Zulu, yet these twelve year-olds had no difficulty in introducing themselves and telling me something about their lives and their hopes for the future. I also spend some time on a Thursday morning with the Pre-School children in Rosary Crèche. They learn some Nursery Rhymes and Action Songs in English. All teaching is done through the medium of English, and the little ones have no hesitancy in speaking it.
St. Lewis Bertrand, the Catholic High School was started by our Sisters in 1981. Sr. Joan Collins was the first Headteacher. I take a group of learners from Grade 12 (Matric) on a Tuesday afternoon. All classes are very large so it is difficult for teachers to give every learner individual help. The young people who come to me are enthusiastic and willing to learn. Some of them are the Head of their Household (boys and girls) as their parents have died. They value education as a means of getting a job. Unemployment is very high in South Africa, especially in this area.
I accompany Sr. Leo as she brings Communion to 16 people on the first Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of each month. The housebound people look forward to our coming, and we meet a number of people as we walk through the various areas. We cover quite a distance, and set off fairly early to avoid the hot sun. When we visit during Half-Term there is always a crowd of children in each household. They take an active part in the reading of Scripture, in the prayers and in singing hymns. It reminds me of the early Church gathered for Mass in their homes. As a nurse Sr. Leo can help by giving advice about medical matters or suggesting visits to the Clinic in the area. Twice a year she arranges Mass in one house in the area and the other housebound people are brought there by car. It is like a day out for them; they dress up, and have a good chat on the way to the venue.
I’m also involved in giving Day Retreats to adults and young people. Our Sister Thulile is the Coordinator of Catechetics in the Diocese (of Dundee) and she often arranges Retreat Days for groups in the parish. In the first one I took part in, Thulile gave input to the Mums of the Confirmandi and I took the 18 year olds. It was a wonderful first experience for me (in South Africa) as they were very responsive. At various times during the day we had both groups together, and people could pray in Zulu or English. I was very impressed as each Mum prayed for her child, and passed on the responsibility of her faith, symbolized by means of a lighted candle. Mass was a very joyful occasion, and as they sang and danced with great gusto it was obvious that the young people were glad to be there. The second Retreat Day was with the parents of First Communion Children. The Catechist took the children, and I worked with the parents. What was interesting is that there were more men than women and that in most families only one parent was Catholic. I was with the families the following morning in their parish, and all were rejoicing with them.
Each year there is a Commissioning of Catechists for the Diocese, and the Bishop-Graham Rose is present. This year Sr. Thulile took the Zulu-speaking group(Around 300), and I took the small English-speaking group. It was a good way of meeting people from all parts of the Diocese. Each Coordinator received the large lighted candle from the Bishop, and this would be passed on to the other Catechists in their respective parishes the following day. People talk very naturally about God, and His presence in their lives. I love to watch young and old as they sing and dance at Mass.
As you see I’m beginning to settle into my ministry in South Africa, and to enjoy it Thank God.
Sister Eileen Airey O.P.