Thursday, 26 July 2012

The Nun & The Letter from Nigeria


My Aunt Cathleen was too kind for her own good. She was a tiny woman, thin, a TB survivor & badly dressed because she gave away money instead of buying clothes. Oxfam was her boutique of choice, she liked the prices. We knew her both by her religious name of Sr (Mary) Aloysius and as Aunt Cate. 

That was a different Ireland, you had Aunts in convents & brothers and sisters in classes with your cousin's brothers & sisters: an Ireland not yet used to low child mortality or the cool of modernity. Despite having five aunts nuns, two bachelor uncles and one childless married aunt we had seventy one first cousins. All now dead but one, the nun-aunts, swept away, Salve Regina sung in old womens' fading, cracking voices by their Sisters, my father & his brothers crying. The Batchelor uncles too, gone. The price of a wonderful childhood is an adulthood burying those you loved.

Cate was a Mercy Sister and lived was the poverty-vowed life of a nun in a small Yorkshire convent. She elected by her sisters as Mother of the small community in brass-band Barnsley. Her clothes were so bad they were a shame to my parents. My mother tells the story that she & Dad decided to buy her a coat one year she arrived home without one, my mother suspecting she had given it away. Aloysius demurred, she could buy a coat much cheaper in England if she had a little money. Next year she return in what my mother described as " a black rag so old it had faded green that you wouldn't put under the dog". Clothes were not her priority.

With few or no novices coming from the developed world the Sisters of Mercy were not alone in advertising for them in the developing world. Did Sr Aloysius place the advertisements or was it the organised by the order? An ad that ended with "If you would like to be a Sister of Mercy, write to the Convent of Mercy, Barnsley" was published in a Missionary Magazine distributed in Nigeria.

That was before email, before email scams. A letter arrived, from a boy, desperate for an education but too poor to continue at school. My Aunt sent ten shillings. The correspondence continued between the boy and the tiny nun, encouragement to continue despite the hardships, and, when she could small sums of money. 

Aunt Cate kept her own council on the correspondence. In the last years of her life I think she suffered from the dementia that has haunted my father and his siblings but I do not think she would have spoken about her charity."When you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing."

The good is oft interred with their bones….

The boy, yes there was a boy, Boniface Ezaegu, is now the Barrister General of the Ebonyi State in Nigeria. In memory of the woman who helped him he is helping others: he financed and built the Sr Mary Aloysius High School in his home district.  There are Four hundred & fifty students and a staff of twenty. A red bus is proudly marked in my Aunt’s name. Her religious sisters are justifiably proud. So am I.

There may be morals to be drawn here but I don’t want them. Aunt Cate was kind; the memory of that kindness lives on far from home, in a country she never visited.  Somehow I get pepper behind my eyes when I read that the anniversary of the death this tiny quiet woman, January 19, is a school holiday and the students have mass in her memory. I picture them, bored, distracted as children often are, thinking of other things, at mass, in a small town in Nigeria, very far away.

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