From the fires of Belfast to Africa’s slums

From the fires of Belfast to Africa’s slums Sr Patricia Maria Speight FMSA sits with young women aged 15-24 years at training and therapy.
Personal Profile
Chai Brady hears about what love and hope truly mean


Night had just fallen when a Belfast parish priest called an 18-year-old girl to help battle a blazing fire caused by a bombing, living a life devoted to others she immediately responded to the appeal.

Sr Patricia Maria Speight FMSA was “haunted” after coming to the help of people affected by a bomb during the height of the Troubles.

“What I faced is something I shall never forget.  Homes were blazing, and falling asunder.  I could hear the cries of the people inside, ‘Please help me’, ‘I am here’. I remember trying my very best to try and fight the flames but the smoke and fire overcame me, and I had to let a lady’s hand go as I could not pull her. This hurt me and haunted me for days,” she tells The Irish Catholic.

Sr Patricia was born in the Mater Hospital Belfast and was the second oldest of 13 children, two of whom died at childbirth. Her parents, May and Arthur Speight “planted the seed of Faith” in them all.

Growing up she was a “mischievous child” and was involved in her fair share of trickery, particularly after being caught throwing pebbles at cars at age 10.

But shortly after this “I began to gain sense and instead of trying to disturb people, I had an inward voice tell me to try to help people,” she says. Aged 12 Sr Patricia joined the Legion of Mary and each week went out to pray and was tasked with helping orphans learn catechism.

Shortly after joining the Senior Praesidium when she was 18, helping unmarried mothers and listening to their stories, Sr Patricia was elected president. While visiting the sick in the Mater Hospital a sister from the Franciscan Missionary Sisters for Africa asked her about joining the order and invited her to their base in Mount Oliver, Dundalk.

“This was God calling, I surely knew it.  Around the age of 16 I can honestly say, that I did hear the silent voice within: ‘Patricia, come follow me.’ To be honest I didn’t know what to do with it.”


However at the time her dream had always been to become a nurse, and her first priority was to her family. Sr Patricia had to leave school aged 16 due to financial pressures and worked as a receptionist, her salary went to the household, while she received some pocket money.

Finally Sr Patricia was accepted to study nursing in Westminster Hospital, London. After two years she was awarded ‘Nurse of the Year’, to the excitement of her family. “I was and still am a person who always has to struggle; nothing comes without having to work very hard for it,” she says.


Along with daily Mass and prayer she continued visiting congregations – still feeling God’s call – but Sr Patricia’s knew her home was with the FMSA’s in Ireland.

She returned to Dublin and began helping her family again. Working as a nurse in Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast, she lived in the Nurse’s Home due to the constant bombings.

Entering the congregation aged 24, after making her First Profession she upgraded her nursing qualification by doing a three-year course in Dublin and completed a two-year midwifery course in Drogheda. Now Sr Patrcia was “well prepared to meet the challenges that lay ahead of me in Africa”.

But this was certainly not the only challenge that lay ahead, within six months of making her First Profession in August 1986, her mother died followed by her father just six months later. “I can honestly say, I found this very, very difficult. Part of me had also died.  With the help of God, I struggled through this loss and finally after two years, I was at peace,” she says.

Sr Patricia first experienced Africa in the order’s hospital in Nyabondo, Kenya. This was followed by seven years in Zimbabwe which included four years working as a nurse and midwife at Regina Coeli Mission. Following this she was asked to establish a community home based care programme for people living with HIV/Aids, which she did for three years and mobilised the local community.

It was in 1997 that she was sent to Nakuru slum in Kenya. “The poor and sick I found in the slums, my heart lay in the people who were very poor and suffering from HIV/Aids. The needs I felt where great,” she says.

With the help of a women she met there, Genvieve O’Loo, they recognised the need for a community home based care programme for people with HIV/Aids there as well as a behaviour change programme to teach people about prevention.

Beginning in a dilapidated storage room used by the Church, she founded ‘Love and Hope’.

The initiative snowballed and now caters for those living with cancer and debilitating illness. It has branched out to those affected by gender based violence and offers personal and group counselling, assistance, rights awareness to avoid abuse, skills to access services, advocate for change in their area and improve their livelihoods.


Love and Hope has a system of training frontline workers in several areas which has produced a multiplier effect and with its community-based grassroots approach it has reached many more people. The government there have seen the success of the approach and often attend sessions and contribute to discussions.

Each day the team, volunteers and people from universities and colleges pray before beginning their ministry each day.

Sr Patricia says: “Many challenges have come my way.  They are challenges which have brought me so much closer to God and the people.  They have also made me a stronger person, a more loving, caring and compassionate person.

“The poor have given me so much, the people whom I have cared for, both adults and children; they suffer with such dignity and love.”