Irish religious tackle racism

Irish religious tackle racism Sr Kathleen McGarvey OLA (left), provincial superior of the OLA’s in Ireland, is pictured with Sr Pazzi de Farrell and Mary Barron for their Jubilees.
The Irish OLA sisters believe racism and discrimination must be addressed as Ireland becomes more multicultural, writes Ruadhán Jones

The problem of racism afflicts every society where different races come into contact. In the modern west, the increasingly multicultural flavour of societies means it is an issue of pressing importance. This includes Ireland, according to the Irish Province of Our Lady of Apostles (OLA), as the demographics of our country become more multi-cultural.

“We were monocultural, we were effectively mono-religious in this country for a long, long time,” says Sr Kathleen McGarvey, head of the OLA’s in Ireland. “Today we have a richer society in that sense – we have many religions, we have many cultures.”

For Sr McGarvey, this is a great opportunity to learn from one another. But she says that it is not always understood that way – that in Ireland, people of African descent face issues of racism and discrimination. To find these issues, we don’t have to look far, she says: “There are stories of African peoples suffering. Maybe people don’t want to rent a house to them next door because they are African. They’d be afraid of whatever they might be afraid of. Africans have reported being abused on the streets, on the transport.

“We do judge people by their colour, just as we judge people – I would be involved here in the field of interreligious dialogue in Ireland and certainly there would be a lot of Islamophobia. We all know the discrimination suffered by travellers. We all know of the existence of hate speech which is a much stronger crime.”


Two OLA sisters, Sr Janet Nutakor from Ghana who ministers to African communities in Cork, and Sr Joan Murray, who works with the Lantern Centre in Dublin on intercultural activities, both say that African communities report issues with racial discrimination.

“Definitely people talk about feelings of discrimination, feelings of not being wanted or accepted,” says Sr Nutakor. “Some have qualifications that would qualify them to work in Ireland. But it happens that, once they see your name as a foreign name, you are not even shortlisted for an interview. That’s a worry to a big number of the migrants who are here. A lot of the Africans go into care work and cleaning jobs because that is the only area that is available to them.”

Sr Joan Murray agrees that instances of racism occur, but says the people themselves are reluctant to discuss the issue. Additionally, the racism they face is often covert rather than overt in its expression.

“In terms of the issue of racism, one of the things I’ve found is that they don’t easily speak about it” Sr Murray says. “This has come to the fore more recently – they don’t easily talk about their racial experience. They experience it, no doubt about it. A lot of it is covert rather than direct experience.

“One example that just comes to my mind is one of the Muslim women. She doesn’t wear a head covering or anything and she has a neighbour who greets her, very friendly and that kind of thing. One day she had a friend in the car with her and was wearing a head covering – and the lassie just passed by and didn’t even greet them. She saw that as a very direct affront.”

As to whether Ireland is a welcoming place for migrants, Sr Murray believes it’s a mixed bag.

“One of the things I did with a community we had in Dublin, we took them for an outing and that kind of thing,” she says. “When they went to one place, there was a good few of the travelling community there. The travelling community hosted their coming and had a lovely morning spread for them. One of the women said to me afterwards that it was her first time being in an Irish home.

“That’s a thing that seems to be very much lacking, when you talk about integration. People might be friendly and say hello and that kind of thing, but bringing it that step further and inviting them into their homes doesn’t seem to happen. Certainly it hit me. This woman was from Lebanon and had been here for many, many years.”


As we become more multicultural, addressing issues of racism and discrimination is ever more important, Sr McGarvey believes. The OLA sisters see it as part of their charism to the people of Africa, she explains, to raise awareness about the issues and to fight for justice on them.

The OLA’s are missionaries for Africa, following the missionary ad gentes path as set out in Vatican II and developed by Pope St John Paul II in Redemptoris Missio. Mission ad gentes, meaning ‘to the nations’, was a reaffirmation by the Church of evangelisation as one of fundamental missions of the Church. It also tied evangelisation to the charity for the poor.

“Mission ad gentes in the past very clearly meant going from the West to the rest, as it were – from Europe to Africa,” Sr McGarvey explains. “From Vatican II, that began to change and maybe it became more clear in the 90s when Pope John Paul II made it very clear, it’s not territorial, it’s all the new worlds today that did not exist, those social worlds.

“This includes human rights, migration, refugees, the poor – the new poverties that exist today – and the whole cultural context as well. That understanding of mission ad gentes has helped us as OLAs also to develop and grow in our understanding of what we are called to. So working for justice is very much an area and having that particular love and care to Africa, we would be particularly concerned for Africans wherever they are.

“Addressing the issue of racism stems from our commitment to the African people in particular. We try to ground all our commitment in the understanding of mission today and Catholic social teaching which would be quite strong as well,” Sr McGarvey finishes.


Racism, both as an issue of justice and as “a cultural or social new world”, is an issue which the OLA’s think it important to address. To that end, they have employed a justice officer and drawn up a strategic plan.

“We said we can’t do everything, the whole world of injustice is just too broad,” Sr McGarvey says. “We narrowed it down to three. We’re a small group, we’re not experts in this area so we have to build on it ourselves, often through collaboration with others.

“We are learning and also strengthening the learning of others in three areas: promoting the dignity of the African person, the African culture; two, trafficking and refugees, that whole area; and three care of the earth and care of the poor. The anti-racism campaign enters very much into the first one. Unfortunately, racism is prevalent throughout the world and also here in Ireland.”

The OLA sisters are tackling this issue in a number of ways, both institutionally and through different projects. One of these projects was a campaign called Religious against Racism, where the OLA sisters and a number of other orders recorded videos to raise awareness about racial discrimination in Ireland.

However, one of the most important ways the OLA’s can tackle issues of racism is through the witness of its own congregation, Sr McGarvey suggests: “We’re in 21 countries now and most of the active sisters, the younger body, would be African,” she continues. “In fact a few weekends ago, I was giving a formation program to young women from many countries, 20 of them preparing for final vows.

“The congregations are still very alive and active. Certainly mission to Europe would be something that we’re emphasising today as well because it’s a new world in Europe in terms of those contexts we spoke of, but also in faith and the growing secularism in Europe. Our OLA sisters from Africa, who share the same charism as ourselves to leave their land, have been looking not only to other African countries, but other new worlds.

“For us as OLA’s, one of the aspects we emphasise today is international, intercultural community witness. Because there are still divisions based on culture, based on witness. And I think if we can witness through our own community living as sisters, ministering together as we show the love of God, that is an important witness today. Apart from our advocacy, the witness of our lives speaks louder.”


Sr Nutakor and Sr Murray both work with migrant communities, helping them to foster supportive communities and to integrate where possible.

“I am in ministry of outreach to Africans,” Sr Nutakor explains. “It’s divided into two, a ministry of presence and a ministry of accompanying. Presence in the sense of sorting out different African groups and working in areas of engagement, meetings, weddings – social activities.

“Then there is the other aspect to it. We have the African chaplaincy, there are ten centres in Dublin and we join with the Catholic women’s organisation, the men’s, the children. It’s organised by the chaplaincy in Dublin. Then we attend meetings and celebrate Mass in each of the centres once a month.

“We have Rosary groups and – it’s just a kind of support group. It’s not creating a Church that is not part of the Irish Church. For me, I see when you put people together and empower them and they are ready to go out and mix. It’s to bring them together to build confidence and then you can be productive in your various parishes.”

Sr Nutakor says that it’s important that the Church in Ireland engages fully with African Christians. Often, they find it difficult to be active in the Church when they arrive in Ireland, as there is a strong tradition of lay organisations in Africa.

“When two cultures meet, the best comes out,” she says. “The only thing that we are all working at now is to get the Africans to participate in the Church in Ireland. Back home it’s very different. We have the Catholic women’s organisation, we have the men’s organisation, we have the St Anthony’s guild. There are different groups in the Church you can join.

“You participate or reach out to the local church from the organisation. But it’s very different here. Many find it very difficult here as to how to participate meaningfully in the Church here in Ireland. They would love to do it, be lay readers and all, but there is also this block that you may not be understood.

“On both sides, there should be a willingness on the part of the Africans that are here to participate in the Church and not shy away or think they will be condemned or not be accepted. On the other hand, with their host communities, they must be patient and flexible so that there will be great exchange.”

Sr McGarvey agrees that there must be flexibility on both sides so that the Church can benefit from the different cultural and religious experiences African communities bring.

“We must recognise that we are not only an Irish Catholic Church or an Irish Christian community,” she says. “Africa is a big, big continent, 54 countries now. From my experience in Nigeria myself, I found it a very lively Church. I went to Mass, it was very long, but the music – we had three different choirs. People participated very much. The Church there too was not just going to Mass. It was a part of every social aspect. Groups, friendships, as well as reaching out in various forms of ministry.”


But the sisters know that tackling racism is likely to be a long and slow process, without easy answers or fixes.

“I suppose it’s a difficult one because it’s very hard to deal with directly,” Sr Murray says. “You have to find a way around it because nobody likes the word racism or being seen to be complicit with it and yet it’s there. I worked in England a good bit and I would have been involved with it there. I have no answers to be honest. It’s difficult, its slow, it’s befriending, it’s taking time with, it’s listening.”

One thing Sr Murray is certain of, based on her experience in London, is that efforts to tackle discrimination and racism must be sensitive to the needs of the indigenous population.

“What I perceive happened in England was that Africans – or Asians – came in and often got priority on housing and issues over the local people,” she says. “The local people resented that and that sets up the dynamic for antagonism.

“A balance has to be maintained because if people have been on a housing list for years and then come and see somebody else coming in and getting priority and they’re still there without having been helped, it creates antagonism. I think addressing the issue in whatever form is vitally important but how to do it is also important”.