Measuring a missionary’s fruits of peace

Measuring a missionary’s fruits of peace Sr Kathleen McGarvey is pictured with members of the Interfaith Forum of Muslim and Christian Women’s Association when she was in Nigeria.
World Mission Sunday (18th October, 2020)
Together we can do more – Blessed are the peacemakers (Mt 5:9)
Chai Brady speaks to Ireland’s OLA provincial about violence, feminism, tackling conflict and the rewarding life of a missionary

Measuring the fruits of violence is always easier than those of peace, as often it’s the bomb that doesn’t explode or a situation that doesn’t erupt into “sporadic violence” that reflect the work done by a missionary promoting bridge building and peace, according to a veteran religious sister.

Sr Kathleen McGarvey (52) is currently the provincial of the Sisters of Our Lady of Apostles (OLA) in Ireland and Tanzania as well as the president of the Association of Leaders of Missionaries and Religious of Ireland (AMRI).

Previously she was based in Kaduna in Nigeria and did huge amounts of work in the areas of interreligious dialogue and conflict resolution, particularly by bringing women from various communities together. Sr Kathleen faced the “carnage” of various outbreaks of violence in the region, seeing the devastation after churches or mosques were destroyed and while visiting the injured in hospital with her women’s interfaith group.

“With the interfaith work that we were doing women of both faiths were able to meet the other, we talk about Muslims but we’ve never actually met a Muslim. When you meet a Muslim and you put a face on that person and you hear of their life and you know of their family and you know a little bit of their story it can certainly change your perspective,” Sr Kathleen tells The Irish Catholic.

“Friendships there developed across the religious line and that was very important, undoubtedly it’s from local level that change happens.

“People were also able to analyse the conflict a bit deeper and to see that it wasn’t actually about religion, it was because maybe some Fulani herdsman’s cattle had walked over to somebody’s farm and eaten all their vegetables and therefore they hit the Fulani and that becomes a whole Christian-Muslim riot throughout the whole state – that’s actually the way some things happened.”


While Sr Kathleen became adept in what she was doing in Kaduna, her faith journey was made up of many inspiring moments and people. From being amazed by the beauty of creation while at home on a beach in Ireland to hearing stories from her uncle who was a missionary about his work abroad.

She joined the OLA Sisters in September 1989 aged 21, just a few months after graduating from Maynooth. Despite her youth Sr Kathleen was very sure of what she was doing. Six weeks after entering, she went to Ibadan, Nigeria as a postulant and stayed there for just less than a year and had a challenging but enriching immersion into missionary life, religious life, life in Africa, and life in an international community before returning to Ireland for two years novitiate.

After First Profession in August 1992, she was posted to Argentina but first had to go to Belgium to learn Spanish. In January the following year Sr Kathleen left for Argentina and spent the next seven years there, which she says were “among the happiest and most energising years of my life. I loved the people, especially the poor among whom we lived in both Cordoba and in Buenos Aires, and I was fully immersed in my work of mission awareness”.

In December 1999, she returned to Ireland to begin preparations for final vows and further studies completing a PhD in 2007. She says: “I chose to write on women and interreligious dialogue, largely because I am interested in both areas and because as a congregation, we are committed to promoting the dignity of women. My studies included two years research in northern Nigeria – two challenging but adventurous years that brought me into the lives of both Muslim and Christian women, immersed me in the complex reality of the deeply rooted prejudices and distrust that colour their mutual relations, and strengthened my commitment to helping these relations be transformed and become life-giving rather than death-threatening.”

It was while Sr Kathleen was lecturing in the Good Shepherd Major Seminary in Nigeria, teaching seminarians about topics such as the theology of religion, interreligious dialogue and conflict resolution, she heard very harrowing stories about the violence some seminarians had witnessed during conflict.

Speaking of the seminary, Sr Kathleen says it was based on a highway “so it was quite a vulnerable place”. This year four seminarians were abducted from the seminary, three of them were released while the fourth was murdered.

“I remember just going into some of my classes after conflict, when we could resume class, and listening to the lads share some of the experiences. One lad had quite a horrific story of when he was out walking the compound at night – this would have been during the conflict because the highway was always a dangerous spot,” Sr Kathleen says.

“Muslim or whatever young groups of men would be there, stopping cars, taking people out of the car, maybe you’d have to say a Hail Mary to prove you were a Christian or vice versa you might have to say some verse of the Quran, and if you couldn’t it was quite evident what faith you were and then the other would be killed.”

“But this guy had said he saw something on the highway and a car being stopped and the driver or whoever it was, was let run  away, the other man was brought out, put on their knees, it was quite a horrific story – he was actually I think put on fire, it was quite horrific.”


It was in March 2008 that she began a mission in Kaduna, Nigeria and worked towards bringing two communities with tense relations towards reconciliation. This was done through her work with a women’s interfaith group.

One of the most inspiring moments for her was during a time of vicious conflict, which she says happens quite often around elections. Her group organised a press conference to call for peace. Sr Kathleen says: “I was in Kaduna and as you know it was a place where quite sporadically violence could erupt and when there were elections that was always a dodgy time, and there was terrible conflict in 2012.

“We were a few days obviously with curfew, you weren’t allowed out etc.. but the Muslim and the Christian women that we were involved in the interfaith, we kept in communication with one another through the phone those days and we arranged that as soon as the curfew was lifted to get together in the city centre in a safe place and have a good discussion about it. Now these were Muslim and Christian women living in some very hot areas, had seen an awful lot of carnage.

“The fact that the women got together and we had a press conference, it made the headlines, it was the courage of the women having experienced what they had, and knowing the feelings that were still very high around and the opposition undoubtedly they would meet even in their homes: coming together and holding a press conference, calling for peace.” That was one of the moments, she says – seeing their courage and commitment – that sticks with her to this day.

She continues: “Some would have lost some of their loved ones, some lost their homes, all saw bodies on the side of the road, the destruction, plus just like everybody else they lived in the midst of the fear, the insecurity, undoubtedly some of them would have had children they would be trying to keep at home not to go out, young teenagers, or maybe a husband, who knows, it was not as though anybody was outside the situation.”


Elevating women to be given a voice and become an intricate part in conflict resolution is very important, Sr Kathleen says, explaining they have unique views to offer and can be a powerful influence within communities.

“Through the interfaith we were able to establish more community awareness,” she says, “if my son comes homes and tells me that they are planning on going to bomb a church or a mosque or whatever, then I can immediately do something about it if my awareness has been raised, I can speak to the young people, I can speak to the other young people’s parents, I can inform the community leaders so they can come and try to squash that before it actually happens, which often that was done. You will only see the ones that erupt, you won’t see the ones that were avoided.”


A lot of Sr Kathleen’s work has brought about the empowerment of women. When asked what her idea of feminism is, she says that nowadays it can be quite a loaded term and can mean many things as there is a great diversity of thought on the subject.

Describing it as a “contentious word” she said for her it is about challenging the fact that often women, just because of their gender, have limited opportunities to education and their ability to actively engage in society due to social, cultural and religious norms or teachings.

“I would see feminism as challenging those structures and seek ways for women’s empowerment,” she says.

“I think the issues that are facing us here are not as evident as I might have been faced with in Nigeria, in the north. Many girls especially in the Muslim community – again I don’t want to generalise the Muslim community – but there would be still a lot of girls who are married at a very young age.”

Describing the practice of purdah – which is a religious practice of female seclusion that has become more prevalent in northern Nigeria and linked to the growth of Islamic fundamentalist terrorist group Boko Haram – Sr Kathleen says due to this “you would have a lot of young mothers and illiteracy therefore because they don’t go to school. There are very serious questions in terms of working to promote women”.

Looking back to Ireland, she says: “What are the realities that women face today in terms of discrimination in Ireland? I would not be as aware of them, that’s not at all to say that they don’t exist and I think we have to listen to everybody and if people do feel that discrimination then we listen to it. Many would say too that men are discriminated against because we have made great generalisations about what should fit men and women and it’s a challenge for us to hear everybody and to work for justice for everybody.”

Sr Kathleen says that feminism has been used to promote women’s rights, which in Ireland have been linked to abortion which she “would not agree with”. She continues: “I would certainly agree with putting better structures in place to support women who find themselves in a difficult pregnancy, in an unwanted pregnancy, and even ask what are the circumstances that makes it difficult for here to have the child or whatever. When feminism is taken to that extreme that you forget the rights of the other person and I would include the unborn child… it’s not only feminism that can go to great extremes.”


Feminist theology can be found in all religions she says and is a “very important area” as much of the religious discourse has been framed by men and often “for men and about women”.

“So we find in all the traditions, especially since the 60s as women accessed education more and more, in the different cultures as well, we have what we call the feminist theology, but then African women don’t call it feminist theology they call it concerned African women’s theology because the word feminism is seen by many as western and going beyond or going outside what they would see as the concerns – that’s a whole other area.” She adds that there are “so many different voices and they all deserve to be heard”.

The OLA sisters are currently continuing their charitable pursuits, helping communities abroad and the likes of teaching English to and assisting refugees in Ireland.

Despite sometimes challenging times in Kaduna, Sr Kathleen says one of the hardest parts of her religious life was when she agreed to return to Ireland. It was soon after her return she was elected the OLA’s provincial. She was concerned about the continuation of her work in Nigeria but says that fortunately it has endured and continues to this day.

“In Nigeria there was not an awful lot of people involved in it so to choose to come home was difficult, that said, everything is in God’s hands and I thank God for it and the work continues there, but at the time that was difficult,” she explains.

Even though she was often surrounded by the results of vicious fighting in northern Nigeria and the heartbreak it causes, Sr Kathleen says that sometimes she feels returning home and experiencing the situation for the Church in Ireland was “more difficult than anything I’ve experienced in Nigeria. Maybe because when you’re away you’re not quite as aware of the pains and the revelations of then past”.

“Coming face to face with the disillusionment and the hurt of the people towards the Church and also towards God, the growing secularism, the sense even among religious, sometimes we hear it, that we’re something of the past – I’m 52 I’m not quite past, then the shortage of younger people in religious life… I thank God for the vibrant African Church and the amazing women that we have from other provinces and we know have some here on mission in Ireland and I thank God for that too because I just think there is such a need for that positivity, that life, that newness, that perspective and that energy.”

Regarding why she considered religious life in the first place, Sr Kathleen explains that she didn’t choose it for herself but she received “the call”.

“I find fulfilment in it and that’s not to say that I don’t have my moments but I thank God for the life I have had and that I pray I will still have. I’ve met great people, I’ve been very hugely supported, my faith is a very important part of my life, God has never let me down.

“While of course as in any marriage I would say we have our difficulties, I believe it’s a worthwhile life and it’s one in which I find fulfilment and I thank God for it.” There have been no new Irish vocations for the OLA sisters since 1992, with Sr Kathleen saying that nowadays young people aren’t presented with the idea of religious life as a vocation and credible option compared to the past, but hopes more people will be inspired to do so.

In Pope Francis’ message for World Mission Day in May of this year, he said despite the suffering and challenges created by the coronavirus pandemic which has caused people to be “frightened, disorientated and afraid”, the call to mission “leads us from fear and introspection to a renewed realisation that we find ourselves precisely when we give ourselves to others”.

Without a doubt Sr Kathleen has demonstrated her devotion to others, by recognising the innate dignity of every person regardless of faith background through her efforts to build peace and equality in times of violence and injustice.