The Church in Ireland has experienced a huge amount of reputational and spiritual damage for many years, but suffering with people and having an “open and listening heart” can go a long way, according to a Dominican sister based in Limerick.
Sr Mara Grace Gore (34) came from the US to teach and work with the Irish community, and says the minute she arrived she felt at home.
“The people just welcomed us so graciously, and I’ve realised how much America has been formed by the Irish people, there are so many similarities,” Sr Mara says.
“At other times I do feel the difference, I went to my first school where they speak only Irish, and I felt like I was in a different country,” she laughs.
“Most of my experience has been a very smooth transition and I’ve felt like its home. Every single place will have a different understanding and experience of religious.”
Although she was born in Idaho, Sr Mara grew up as a Protestant in Lexington, Kentucky until her mother died when she was just 7-years-old. It was only when her father remarried that the family entered the Catholic Church.
Aged 12 she saw a youth group connected to her parish was going on a ski trip, and asked her parents if she could go. They said she would have to actually attend the club and not just avail of the getaways, which led to Sr Mara attending every week, saying “it was fun” and “made the faith relevant to my life as a secondary school student”.
She says: “So it was really through the witness of my youth minister and through these other young people that I started to wonder, what is this joy that they have? Where does that come from?”
On one particular retreat, during Eucharistic Adoration, people were being invited to touch the humeral veil, which the priest uses to hold the monstrance. It was when she touched the veil that Sr Mara felt as if the “whole room was gone, it was just Jesus and I, it was the first time I had a heartfelt prayer”.
“I don’t even remember the words but I just remember having this sense that that is truly God and I wanted to live my life for him. The seeds of my vocation were there in that moment, but certainly the flourishing of my baptismal call to live as a follower of Christ was there in that moment.”
It was Sr Mara’s father that suggested she go on a retreat in Nashville to visit a convent. At this time she knew very little about sisters and even less about their religious life.
“When I first pulled up to the convent, my Dad drove me down, the first thing I saw was all these nuns out on the pitch playing football, I couldn’t believe it,” she says.
“It blew out all the expectations I may have had, I had such a great experience with the sisters there. I think I found in them authentic women who were all striving to follow Jesus, to live their lives for him. Each one of them was their own person, they were all happy, a genuine joy.” Sr Mara began to visit periodically after that.
Pursuing education, Sr Mara “made a deal with God” that if she finished university and wasn’t in a serious relationship, she would become a sister. After two years she felt restless, and on a trip back to Nashville she felt a gentle prodding at her heart. “I had this sense that I think he’s calling me to enter the convent and so I took that leap of faith.”
“So that summer I asked to enter the convent. It was so scary, I’ll tell you I was thinking about ‘gosh am I making the right decision, what happens if I’m wrong?” she says.
“But all along there was still this gentle small voice saying ‘trust me’ and I knew that I did indeed trust and continue to follow what I thought the Lord was asking. He would keep guiding me, he wouldn’t lead me astray.”
At age 20, Sr Mara started on her seven-year path towards her final vows as a Dominican sister. She became a primary school teacher and served in schools in Tennessee and Colorado before helping the congregation’s vocations office by going to colleges, mainly, and telling people about religious life.
There’s a big difference in the knowledge about religious depending where you are, according to Sr Mara who says: “When I came here I was so surprised the familiarity people have with religious, most people that we meet either have a relation or know somebody who is religious, and that is very knew to me. That there is this living memory.”
Sr Mara came to Ireland three years ago with three other sisters.
“I think the younger generation hasn’t had as much exposure so one of our sisters goes to all the primary schools in Limerick and the first year when she’d walk into a classroom there was this shock.
“I’m also conscious there is also a lot of hurt that people have experienced from the Church here in Ireland so in that respect it brings a certain amount of awareness to suffer with people in a different way that have suffered because of representatives of the Church. In that way it has been a different experience for me.”
Sr Mara added that their main drive in Ireland is faith formation for people all different ages, adding that young people have to be encouraged to know that God has a plan for them, “so don’t be afraid to ask”.
“I think a lot of times we think God’s plan will make us miserable but his plan is better than anything we could ever imagine, so just to be open to what it is God has in store and then to courageously say yes.”
More information about the Nashville Dominican sisters can be found at www.nashvilledominican.org