Entering the hearts of young people can only be done by listening, according to a well-known Dublin nun who has used music as a window to help young people realise their inner gifts for decades.
Sr Bernadette Sweeney is a self-proclaimed risk taker and certainly deserves the title. Currently based in Crumlin she has been the subject of numerous print and broadcast media reports for her new initiatives and inspiring work with kids. Most recently RTÉ’s Nationwide focused on her work with children at the Community Centre for Music and Arts (CCMA) in Crumlin last year.
Brought up in Walkinstown, Sr Bernadette was one of ten siblings who were raised in an environment of deep faith, keen sense of humour and a love of music.
Speaking of her parents Sr Bernadette says: “My mother was very free in her thinking, she was very committed to the faith.
“My father had a very special relationship with God. When we went on holidays my father would say: ‘Listen pet would you mind if we salute the governor before we have a meal?’ and he’d find the local church.
“He had natural relationship; it really would inspire you. He never criticised anyone in his life, a very gentle, loving person, loved poetry, loved music, loved nature. When they talk about care of the earth, sure these people had it by nature and grace.”
She was introduced to the Sisters of Charity while attending the Assumption Primary and Secondary schools in Walkinstown where she met “very inspiring women”.
“If a person has a love and a commitment, they can inspire anybody and I think I have had that belief in God.”
“If a person has a love and a commitment, they can inspire anybody and I think I have had that belief in God, not in a whole lot of other things, that inspired me to keep going in spite of all the odds,” she says.
Sr Bernadette trained as both a primary and secondary school teacher, received a Masters in Religious Education from Mater Dei and studied music. She also received a licentiate in singing and performance and is trained as a reality therapist. With a heap of qualifications, Sr Bernadette says in reality these gifts are “only lent to us to empower other people, they’re not for ourselves”.
For 30 years of her life she was a principal in three schools, 15 of which were spent in St Agnes National School in Crumlin, where she made the headlines with a project aimed to help pupils find their talents and confidence.
“I was thinking that these people in Crumlin have always been downtrodden because of drugs and then suddenly you see some so talented, brilliant on stage, brilliantly musically but just needed a break,” she says.
Sr Bernadette and Dr Joanna Crooks transformed St Agnes and took a leap of faith establishing an ambitious Music Project that helped bond the community as well as the school. In 2006 the violin project, which saw children being given the chance to learn the instrument free of charge with help from volunteers and generous donors, started a chain reaction that began a school orchestra, parents orchestra and a community Musical Society.
Sr Bernadette says: “So, I did say I wouldn’t leave Crumlin, however I don’t think I’ll be leaving it at all now, but I’d never leave it until they got headlines for the right reasons and that’s the way it has happened.”
The Crumlin Community Centre for Music and Arts, of which she is the CEO, is still going strong and all started off with financial assistance from the Sisters of Charity which made it possible to refurbish the building. More funding came from Lyric FM, Dublin City Council and the Department of Education. One of their next big projects is inviting two beginner musicians from 10 other countries in order to begin an international collaboration as part of their 10-year anniversary.
“The best way we can enter the hearts of young people is listen to them, hear what their hearts are saying and be very gentle with them.”
Because of the intergenerational element of the community centre, it offers a chance to meet people of all ages.
“The best way we can enter the hearts of young people is listen to them, hear what their hearts are saying and be very gentle with them,” says Sr Bernadette.
“Very often people pass them because they have all trendy earrings and nose rings and they say they can’t relate, but when you sit them down, when you listen and you hear their cry, they’re only kids and they need somebody to touch their hearts.
“I used to tell the little ones in Confirmation class: ‘Inside there’s a golden nugget and that’s Jesus, the greatest friend you’ll ever have’, and I said ‘even if all your friends go and you have nobody in life, keep talking to Jesus and that will strengthen you’.
“It used to strengthen myself, when I’d say it to them.” She added that these little images spoke to young people much more than “pious talk”.
Speaking about the abuse crisis in the Church and religious life today, Sr Bernadette said that she often feels sad for some sisters that she has encountered, who have been so “single-minded in their commitment to humanity”.
“What I feel is there are so many sisters suffering, I have a personality that empowers others privately to say what they feel without feeling it’ll be repeated or that they will be incriminated.
“And if you heard the number of sisters that sit down and cry every time they hear [about abuse]… when they know such wonderful people that have given their whole life, sacrificed their families, travelled to the missions, done all these things and yet they’re left just on a string with their divine calling – under the shadow of the whole thing.”
She added: “But I’m not cowed by it I just stand up for who I am, I have nothing to apologise for and I’ll keep motoring on until the last breath’s put out of me to empower people.”