Voice for the invisible

Sister Clare O’Mahony tells Martin O’Brien about being the face of Christ to prostitutes

It may be more than 20 years ago but Sr Clare O’Mahony of the Good Shepherd community in Belfast remembers the evening very clearly.

It was the start of a very different outreach ministry that would bring her to the United Nations in New York, the European Parliament in Brussels, AIDS hospitals in Johannesburg and on an anti-trafficking mission to Albania. It would also lead to being a reluctant star player in a major BBC Northern Ireland TV Spotlight investigation. 

It was 1992 and it was her first visit to Belfast’s red light district near her then home in Sussex Place convent close to Belfast city centre. 

“To be precise, the date was July 17, 1992. Friday evening of the Twelfth week, not ideal, I was told, for starting work with women involved in the sex industry.

“We walked the streets for an hour or so but they were deserted.”

Sr Clare, a native of Inchydoney, West Cork, had arrived in Belfast as a young nun in 1966, qualified as a professional social worker at the start of the Troubles in 1969 ministering in the then Down and Connor diocesan welfare society during the worst years of the conflict. She reacalls helping to re-house 48 families after the burning of Bombay Street.

Her place of work was destroyed on three occasions “but thank God I never lost a file”.

Wounded victims

Despite ministering to some terribly wounded victims and admitting to feeling “shattered” on occasions she is keen to stress that her abiding memories and experiences are positive.

Reflecting on the Troubles “any act of violence is alien to me” though “in retrospect” she “very reluctantly concluded that somehow Gethsemane had to happen to get to the Resurrection, to a better place”.

She sensed a vocation from the age of 12, took her Leaving Cert at 16, but  showing remarkable maturity waited until 21, “until I was as certain as I  could be” to enter a convent.

In the five intervening years she had “a wonderful time” helping in the family drapery business, doing voluntary work for the Legion of Mary, going out with boys and dancing to her heart’s content.

That night in 1992 she was accompanied by the sister she would replace that September who assured her that normally they could expect to meet quite a number of prostitutes but the Twelfth holiday meant business was slack.

Spiritual support

They met just one woman but “I felt welcomed by that woman” and in the following weeks and months the word spread among the sex workers and soon between two and 14 women would come back to the convent for tea, sandwiches and emotional and spiritual support.

There are around 4,000 Good Shepherd sisters in 72 countries around the world and when one looks at the history and charism of the congregation it is obvious they are especially suited to providing a ministry for  prostitutes.

They had their origin, Sr Clare recalls, in the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of the Refuge founded in France in the 17th Century and later became known as Good Shepherd communities and were invited to Belfast  by the Bishop of Down and Connor, Dr Patrick Dorrian in 1867. 

“Along with vows of poverty, chastity and obedience we take a fourth vow, a vow of zeal to focus on the person who is in greatest need, who is at the edge and most vulnerable.”

Sr Clare says her philosophy can be summed up in the words of Edwina Gateley, the founder of Genesis House for prostitutes in Chicago, which she (Clare) reproduced in the introduction to her book Belfast Outreach Journal – Journeying with Women in Street Prostitution 1992-2002. (Shanway Press): “We have an urgent obligation to take Christ seriously enough to share His mission and message with others.

“We are, therefore, sharers of the Good News through witness and love. It is only through the way we live, love, and serve that we can truly witness to the Christ who served and invited us to do likewise. Only in following His way faithfully dare we claim the name Christian.”

That book grew out of a Master’s thesis, funded by Bishop Patrick Walsh, which Sr Clare completed at the Jesuit  Fordham University in New York and was written “For Zoe and the invisible women who have shared their pain and  for those whose voices have not yet been heard.”

Deeply touched

Zoe – not her real name – is a woman of around 60 with whom Sr Clare still keeps in contact. She is still deeply touched by Zoe because of the unspeakable abuse she endured, because she helped her after meeting her at a retreat, and probably because she personifies the unknown number of women worldwide who have been grievously abused and forced or tricked into prostitution.

Sr Clare told Zoe’s story in a booklet. She was sexually assaulted by her stepfather between the age of three and 11 when he “lost interest in me” only to find “to my horror, he ‘employed’ me. He took me to clubs and bars and forced me to sell myself and it went on and on”.

Sr Clare says she befriended more than 100 female sex workers on the streets of Belfast who turned to prostitution out of financial hardship and the need to provide for their families.

“It was a privilege to be involved in this befriending outreach. Our approach was non-judgemental and to welcome, listen and reflect the compassionate face of Christ to those who told such pain-filled stories.”

She contributed to drawing attention to the issue by co-operating with a BBC Spotlight programme and doing other broadcast and print media in a measured and modest way.

After her ministry to the women on the streets came to an end with the closure of the Sussex Place convent her work entered a new phase as she and fellow sisters took to the international stage to highlight international sex trafficking.

She attended an important conference at the UN in New York of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women and over a period of many years in the Noughties visited Brussels regularly to lobby MEPs in the European Parliament recalling in particular the support of such figures as Anna Záborská, Simon Coveney and John Hume. 

The internet

The arrival of the mobile phone and the internet took prostitution largely off the streets to hotels and apartments and sex trafficking has become one of the great evils of our times, says Sr Clare.

Along with Ruhama, the Dublin based NGO which works with women affected by prostitution and sex trafficking she fully supports Lord Maurice Morrow’s Human Trafficking and Exploitation Bill now going through the Northern Ireland Assembly, including its controversial clause six which would make it illegal to pay for sex, as is the case in Sweden. “We have wanted this change in the law for years.”

Four years ago Sr Clare embarked on the latest phase of her ministry when she volunteered with sisters from several other countries to work with women in Albania, where sex trafficking is rife, and where “it can be very very dangerous” for women who try to escape.

She co-founded a national organisation there called URAT, the Albanian word for bridges, which doubles as an acronym for Uniting Religious Against Trafficking. “The URAT word just came into my head. Our organisation is a bridge between the women, the police and the government.”


She spent the last months of her four years in Albania, April to September running a project for blind people “due to the generosity” of the Down and Connor Apostolic Society.

It’s a country with the poorest people in Europe living alongside obscene wealth and widespread corruption, she says. 

She welcomes Pope Francis’ comments about the necessity for “a profound theology of women” pointing out that women “think differently and have more creativity and imagination”. She describes the Pontiff as “super and wonderful and modelling a new way of Church and is not on a pedestal”.

Just back from four years in Albania in her convent off the Ormeau Road one gets the distinct impression Sr Clare will hardly draw her breath and is already looking forward to the next stage of her ministry.

Whatever it is, this caring and charming lady will live up to Blessed Mother Teresa’s motto which she has long embraced: “Never worry about numbers. Help one person at a time and always start with the person nearest you.”