What makes missionary life worthwhile…

What makes missionary life worthwhile… Sr Geraldine Henry receives a warm welcome
Daughters of Charity Sister Geraldine Henry tells Ruadhán Jones about the rewards of missionary life

The work of a missionary can be tough. Their life’s mission is to travel to the most marginal communities, often placing their lives at risk in ministering to the poor, the sick and the outcast. But it is exactly this charitable love offered to the marginalised that makes the missionary life worthwhile, Sr Geraldine Henry says.

There are few people better placed to offer this testimony. Having worked on mission in Kenya, Nigeria and Burkina Faso – to name but a few – and now through her work as mission development officer, Sr Geraldine knows the missionary life inside and out.

But though her work has taken in great swathes of the world, it began as it continued – with a love for all people.

Falls Road

Growing up on the Falls Road in Belfast, Sr Geraldine couldn’t help but come in contact with the Daughters of Charity. They were “part and parcel” of everyday life there, running a local school and conducting a great deal of outreach work.

“From when I was a very small child, I saw the sisters when they were around serving the poor and then I went to primary school with them,” Sr Geraldine begins. “The school was really opened for the poor. My granny went to that school and it was opened for kids who were working in the mill so that they could go to school in the morning and go to the mill in the evening or vice a versa. All my aunts went there as well.”

After attending the Daughters of Charity’s primary school, she continued on to their secondary school. It was here that she determined to join the order, after witnessing the kindness and goodness of the sisters.

“While in secondary school, we came down to St Vincent’s, Navan road, to a centre for people with an intellectual disability and we did holiday work there,” Sr Geraldine explains. “It was just the relationship with the sisters, the kindness, the overall goodness of them with the people with special needs. They were so good to us and I said to myself, if I ever wanted to join a community, I would want one where there were people involved and it was outgoing and that I was able to work with people at that level. That was why I joined the Daughters of Charity.”


In seeing the sisters at work in St Vincent’s, Sr Geraldine was witnessing their charism in action. Founded in 1633 by St Vincent de Paul and St Louise de Marillac, first coming to Ireland in 1855, the order was devoted to the poor and the marginalised.

“Really they didn’t go out to found a religious order or anything, what they wanted to do – they were working with people who were poor,” Sr Geraldine explains. “Louise de Marillac just brought young girls together to serve the poor.

“At that stage, if you were a nun, you had to live in a convent. So they said we were servants of the poor so that you could work out among the poor. They set up the Daughters of Charity so that we weren’t nuns as such, but a society of apostolic life in which we make an annual commitment every year – we don’t make permanent vows, we make an annual commitment.

“Our whole commitment is to serve the poor and in order to serve the poor, we live together to serve the community and we follow the basic maxims of poverty, chastity and obedience.

“Our whole thrust is that work, looking to serve the poor. Everything we do is in order to help us serve the poor. That really is our charism and our mission. There is at the moment – our numbers are gone well down, we have 13,800, we lost a lot of sisters during the Covid all over the world, in 90 plus countries,” she finishes.

On mission

Having joined the order, Sr Geraldine’s first few years were spent in Ireland working with people with intellectual disabilities. But she always longed to head overseas.

“I did general nursing, I did paediatrics working in Crumlin,” she says. “Then I went into administration. I always wanted to go overseas, but everybody said, oh you’re needed here, you’re needed here. As it happened, they were looking for somebody in Nigeria to do some work about project development.

“I went to Nigeria and I went for three months, then stayed for 13 years! I worked with the archdiocese for a while, developing their project. Then I worked for the Daughters, I developed our own projects, the hospital that I was managing – it was subsequently knocked down by the government to build a railway line. We had an awful time trying to get back and go to court and everything.”

As Sr Geraldine puts it herself, in heading overseas, the Irish missionaries brought with them their focus on ministering to people with intellectual disabilities.

“A lot of our projects are for people with disabilities,” she says. “Whether they’re physical disabilities, whether they’re intellectual disabilities or whatever. We have schools and we have centres for people with disabilities; we have healthcare as well. Not huge big hospitals, we would focus on specialisations like HIV, aids, leprosy, TB, people who have orthopaedic problems, eye surgery.

“You know, very specialised things like that and then primary healthcare. We would do an awful lot of primary healthcare, going out to the villages and setting up small rural clinics, to try and improve the health of people at a local level and through a lot of nutrition. We see that, in some of the places where we are, we’d have children very malnourished and trying to teach mothers how to care for them.”


For Sr Geraldine, it is this kind of work that makes the missionary life so worthwhile: “It’s seeing somebody who has never been able to go to school getting to school; it’s seeing people, maybe mothers who have been left on their own to struggle with children helping them. I love the basics.

“When I was working in Kubwa, Nigeria, we set up a small maternity hospital and a woman came one day. She had lost four children and needed a caesarean section. The husband wouldn’t pay for it. I said, look you’ll have to have this c-section and we’ll do it, we’ll do it free, which we did.

“That woman had that baby and I met her years later – and you know, you forget about these people. I was out minding my business and she came running out at me with a bunch of bananas and with her child who was about 14. She said, this is the girl that you gave to me. We helped that woman, she was so bad, she was nearly dead and she said to me, if I had died, my husband didn’t care, he would have just  got another wife. For some people, life is cheap.

“You know there are so many people like that,” Sr Geraldine continues. “My first love is for people with an intellectual disability. It’s actually seeing children who were locked away at home, were just not wanted by their families, abandoned. One of the fathers, the poor man has died since, he said to me that his daughter was kind of ostracised in the village.

“But he said, once he saw you people coming and bringing her to school, she’s seen now as being a very important person in the village. That to me is what makes it all worthwhile,” Sr Geraldine concludes.


One of the challenges facing many missionary organisations is making sure they are sustainable. By virtue of their charism, Sr Geraldine explains, they don’t run big, fee-paying schools, or work in affluent areas.

“It’s always a struggle, we’re always looking for funding,” she continues. “We do get funding from Misean Cara, I do a lot of fundraising here and fundraising events. We were doing parish promotion through AMRI [Association of Missionaries and Religious Ireland] and that brought us in some money and it was running a school scholarship programme for children.

“But of course Covid came and we weren’t able to come out to the churches and that has caused us problems as well. There’s always challenges. But we keep going and I have to say, in our countries now where I’m the main contact, they’re all local sisters and they are just wonderful.

“They have kept the charism, they’ve kept the work with the poor. We work in places that nobody else would go. Sometimes, you’d think, how did we ever get to this far flung place? And we’d say, that’s part of our life as Daughters of Charity.”


In heading to the margins, the sisters face hardships that can seem quite extreme to our eyes. Sr Geraldine explains that, even where sisters are working in war zones, they won’t back out.

“We have sisters in conflict areas – they don’t run away. We have sisters at the moment in the north of Ethiopia that we’re trying to support. We have sisters in the north of Nigeria, and in other parts where there’s conflict.”

Covid has proven to be another all-encompassing hardship, throwing up difficulties of hunger and poverty.

“And of course Covid, we have been trying to help with the problems and lockdowns and people hungry. One of the sisters said to me, we’re not worried about dying of Covid – but the people are worried about dying of hunger. Because they couldn’t do their business. They weren’t allowed out to sell their bits and pieces.”

Daily life

These types of hardships are not the norm, however. More typically, the sisters have to combat the everyday struggles of access to basic needs such as food, water, medical care and education.

“One of the things we’ve started doing are kitchen gardens, that we would get in a wee place, maybe even a slum outside Kitale, Kenya,” Sr Geraldine explains. “There are women we have set up, in collaboration with Misean Cara and others, with a bit of land and we teach them how to grow.

“Something we found was, when we got the land, a problem is water. They had to go for miles to collect water. We said ok, we need to sort out this water problem. So we started then doing shallow wells, to try that there’d be some water near where the people were, they’d have the kitchen gardens. It meant they could have vegetables and sometimes they sold them to buy other things, and they’re still going very well.”

Another area the sisters are very active in is education. In keeping with the particular focus of the Irish Daughters of Charity, the majority of these are for children with special needs.

“In Ethiopia and in Kenya we have nursery primary schools, kindergartens. In Ethiopia we actually have a training school where we teach young women Montessori methods. Then they go out to the different projects and set up Montessori schools all over. We have a big school in Abbas, Ethiopa, for very poor displaced children. Some of them are living just on the streets and things like that. We try to support and get kids into school and that kind of way.”


Now that she’s back in Ireland, Sr Geraldine continues to work with the missionaries abroad, co-ordinating their work to ensure it reaches as many people as possible.

“I work with the sisters in the five traditional countries that the Irish sisters and the British sisters had gone to, which are Nigeria, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia and Kenya. My work since I’ve been at home has been doing projects, working with Misean Cara, doing fundraising and doing capacity development in-country.

“Before Covid, I went to these countries at least once a year. I did development with the sisters and worked with the different people, helping the sisters develop their projects and doing that kind of thing. Since Covid it’s all been on Zoom – I’m zoomed out!”

Though the number of Irish missionaries has declined, their legacy will be thriving indigenous Daughters of Charity provinces, wherever they worked.

“In all our countries we have an awful lot of local sisters,” Sr Geraldine says. “I’d say in Nigeria, we have about 150 between Nigerian and Ghanan sisters. The same in Ethiopia, the same in Kenya. We’ve developed the local communities. But they’re still connected… The numbers might be going down here in Europe, but they’re still very much part of the overseas missions in the different countries.”


A Daughter of Charity at work

Sr Eilis O’Kelly went to Kenya in 2005 and started a programme for the elderly who were very poor in Thigio village and surrounding areas. This involved a weekly club, where the elderly enjoyed a nutritious meal, basic care and other social activities. Here Sr Eilis is pictured in the centre for the elderly enjoying their meal during their weekly club meeting. Since 2016, Sr Eilis has been involved with the mission development fundraising activities.