The first thing that strikes you about Sr Majella McCarron, a pioneering advocate for justice and peace within her congregation, is that she is no shrinking violet.
Sr Majella, a sprightly, feisty 77-year-old who hails from Derrylin, Co. Fermanagh, is happy to talk for hours about her eventful 57 year-long ministry in the Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Apostles (OLA).
She has much to say and it is difficult to do justice to an extensive ministry that has seen her “insertion (a favourite word) into a community in distress” whether it be the environmentally-embattled people in Ogoniland, south east Nigeria; on the Garvaghy Road in Portadown during successive Drumcree crises; or those caught up in the turmoil around the Shell to Sea campaign in Mayo for whom she initiated a Good Friday walk.
Although now retired as justice animator of the OLA Irish Province, and before that of the Nigerian Province (alongside her work as an educator) her ministry continues.
She regularly visits Monaghan Town to give support to asylum seekers at the St Patrick’s accommodation centre and to refugees elsewhere.
A well-thumbed copy of Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’ eco- encyclical, is by her side. And the day before we met, in her congregation’s house in Rostrevor, Co Down she had been to Greencastle in the heart of rural Tyrone to support a group of residents opposed to planned goldmining in the area.
Sr Majella said: “I was told that ‘this area is 95% Sinn Féin and not one Sinn Féin politician is standing with us.’”
More than half of her 57 years as a nun comprise the 30 years she spent in her beloved Nigeria after her profession in 1964 – four years after independence from Britain - until 1994 when she returned to Ireland having lived through no fewer than eleven coups or supposed coups of one kind of another.
Sr Majella loved Nigeria so much that on two occasions she saw off plans to send her back to Ireland. She is pleased that her congregations were the first religious sisters to establish themselves in what is now Nigeria, in 1878.
In response to a mandate from her congregation in 1990 to develop a plan to campaign on peace and justice issues, and as the Nigerian representative of the Brussels-based Africa Europe Faith and Justice Network she resolved to support the cause of the Ogoni people.
Sr Majella recounts the multiple human rights violations suffered by the Ogoni, not least because of devastating oil spills and by the actions of the government.
The nudge for that mandate on the peace and justice front – inspired by Vatican II’s Gaudium et spes – came from OLA headquarters in Rome at the time of the establishment of an OLA Province in Nigeria.
Sr Majella, christened Margaret Mary McCarron, the eldest of five children, joined the fledgling OLA juniorate or secondary school for prospective nuns in Rostrevor as a 13-year-old in 1952. It was in fact the former Rostrevor House and had just been acquired by the sisters as a convent.
“The idea of going on the missions attracted me and as a girl of 12 I replied to an ad in Tidings, the promotional journal of the OLA”
She never regretted “even for a moment” the decision she made and any idea of missing out as a wife or a mother never occurred to her then or since. She loved “the regimented culture, organisation and structure” of her congregation while not being afraid to speak her mind and when she did she found her superiors “reasonable and accommodating”.
After four years in the juniorate, she joined the novitiate in Cork, was professed in 1959, passed her exams with the help of “my photographic memory” and graduated with a BSc in botany from UCC in 1964.
Almost immediately after graduation, armed with that BSc and an unquenchable thirst for life on the missions she flew the 3,000 miles to Nigeria. “I managed a week at home in Fermanagh, my first trip there in eight years, just before I left,” she recalls.
She started as a young A-Level teacher in St Teresa’s College, Ibadan, 120 kilometres north east of Lagos and subsequently became a catechist, pastoral worker and lecturer in religious education in the University of Lagos where she attained the first of two Masters degrees.
Her second Masters, through Immaculate College, University of Limerick (2007) examined “the challenges of theological change in the understanding of religious consecration, mission and salvation after Vatican II” with particular reference to her own congregation.
She became fascinated with anthropology while training to be a catechist in Uganda in 1972 and fitted in work for five years on a PhD through UCD in “marrying my theology and my anthropology” but had to give it up owing to the demands of her justice work with the Ogoni.
Speaking to Sr Majella, it is clear her understanding of colonialism in Ireland and “my republican instincts” were of assistance to her in understanding the plight of the Ogoni. “If you have studied colonialism how can you be other than republican-minded?” she asks.
Although immersed in the Ogoni situation she always appears to have harboured a wish to do her bit in her native North. An opportunity presented itself in 1996 when in the light of the breakdown of the IRA ceasefire she, as justice officer of the Irish Missionary Union, became part of the Table Campaign, a human rights-based initiative by various NGOs to promote dialogue.
Sr Majella ended up spending four summers on the Garvaghy Road from 1996 where she became an observer reporting to the Department of Foreign Affairs. She also frequently visited the Lower Ormeau Road in Belfast during contentious parades.
Despite her nationalist sympathies, she stresses that she was observing both the police and those protesting against the Orange parades to help ensure that neither over-stepped the mark.
However, she makes a point of singling out Breandán Mac Cionnaith and Gerald Rice, residents’ leaders in Garvaghy and Lower Ormeau respectively as “both very able who represented their people well and impressed me.”
Sr Majella says that she once turned down the principal-ship of a secondary school in Nigeria telling her congregation she “would prefer to be a lay missionary” rather than “be an administrator”.
Had she not seen that ad all of 65 years ago, she reckons she would have become a social worker. But there is no doubting just how happy she is to be a nun and how grateful she is to the Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Apostles: “I have been given the freedom to do something worthwhile and that is a great gift.”