SR CATHY'S STORY
My name is Sr. Mary Cathy Howard. I come from Dublin. My father still lives there. Sadly my mother died in July 2018. I have four brothers and three sisters and 12 nieces and nephews.
I entered Siena Monastery in April 2010. I spent nine months as a postulant – during this period I wore a black skirt and white blouse – while I followed the daily timetable this was a time of looking on to see how sisters live in community – I was allowed a day outside the enclosure about once a month. Then I was admitted to the novitiate proper and received the habit and white veil - during this time one learns more about the life and begins to prepare for first Profession. At the end of the two years as a novice I made my First Profession on the 2nd Feb 2013 and received the black veil. As a junior professed sister one is more integrated into the community and is given more responsibility. Then on the 2nd Feb 2018 I made my Solemn Profession and committed myself for life to live as a Dominican Nun –observing the vows of obedience, chastity and poverty.
This is a very different kind of life from the one I grew up with: The faith was not practised at home at all, and growing up as a child and teenager I have very few memories of preparing for my first Holy Communion and Confirmation. My parents and family did not go to Mass. Due to a childhood medical condition and family circumstances I missed out on a lot of my education both primary and secondary and did not receive much instruction on religion that I can remember. However I was offered a scholarship to attend a Domestics Science College but turned it down as I was more interested in beginning work and earning money. I lived life very far away from God.
I did not know anything about God or the Church until I got involved with the Legion of Mary in 2004. A member of the Legion working in the Hostel, Regina Coeli, encouraged me to go to Confession and so I did. This was the first time I had gone to confession since my first Holy Communion. I spent two hours with the priest and it was during this confession that I experienced God’s Love, Mercy and Forgiveness. For the first time in my life I felt free and alive. This was the beginning of a new journey for me. I was to spend many more hours in confession during my first years following my conversion. This Sacrament continues to be a great source of healing for me.
I became a member of the Legion of Mary in 2005. Part of the Legion’s work is door to door visitation. We always worked in pairs. I found this work very challenging as I had very little knowledge of the teachings of the church. Because of my lack of knowledge, my role was usually to pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit on my companion and on the people to whom she spoke. While doing this work I learned so much myself about the faith.
In the first years of my conversion, going to daily Mass and Eucharistic Adoration were essential for me - I felt I could not live without them. They are even more significant for me in my life today. I attended many Youth 2000 retreats all over the country and also went for weekend or week long retreats to a retreat house in Scotland, called Craig Lodge. Craig Lodge is run by a married couple and a team of 8-11 people in their 20s , living and working there as a community - looking after the retreatants who come to pray and to take some time out. What attracted me greatly to this retreat house was the fact that morning, evening and night prayer were sung daily and there was Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament throughout the day. I felt attracted to joining this community and felt that maybe this was where the Lord was drawing me. To join, it is necessary to do one or two years formation with them and I asked if I could come and stay for a week or two to see if it was for me. They agreed and I went the following December for a two weeks. Unfortunately, I could only stay four days as I had to return home due to an urgent family situation. I went back many times after that but never joined them.
In the first year of my conversion the company I was working for went into liquidation and it was some time before I got another job in a sweet factory in Finglas. In the work place I seemed to be the only one who had the faith and wasn’t afraid to talk about it. But I felt very much out of place in that work situation, as if I didn’t fit in at all. It was the Lord alone that kept me going in that job for two years. I used to begin to pray the rosary on the way to the bus, getting three decades said and then continue the remaining decades on the bus itself. After that I would take out my breviary and began to pray Morning Prayer. I used to get the funniest looks from the people sitting beside me, but I didn’t care in the least. I knew this was the only thing that would get me through the day. As work started at 7.30 a.m. I had to wait until after work to go to Mass - which was great to look forward to. During this time my faith was growing and my relationship with Lord was becoming stronger and deeper. I spent most weekends away on retreat and during the week I would spend time each day in Adoration.
Eventually the factory closed following a fatal accident when a boiler exploded. Since I was out of work again the idea of joining a community for a year or two came to my mind again. I thought it might be an opportune time. However, on the advice of a friend I took time to think and pray about the situation as he said that if I were to join a community for a year or two I would still have to return to Dublin with no Job, no flat and no money. It was a real test for me to see how much trust I had in God’s providence - that He would look after these things for me.
I prayed about this and remember sitting in Adoration in the presence of the Lord and pouring out my heart to Him - saying that if it was His will that I put the formation year in Craig Lodge out of my head then, he would help me find work with people who had the faith. I needed a new start in a new environment.
Weeks or months after making that prayer - I can’t remember how long, I received a phone call from a friend asking me if I would be interested in working in a Carmelite Monastery in Dublin, making alter breads for a seven week period. If that is not an answer to prayer I don’t know what is.
I accepted the job and really loved this work. It was only a three day week but I loved it so much that I offered to work an extra day without pay. I attended Mass with the sisters and prayed the Divine Office with them before I started work and then during my lunch break I would sit in prayer with the Lord in the chapel. After a while the sisters let me use their own little oratory where I could adore Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. Until I worked there, I never actually thought about where the alter breads came from even though the priest prays from the missal everyday at Mass ‘.......Through your goodness we have received the bread we offer you; Fruit of the earth and work of human hands, it will become for us the bread of life’. I really could not believe that I was making alter breads, knowing that the bread was going to be changed into the living and true flesh of Jesus Christ. This blew me away.
The seven weeks turned into eleven or twelve weeks - I was so happy there. One day the prioress took me by surprise and asked me to stay behind after work as she wanted to talk to me. She asked me if I ever thought of Religious life. “No way” I said “I wasn’t humble enough”. She laughed and said none of us are. I must have mentioned that I was interested in joining a community for a year’s formation but never thought of Religious life, especially the enclosed type. She said that I had the capability for it and that I was very balanced. I really could not believe that this was happening. I remember going home very excited that day. I spoke to my spiritual director and he was very encouraging. I reflected on this and began discerning, as I now felt the Lord was calling me to community life. I thought about a fraternity whose members had become good friends of mine. We set a date for a live-in with them but something happened at the last minute and I was unable to go.
When I had first come back to the church I used to go to the Dominicans in St. Saviours for Mass and Morning Prayer on my days off. I also attended the weekly Divine Mercy Holy Hour. I had a tremendous healing experience during a novena to St. Martin in 2004, and since then I have had a great devotion to him. Over the years I got to know the priests and students very well and you could almost say that I was part of the furniture. I felt very much at home there.
It was around this time that I was made permanent with the Carmelites. I remember sweeping the floor one day, and really feeling the Lord was calling me to Religious Life. But where was the question? This conviction was very strong and so, since these Carmelites were the only religious community I knew, I had the idea of asking them if I could do a month’s live-in with them. Funnily enough, after having this idea, a huge fear came over me. It was really frightening. I spoke to my new spiritual director and told him what happened. Up until then he was supporting me in my discernment with this community but he knew as well as I did they were not for me. He knew how attracted I was to Eucharistic Adoration which is not part of the Carmelite charism. It was then he told me about the Dominican Nuns in Drogheda and how they have Eucharistic Adoration all day, how they sing the liturgy beautifully and pray the Rosary daily. I had never heard of them before - it was only the Friars that I knew from the Dominican Order. I was really taken by all of this and thought that this may be where the Lord was leading me. They hold vocation weekends every few months and when I rang, the novice mistress said that there was a weekend coming up soon and I was welcome to attend.
I was so nervous about going that my spiritual director drove me up and left me in the chapel. I remember feeling a beautiful presence when walking in. After the weekend I knew that the Sienna Monastery was where the Lord wanted me to be. During the weekend, when talking to the young sisters I mentioned that I was not too keen on the study because I had missed out on some of my education, due to a number of circumstances. One of the sisters put my mind at rest when she said that if you are passionate about something, or if you are in love with someone, you want to know everything about that person, and that it was the same for us with the Lord- we study for the sole purpose of growing in the knowledge and love of God and for no other reason. I was accepted for a month’s live-in and I decided to ask to join which I did on the feast of St Catherine 2010.
My parents did not take the news of my entering too well, especially because of what the media was saying about the church at the time. My Mam did say that as long as I was happy she would be happy but I knew she was upset. My dad was so angry that he said he or none of the family would come and visit. However, that has not been the case. My parents and most of my family have been very faithful in visiting me. The Lord said: “Everyone who has left houses, brothers, sisters, fathers, mother, children or land for the sake of my name will be repaid a hundred times over, and so inherit eternal life’’ . (Mt 19;29). I feel a new bond with my family that was not there before, and I am grateful.
As my Solemn Profession approached and I reflected on my life, I could not help thinking of my younger years – a life without God – with no hope in view, compared to a life now that is with God and in God in a very deep way. If someone had said to me 13 years ago that I would be in a monastery and making my Solemn Profession I probably would not have believed it. ‘God’s ways are not our ways’.
The Lord does work miracles and I am a living proof of what God can do. A priest friend reminded me a number of times that I should have taken the name Sr. Mary Grace at my Reception of the habit, because I too can say what Our Lady said in her Magnificat -‘the lord has done marvels for me.’ I thank and praise God for this gift he has given me, unworthy as I am for such a gift. When I had been accepted by the council and community for Profession I sat in choir and inside I was bursting with joy. I’m not one for showing these emotions but I quietly thanked God again for this wonderful gift of Himself to me.
It was very meaningful for me to make Profession on the 2nd Feb. Through our Profession we freely and deliberately offer ourselves to God, with all that we are and have – which is in fact His gift to us. This is what Our Lady does on the feast of the Presentation. She gives back to God His gift to her, Jesus, who will be the Ultimate Sacrifice.
On my Profession day the sun shone brightly in the blue sky from early morning until dusk – symbol of the joy which radiated from my community, family and friends all day long. I feel I had prepared well for the day – both spiritually and materially. My one prayer was that the Lord would touch the hearts of all who attended – especially those who do not know the Lord in their lives. I was happy that my family were eager to participate in the readings and the Prayers of the Faithful. Several of my friends from the Legion of Mary attended – between them they bought me my ring – a very meaningful gesture for them and for me. All branches of the Dominican Family were represented – Lay Dominicans, Dominican Sisters and 17 Friars, including 2 student Brothers. The only sad note was the absence of my dear mother who passed away nearly 3 years ago but no doubt she was with us in a deeper way.
As my Profession approached, the ring took on more significance for me. I am reminded that, St Agnes, when she was faced with a proposal of human marriage said, ‘I am already married – my Lord Jesus Christ has bound me to Himself with a ring’. I know that God will always be faithful (Tim 2: 13). I hope and pray that the ring will always be a reminder to me of God’s faithfulness and that I will be faithful to Him and His covenant and the vows I profess. Please pray for me and I’ll pray for you.
Each member of the Church is called, through Baptism, to be both contemplative and missionary but not all can be full-time missionaries nor full-time contemplatives. So we can say we as full-time contemplatives are a sign and reminder to everyone that they too must find some silence in their busy lives in order to pray and listen to God’s Word.
Monastery of St Catherine of Siena
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