Faith Matters

Riches of Poor Clares' story told


At the launch of a new book on the history of the Poor Clares in Belfast are, pictured from left, Bishop of Down and Connor Noel Treanor, Trea O Boyle and Eileen McKenna, sisters of Sr Paschal, and author Fr Martin Magill. Picture by Mal McCann

IT is somehow appropriate that the order best known as the Poor Clares should have a rich history, writes William Scholes.

What is a little surprising, though, is that the story of this group of quietly dedicated nuns, who served in Belfast from 1924 until 2012, was essentially untold.

Fr Martin Magill was certainly surprised. He had volunteered to help author and dramatist Philip Orr with information for a 'Many Faces of North Belfast' series, expecting it to be an easy task.

But the more he dug into the story of the Poor Clares, the more he realised that their contribution to Belfast had gone largely unrecorded, if not unheralded by those who enjoyed their comfort, refuge and support.

His imagination captured, Fr Magill set about the task of diligently researching and recounting the tale.

It has resulted in a book, The Poor Clares in Belfast, 1924-2012, which Fr Magill - now parish priest of St John the Evangelist Parish in Belfast - published this week.

"I suppose I just fell in love with the story," he explains. "When I started looking into it, I found that lots of people, especially in north Belfast, were very dedicated to the Poor Clares but that no-one knew the background.

That background started with a visionary leader, Mother Genevieve, who was in charge of the order's monastery in Dublin around the time of partition.

The Poor Clares had a real ministry of listening and receiving visitors. During the Troubles, they offered a safe space where people could unburden themselves

"She had a desire for a prayer house in Belfast - 'a place of prayer and reparation' - and she clearly had a burden for the Catholic minority that was suffering in the city at that time," explained Fr Magill.

The "suffering" was a result of the unrest that endured on either side of partition in 1921, and the Poor Clares were strongly motivated to show solidarity with those hurting the most.

Initial formal approaches to the Bishop of Down and Connor at the time, Joseph - later Cardinal - MacRory were rebuffed.

He relented - the book explains why, as well as detailing some subterfuge that the Poor Clares undertook to ensure they got their first house on Antrim Road. They soon moved from there to Cliftonville Road, and the site with which they became synonymous.

Fr Magill said that the Poor Clares were characterised by prayer, hospitality and daily Mass.

"They had a real ministry of listening and receiving visitors," he said. "Especially during the Troubles, they offered a safe space where people could unburden themselves."

Fr Magill recalled the "lovely sense of liturgy" fostered by the Poor Clares, and how their monastery rang with "fine congregational singing".

He estimates that the nuns' numbers were at their highest in the 1950s, when up to 22 served in Belfast.

That dwindled over the years, and when the decision was taken to end the work in 2012, just four Poor Clares remained. Two of them were Irish, and two Filipino.

The sense of purpose that brought the order to Belfast in the first place continues, however, albeit expressed in different ways.

"It's a question of whether we believe that prayer makes a difference," says Fr Magill.

"It does - it changes lives - and that is that belief that brought the Poor Clares to Belfast.

"They brought with them a sense of witness and a radical way of living their faith - not least through taking a vow of poverty - and above all a commitment to the power of prayer."

  • The Poor Clares in Belfast, 1924-2012 by Fr Martin Magill are £10 and available from Sacred Heart Parish Centre.

Trea O Boyle and Eileen McKenna, sisters of Sr Paschal, who was one of the last Poor Clares in Belfast, with Fr Martin Magill. Picture by Mal McCann

Fr Martin Magill with his new book about the story of the Poor Clares in Belfast. Picture by Mal McCann

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