Sr Paschal McMeel: A woman of gentle strength, courage and many talents
ITA McMeel was born in the parish of Duneane, Co Antrim in 1930, youngest of the eight children of James and Mary.
When she was just three, her teenage sister Mary died of meningitis, and when she was 15, her brother John was ordained as a priest for the archdiocese of Edinburgh.
When still a teenager, the first of her 19 nephews and nieces had begun to appear. And by the time she was 25, after working in the civil service and in a garage, having been known to be lively and to enjoy a smoke, she surprised many people by entering the Poor Clare Monastery in Belfast.
She left behind everything she owned for love of the Christ and spent 67 years dedicating her love, life and talents as a Poor Clare sister.
The original St Ita was one of the strong women leaders in the early Irish Church who dedicated themselves to living in community for the sake of the Kingdom of God.
In the midst of her life experiences, Ita McMeel felt a deep call to living in community of prayer and seeking to follow Jesus in all things.
After two years of postulancy, the young nun was accepted in 1957 as a member of the enclosed Poor Clare community on the Cliftonville Road where they numbered over 20 sisters.
Part of the ceremony involved wearing a symbolic crown of thorns. Life is difficult for everybody. But those who feel called to build community and communion in order to learn the tools of the interior life – that involves a lot of dying to self. Becoming a saint has always meant learning the humility that enables us to subject our will to God’s will for me.
In the Poor Clares, she took the name of Sr Paschal of the Blessed Sacrament. St Paschal Baylon was a 16th century Spanish Franciscan saint, noted for his simplicity of life and love of the Eucharist.
She developed a huge range of visitors and correspondents in the Belfast of the Troubles where so many people lost family and friends in the conflict that in a particular way affected the area surrounding the monastery.
All kinds of people came from across many community divides. She wrote to everyone with her strong handwriting that spoke of the grace that was at work in her life.
She was not cut off from the world and loved that world. She had the freedom that came from giving all for Jesus.
“When I go out to the doctor or the dentist," she said, “it is lovely to look in the shop windows and see all those beautiful things that we don’t need.” She did not look down at our obsession with things. But she enjoyed the freedom that monastic life had given her.
As Mother Abbess she also had to face the enormous step of faith that was involved in setting out to build a new monastery more than 30 years ago.
Community builds the capacity for discernment. The easy way forward is rarely the divine one. As a young woman, she had had the courage to take the road less travelled. She remained faithful to that journey with Jesus.
Her attention to detail and her ability to work well with the construction workers meant that the beautiful building was completed thanks to the generosity of so many great people, from all over Northern Ireland. And then, she had to live with the reality that the community was dwindling in numbers.
It was a very painful decision for Sr Mary and herself to leave Belfast some 10 years ago. And yet she reflected her Lord’s self-giving and trust as they found a new home in the community in Carlow. She was still following God’s calling to trust him in all things.
A famous featherweight boxer, knowing that she was near death, flew over to see her on the day before she died. In some ways she was a heavyweight when it came to witnessing to the power of Christ and of his Resurrection.
She had many talents, including a love of music and of playing the violin. She had a mischievous twinkle in her eye. Her happiness in the Lord was a powerful witness to the beauty of God and the healing love of Christ.
In 1957, in the presence of Mother Colette and Fr Theodore Crowley, Sr Paschal took a promise to observe during the whole of her life the rule of the Poor Clares.
As the sun rose on Good Shepherd Sunday, she commended her spirit to the One who had called her into life in 1930 and into a monastic vocation.
Now in a way that she could never do here, with all the angels and saints, she can spend eternity ‘singing forever of your love, O Lord’.
She was a woman of great gentle strength. She ministered Christ’s love to countless people. She died on May 8 2022 and may she be welcomed by the Jesus whom she loved as the Paschal Lamb.
Sr Paschal McMeel's month's mind will be celebrated at noon today in Sacred Heart Church on Belfast's Oldpark Road.
Bishop Donal McKeown