Sr Mary

Sister Ann CahillA ''I am from a typically rural Irish Catholic family and I inherited the faith of my parents,'' she says. ''I was always interested in Africa and working in Africa, but I never thought about religious life until towards the end of university when I looked at the possibility of bringing religious life and Africa together.''

The OLAs are an international group of missionary sisters who dedicate their lives to the spread of the Good News, especially in Africa. There are more than 750 OLAs in 19 countries across three continents working in Health Care, Education, Community Development, Empowerment of Women, Pastoral work and Catechesis.

Sr Mary says she was lucky that in the first year of her apostolate she got the opportunity to go to Nigeria to teach English in an OLA primary school for a year in Ibadan city. ''That was a great introduction to mission and a real affirmation of my vocation,'' she says. ''It was my first experience of living in a different culture and it felt like coming home. I felt a personal sense of vocation - that I know this is what I am being called to do. Of course it was not an easy year and in the end I came home sick and I had gone through a lot of tropical diseases, but I knew that this was what God was calling me to do.''

She completed her novitiate in Cork in 1995 and then returned to Africa where she would spend the next six years working closely with the people of Shinyanga diocese in Mwamapalala, Central Tanzania. She joined the two OLA communities in Tanzania which was then made up of seven sisters from Ireland, Nigeria and Ghana. Her first task when she arrived was to take an intensive language course for four months to learn Kiswahili, and she says she spent her first two years in Tanzania improving her language skills and getting to know the people.

''I went to see what I could offer the youth and the women of the parish. There was a movement to create HIV/AIDS awareness for young people, how to protect themselves, and how to live with and treat people who had HIV. I was very involved in this, but after some time there I was asked if I could sew. A woman who was physically challenged was given a hand sewing machine, and she needed someone to teach her how to sew. This led to a sewing group to give women basic skills, which in turn led to different income generating projects.'' Mary also gave extra English classes to children because although primary school is taught through Kiswahili, secondary school is done through English.

The sense of belonging or 'coming home' that she felt in Nigeria continued in Tanzania and this had a lot to do with the warmth of the people. ''Typical African hospitality towards a stranger is always gracious and welcoming,'' she says. ''They are the most hospitable people you can meet. As a religious in the community I was given great respect because I had dedicated my life to God and in their culture faith is always a central part of life. The women I worked with told me that as a religious and white, they saw the sisters as something closer to God than them. But for us, being in Tanzania, one of the poorest communities in the world at the time, and seeing the people's attitude, resilience and joy in life, their holistic way of being, as missionaries we thought that they were the ones closer to God.''

The people of Tanzania face many challenges, particularly in relation to health and economic problems. The high amount of HIV/AIDS cases impacts on all levels of society and Sr Mary became very involved in raising awareness of the disease among young people. ''A lot of younger professionals were dying and there was a huge drive to address HIV. It was devastating communities. Farmers found it difficult to work because they had to preserve their energy, but that is a manual, tough life. Also when someone is sick in the home someone else had to care for them. Then there was the cost of the medicine - it was a challenge for any family or community to cope with.''

Sr Mary says Ireland could learn from the attitudes of the people in Tanzania in how to cope with our current troubles. ''We are worlds apart in terms of how we view the world,'' she says. ''African cultures have a holistic view of the world where spirituality is not separated from the material. They cope with what comes, whereas in Ireland when we lose the material we find it hard to cope. It's about having faith, belief and hope. The Chilean miners are a great example of this with 'Camp Hope' and baby Hope. Each one of them spoke of faith, hope and belief. We can cope with life because we are given what we need to get through life. We will have our struggles, but our community and our faith are there to help.''

Mary came back to Ireland in 2002 to take her final vows and she took Development Studies course in Kimmage Manor in Dublin. Then from 2003-04 she returned to Tanzania to work in the Bugisi community. ''We had set up a home craft centre for girls. I helped on the administrative side and then became involved in a HIV project. It was the first time they had brought in voluntary testing and counselling for local people and home based care for people with HIV in Bugisi. I was co-ordinating this with the parish in conjunction with the OLA dispensary run by a sister from Tyrone.''

In 2005 she returned to Ireland and finished her Masters in Development Studies. She has stayed working in the area of development with two years in the Irish Missionary Union and now on the provincial leadership team assessing where to allocate Irish Aid funding for the OLA sisters worldwide. However, she stills feels the call to work and live overseas on mission.

''I spent most of the summer in Africa visiting projects funded through Irish Aid and I found myself longing to be back over there living full time,'' she says.

''You don't appreciate the changes that have happened to you until you come back home and I love getting back each year. It's the people and their whole approach to life. Their values and how they relate on every level to each other and to God. It's their holistic way of being a human being.''

(The Irish Catholic 21 October 2010)