The Gift of Presence at Christmas Time

Sr. Mary Taylor on the importance of spending time with those who walk a lonely road this Christmas.

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It’s early December and Sr. Mary Taylor makes her way home to Rostrevor.

As darkness descends, a glance out the car window offers a reminder of the season we are entering. Christmas candles beam light from windows of the houses dotted along the road, representing the welcome that lies within for the passersby who travels a difficult road. The scene has great symmetry with Sr. Mary’s H.I.V/Aids outreach work which also acts as a candle of compassion for some traversing dark days.

Sr. Mary is part of an H.I.V/Aids home visits team based in the Belfast Royal Victoria Hospital.

The Belfast native, who spent many years in Ghana, Nigeria and Tanzania as a teacher and nurse/midwife, shares an insight into what life is like for a person living with H.I.V/Aids.


“While everyone has their own culture, their own history, their own story to tell, there is one common denominator – fear of disclosure. We may be living in a very open society where things are spoken of openly; unfortunately, this is not the case where H.I.V./Aids is concerned. Like it or not, there is still a huge stigma attached to it and those living with this are stigmatised. Openly or subtly, it is present.

“In the case of asylum seekers, there is the added burden of arriving into a strange land and, in some cases, unaware they have H.I.V./Aids. This is especially true of women. Already they have to navigate a different climate, culture, the experience of isolation and like all immigrants, raw homesickness. Now she carries yet another cross – she has tested positive for H.I.V./Aids.”

Sobering reality

While outcomes have improved dramatically since the 1980’s, Sr. Mary paints a picture of the sobering reality that comes with diagnosis.

Once diagnosis is confirmed, lives are turned upside down. They are unlikely to ever return to what is regarded as ‘normal’. H.I.V/Aids knows no boundaries, class, creed or culture.

“Then there are the practical considerations of who needs to know.   Husbands, wives, partners, employers and eventually children. The rippling effect goes on and on.”

'Call' to help those with H.I.V/Aids

Sr. Mary began this ministry in 2003.  Following a five-year term on the OLA Leadership Team in Ireland, she made a thirty day retreat. It was during this time she sensed a calling to minister to people living with H.I.V/Aids. 

“As I prayed and reflected on this, I was drawn to one particular character in the Gospel – Simon of Cyrene. Having experienced nursing and caring for people with H.I.V. in Africa, I was familiar with the impact it had on them.

“Jesus was regarded as an outcast. Wounded, isolated and alone, he carried the cross for each of us – including people with H.I.V./Aids. Simon was literally thrust into helping Jesus. I was invited to do the same. Even today those living with H.I.V. are often regarded as outcasts.


Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus to carry the Cross. Image courtesy of

“My grandfather had a saying that goes like this: ‘If our sins were written on our foreheads, we would rather meet a blind man than a scholar any day’. The bottom line is: who am I to judge?”

To some, this type of work would appear to be heavy going though not to Sr. Mary. Her bright disposition brings light into the dark corners that exist in the lives of those who walk a lonely road.


“I have had many rewarding encounters and powerful moments over the past fifteen years. I remember James* was initially quite low on receiving the diagnosis. However, I noticed his esteem gradually improving as the visits went on.  He had the courage to reconnect with his family who showed great concern for him. I will never forget the time when James turned to me and simply said ‘thanks’.”

I have been accepted into the lives of families and friends. I have attended christenings, weddings and funerals. This trust and acceptance never ceases to leave me feeling deeply touched and humbled.

'more than a cup of tea'

On the day of my own mother’s funeral, I turned to meet three of the people whom I used visit. They had come to sympathise and support me in my own time of sorrow.

“I have never yet left a home without feeling a sense of kinship and gratitude for what I have received which is much more than the cup of tea. It is knowing I am trusted at a very deep level by someone who introduces me as ‘this is my friend Sr. Mary’.”

'No homeless person was born to be on the pavement'

What lessons are in this for us?

“We are more conscious of those on the margins at this time of the year. There is a lot in the news about the homeless. During these days we think of the birth of the baby Jesus. No homeless person was born to be on the pavement. No person with HIV Aids was born to be an outcast. We need to show compassion to our fellow sisters and brothers.

"With so many [deserving] Christmas appeals, we can feel helpless in the face of all these needs. Mother Teresa’s quote comes to mind: ‘Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love’.

"We need to be that light of hope for others."



*Not his real name


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Sr. Mary Taylor (2nd from left) during her Golden Jubilee celebration in September 2016. She is joined in the picture by Srs. Jo Cox, Agnes Haverty and Phil Mulligan who celebrated their Golden Jubilees in 2015.