Case study

The Holy Union Sisters: Bringing union and reconciliation

Our Ambassador Sally Axworthy reflects on the work of Sister Margaret O'Reilly in celebration of International Women's Day.

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Sally Axworthy, HM Ambassador to the Holy See

I meet Margaret O’Reilly, Superior-General of the Holy Union Sisters, and her international leadership team (Una, Rebecca, Paula and Tess) in the rather lovely nineteenth century house where they live and work in Rome. We chat over coffee and a delicious home-cooked lunch.

Sister Margaret was not planning to become a religious sister, At 18 she had a boyfriend, and was studying to become a teacher. But, as she puts it, there was a nag at the back of her head, so she thought she would ‘have a run at it’ and, if it was not for her, go back to her previous plan of getting married and having a family. She stayed. She and her team were all in local leadership roles before being elected to lead their order.

The Holy Union Sisters, they tell me, was one of the many religious orders founded in France to fill the void caused by the closure of faith schools and persecution of priests during the French Revolution. In 1826 a young priest, Father Jean-Baptiste Debrabant, moved by the unemployment and needs of young children and teenagers, recruited four seamstresses, to help him provide education, choosing these women because he believed they had gifts to pass on the Christian faith. The charism (guiding idea) of the order is to bring union (reconciliation) wherever they go.

The order now focusses on education in its broadest sense. They work with travelling communities in the UK and Ireland, inner-city children, Haitian immigrants in the USA. Although they are small (331 sisters), they have communities in France, Belgium, the UK, Ireland, Cameroon, Tanzania, Haiti and Argentina. Numbers are declining in Europe and North America, but growing in Tanzania and Cameroon.

Sister Rebecca describes the order in her country, Cameroon. There, she says, the Christian community is vibrant with life. The parish is the social centre of the community, organising the choir, celebrations etc. The sisters provide education and nursing care. Her colleagues reflect that the sisters are no longer needed to teach and nurse in Europe, but they are still needed to provide education and nursing care in the developing world. Those who join the order do so because they are deeply called to the religious life.

The sisters tell me a little about how religious life can help individuals fulfil their call. First there is the process of choosing the right order. Sister Rebecca looked at six different congregations, before finding the one that spoke to her. The others explain that something in you draws you to a particular congregation’s charism and an idea of where you can help to make a difference in society. The sister and her order then look at the individual’s gifts and discern (thinks and prays) about how that individual could best use her gifts. The system is creative, say the sisters, a counterpoint to some of the more formal structures of the Church.

The sisters tell me that Pope Francis has brought a sense of freedom to the Church, of returning to the Gospel message. The Church is like a human being - not perfect, and in need of acknowledging when things go wrong, and taking measures to prevent them happening again.

As it is International Women’s Day, we talk about women in the Church. The sisters believe change is needed - not ordination, but a voice for women in decision-making as equals. The female religious embody the kind of creative, un-hierarchical Church that the Pope wants, using discernment to guide everything they do. They cannot be priests, but why not bring them in as canon lawyers? Why not include women on the decision-making bodies of the Church? For that to happen, the sisters believe there needs to be a change of attitude to women in the Church, and for that to happen, we need their order’s original mission - education.

Sally Axworthy British Ambassador to the Holy See

Published 10 March 2017