A Calm Port in Stormy Seas

 

An interview with Sr. Grace Rowan.

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Sr. Grace Rowan (pictured inset) and a view of Carliingford Lough.

 

Nestled in the shelter of Slieve Martin, Rostrevor looks out cosily on Carlingford Lough and Haulbowline Lighthouse. The lighthouse is a reassuring presence. A guiding light in times of stormy seas, it beckons those in difficulty towards the calm port that lies further up the Carlingford Lough.   

Sr. Grace Rowan has been a member of the OLA Community in Rostrevor, Co. Down since 2006. In that time, Sr. Grace has become known among the travelling community across the north of Ireland as a ‘lighthouse’ for those experiencing the ‘stormy seas’ of life.  Sr. Grace’s ‘calm port’ comes in the form of the warm smile and attentive eyes greet those in her presence.  Each word gently uttered is embalmed in a sense of welcome. One is made feel very at ease in her company.

“They come from places like Warrenpoint, Omagh, Strabane and even England. Before they leave us, they always give a generous gift of a well chosen basket of fruit or religious momentos from pilgrimages here and there. I listen to them and their troubles.  They may have a life threatening illness and are looking for God’s comfort in it.

“One of the first people to come had a brain tumor. She was only 36 years of age and had six children, the oldest of whom was caring for home and family. She came with a few of her sisters many times. We shared her pain and prayed together."

Sr. Grace sees her ministry as more than just a once off. Following-up after a visit is important.

“It is not just a case of saying a prayer and that is the end of it. When I have a candle lighting for them I know my responsibility is to pray for them that day but I always say: ‘Be sure to phone and let me know how things go’.

And while the travelling community can be much maligned in some circles, Sr. Grace feels it is a minority that give the majority of hard-working member of the travelling community a bad name.

“I don’t see them as people to avoid, rather people to be with. I see them as a special people and I believe they should be treated with respect. They have a need. We really need to listen to them. Few people give time to them. I know they concern themselves for their extended family. Many of the phone calls we get daily are asking for prayers for family members.

“I remember once that a man and woman came to the door once with a baby. The woman’s sister had five children of her own. This little one was the sixth and because her sister couldn’t have children, she gave her the baby. The most precious gift a person can give. They brought the baby to me for a blessing. We don’t realise the heart they have for their family and extended family.”

What gives Sr. Grace the strength to be such a guiding light for others? She puts it down to life experiences.

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Sr. Grace (pictured right) with some members of the OLA community in Rostrevor.

 

Early years

Sr. Grace’s mother went to God at the young age of 45. On top of losing her dear mother, Sr. Grace, along with her younger brother, moved to live with their Aunt in Waterford

“This was a big period of change. I guess it stood to me in later years.”

After a number of years there, Sr. Grace returned to Dublin to be with her father. She completed a business secretarial course and then landed her first job.

 “I was excited about entering the working world and the experience of having my own money.”

However, she still felt an unease deep down.

“I was happy but not fully settled. It set me thinking again. I remember being on a train to Knock with my father. He struck up a conversation with an SMA priest. I had previously thought about becoming a Nun but my father said that I was too young, so when the priest began talking about the missions, I pretended not to be listening!

“I will never forget the moment getting off the train when the priest asked me: ‘Would you like to be a missionary Sister?’. I laughed. He told me the Sisters were in Ardfoyle, Cork. A few weeks later, I sent a letter to the ‘Ardfoyle Sisters’, Cork and I remember them sending back a information pack; My father thought it was more income tax forms!”

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Sr. Grace on mission in Nigeria.


Sr. Grace entered the novitiate in 1957 and the strength of character she had built up stood to her now.

“After my formative years, I didn’t find it hard. Prayer made it easy for me. Relationship with God made me who I was.”

Her early years involved collecting donations through the Mission Boxes with Sr. Fintan.

But before she took to the highways and byways of Ireland, Sr. Grace first had to ‘learn’ how to drive.

“There were no driving instructors back then. I will always remember the ‘driving lesson’ I received about the ‘emergency stop’ from the man in our garage.

“He took me out in a car. On a long straight stretch of road he said to me: ‘get up to the best speed you can make and then make an emergency stop’. I thought I did it well! After coming to a halt, he shook his head pointing out ‘the mother is over there, the baby here and pram there.  ‘Let me show you’, he said. I nearly went through the roof!”

Two and half years later Sr. Grace was back on the road again. This time the journey would take her to the UK where as a member of the Vocations Team she travelled widely.

When she had completed the Nursing and Midwifery training, she went to Abeokuta, Nigeria where she thought in the Midwifery School eight years. Later she moved to a more rural setting.

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“I was sent to Akwanga in the north of Nigeria where the Fulanis, a nomadic tribe, live. This was a totally different experience for me as the hospital there did not have electricity or a generator.

“From Akwanga I was asked to do a Midwifery Tutor’s Diploma in Stockport, England. Then I went back to Abeokuta to teach the student midwives. Later, I trained midwives in Kaduna.

“I loved teaching midwifery. I also enjoyed helping students from disadvantaged backgrounds by giving them extra tuition. There was nothing more rewarding than to watch these students blossom before your very face.”

Sr. Grace’s time in Nigeria was cut shorter than she would have liked due to health problems. Once fully recovered, she spent five years on Leeside as Matron of the OLA Infirmary in Ardfoyle before bringing her ‘calm port’ to Rostrevor.

The numbers and results focused world in which we live does not provide a platform to measure the powerful yet unassuming work done by missionaries like Sr. Grace.  Fifty eight years after becoming an OLA, her lighthouse and calm port on the shores of Carlingford Lough continue to be an important refuge for those who seek solace during their voyage through life.