The core of the OLA mission is to know and love God, and to make God known and loved. With God at the centre, this mission unfolds through our various ministries with a commitment to non-violent action for justice, peace, and the integrity of creation. Our primary areas of focus are for the poor and marginalised, particularly women and children, and we embrace this mission by closely working with likeminded people.
The 18th OLA General Chapter took place last year, and the first part of the OLA Ireland Assembly took place in January 2024. As part of our January Assembly, staff members and collaborators were invited to gather together for a morning of sharing and reflection on some of the various projects with which we are associated. The focus of the morning was on collaboration, exploring how this has become a key strength for us as we move forward together. As we navigate this period of significant transition, these values have never been more pivotal.
The morning began with the powerful narrative of Paul’s conversion experience on the road to Damascus. As recounted in the New Testament book of Acts (Acts 9:1-19). Saul, later known as Paul, encountered a blinding light and heard the voice of Jesus. This event left him blinded and vulnerable, reliant on others to find his way, and it was in his vulnerability that he experienced a profound encounter with God, undergoing a dramatic, transformative experience that propelled him into becoming one of the most influential figures in early Christianity.
The recounting of this story created a space for the individual and group sharing that followed. underscoring the significance of allowing ourselves to be vulnerable and acknowledging our need of others, and how through our connection with one another, we can experience a deeper connection with the divine. It was only in his vulnerability and reliance on others that Paul found God.
In the shelter of each other we find life
We were then reminded of an Irish saying, “Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine,” which translates to “In the shelter of each other we find life.” Another translation substitutes the words “find life” with “survive”. Being South African, I was struck with how this sentiment resonates deeply with the African concept of UBUNTU, encapsulating the interconnectedness of humanity and the notion that our existence is intertwined with others. The meaning of UBUNTU is difficult to pin down, but loosely translated it means “I am because you are.” It is in each other that we find our strength and our purpose.
These narratives of transformation, shelter, and interconnectedness echo profoundly within the fabric of the OLA journey, highlighting for us that our strength and future lie in the very principles of vulnerability, unity, and shared purpose. It is no accident that the OLA sisters are affiliated so deeply with Africa and her people.
The morning gathering was grounded in these principals, serving as a poignant reminder of our interconnectedness and the profound impact of collaboration. We were invited to reflect on the times we are living through, and in this reflective process, it became increasingly clear that this sense of togetherness is what sustains us and what will propel us forward, granting us strength and ensuring our resilience in the face of uncertainty. We were encouraged to adopt a mindset of gratitude for the past, passion for the present, and hope for the future, embracing each moment with purpose and intention, as the morning unfolded.
Voices of Collaboration: Insights and Reflections
Looking ahead, the mandate of our 2023 chapter is encapsulated in the phrase “One Heart, One Mission, Witnessing to God’s Love in the World.” As we reflected on our collaborative endeavours, we heard feedback from those with whom we have shared our space at Ardfoyle, including Social Health Education Programme (SHEP), the Horticulture LTI, the Cork Migrant Centre, and also from the Society of African Missions (SMA). We were enriched by the diverse voices of those present, as each group shared their thoughts, experiences, and insights, underscoring our collective journey towards a more just and interconnected world. The stories of these groups echo our collective journey, illustrating the tangible embodiments of the principles of connection and collaboration through projects and partnerships.
Social Housing Education Project (SHEP)
Jim Sheehan, the director of SHEP, shared insights into their journey since moving into the old school building at Ardfoyle in late 2018. He highlighted the significance of their adult education programs and emphasised their commitment to care for the earth Earth by fostering awareness among volunteers to become better stewards of our planet.
Jim went on to describe the seamless transition into Ardfoyle, likening it to “coming home” due to the welcoming environment and the wonderful sense of community. He expressed his gratitude, noting how seamlessly they have become a part of the OLA mission, a connection he described as both gentle and impactful. Jim stressed the importance of collaboration in their work, citing examples like their partnership with the Horticulture LTI Project and the Dome Project, which have led to meaningful connections and enhanced outcomes.
“Here we have neighbours, and we like our neighbours,” he said. “Collaborations are happening that would not have happened in other circumstances, it’s like magic, it’s little miracles.”
Cork Migrant Centre
Dr. Naomi Mascheti, representing the Cork Migrant Centre based at Nano Nagle Place, shared the inspiring story of the Solidarity Garden initiative, offering another vivid illustration of how interconnectedness and mutual support directly feed into and nourish our mission. Naomi emphasised the critical role of collaboration in bringing the project to life, born out of the COVID-19 pandemic. She explained how a series of connections created a chain that eventually led her to the OLA Sisters. The Solidarity Garden has blossomed into a beacon of hope and inclusion, offering migrants a sense of community and belonging, while fostering intercultural exchange and encouraging outdoor engagement for everyone involved.
Fionnuala O’Connell, also from the Cork Migrant Centre, reflected on the profound impact of the Solidarity Garden on women living in Direct Provision Centres who felt stifled and isolated. She detailed how these women had seen their power diminished, lacking peer networks and sufficient support. Fionnuala shared how the garden initiative has become a conduit for reigniting and unleashing their feminine power. She stressed that the garden is more than a mere space for community and fellowship; it offers a sense of home and belonging, reconnecting individuals with the sensory experiences of their native lands. The Solidarity Garden represents a powerful manifestation of collaboration’s ability to nurture resilience and empowerment.
“We cannot see the tree that will grow from this experience,” Fionnuala observed.
The narrative of growth and community continued as we explored the contributions of the Horticulture LTI, where the seeds of collaboration yield tangible benefits for all involved. Larry Lynch, who manages the programme, highlighted the crucial roles of cooperation and close partnerships in fostering a vibrant and inclusive atmosphere at Ardfoyle. Funded by ETB, the Horticulture Centre serves as an educational and skill-building hub, enabling individuals to explore gardening, whether as a hobby or a career. Being on the Ardfoyle grounds, they have the added benefit of building relationships with the other groups on the property. He pointed out gardening’s significant role in enhancing personal well-being and strengthening community bonds, a benefit greatly amplified through the unexpected opportunity to assist with the Solidarity Garden and working with the migrant community. Larry expressed profound thanks to the OLA Sisters for creating a welcoming environment where everyone feels they belong in the space. In this inclusive setting at Ardfoyle the Horticulture LTI gardens are utilised by everyone at Ardfoyle, and Larry mentioned the strong connection they have formed with SHEP, sighting this as a testament to the power of collaborative efforts.
Society of African Missions (SMA Ireland)
The theme of proactive planning and joint action found a powerful expression as Gerry Forde, the SMA Justice Officer, elaborated on the work of the OLA/SMA Joint Justice committee, shedding light on the transformative power of collaboration in moving from a reactive to a proactive planning approach. He pointed out the three pivotal areas of focus for our justice initiatives: advocating for Africa and its diaspora, fighting trafficking, and nurturing environmental stewardship. Our justice efforts extend beyond organisational boundaries, forging alliances with both SHEP and the Cork Migrant Centre, and also extending to numerous organisations throughout Ireland. A prime example of successful partnership is the revival of the AEFJN through the joint efforts of OLA and SMA, illustrating how collaboration acts as a lever for advancing common objectives.
Gerry emphasised that collaboration amplifies our impact and opens doors to specialised knowledge and expertise, especially significant in today’s digital era, where online platforms enable wider and more streamlined cooperation both within and beyond national borders. He underscored the importance of networks and partnerships in launching impactful initiatives such as the annual Intergenerational Climate Conference, which last year engaged over 300 participants from varied backgrounds, including schools, community organisations and individuals. This forum allowed the Young Environmentalist Award winners from Glanmire Community School to present their initiatives, facilitating intergenerational dialogue on environmental stewardship.
Another impactful collaboration highlighted by Gerry was the Three Faiths Forum Earth Day event held on the Ardfoyle grounds last year which integrated diverse initiatives like SHEP, the Horticulture Gardens, and the Solidarity Garden. The interdisciplinary approach underscores the interconnectedness of environmental, social, and spiritual dimensions.
At the heart of our collaborative endeavours is the support and dedication of the Ardfoyle House Staff, whose contributions create the very environment that allows our collective mission to flourish. Sr. Katherine Donovan expressed gratitude to Michelle, the manager of the house, and all the staff, highlighting their essential role in fostering a collaborative environment. Her words were echoed by Kathleen McGarvey, our Provincial Leader, who also expressed her gratitude to the staff. This acknowledgment reaffirms the ethos of collective effort and mutual support underlying our collaborative endeavours.
Through these testimonies, it became evident that collaboration lies at the heart of our shared mission, enabling us to create meaningful connections, promote social justice, and cultivate a sense of belonging and empowerment within our community.
Reflections from the Floor
The floor was then opened for sharing and reflection, and the diverse voices of those gathered further underscored the transformative power of collaboration, each poignant reflection adding a unique strand to the tapestry of our shared mission.
One participant emphasised the profound impact of small interactions, highlighting how seemingly insignificant moments can have life-changing consequences.
Sister Maura reminisced about the joyful sounds of children playing in the grass, during those first explorative meetings about the Solidarity Garden, underscoring the elements of humanity that have facilitated the success of our collaborative efforts.
Other attendees echoed sentiments of transformation, sharing how daily walks have become moments of marvel and how interculturality has deepened connections to Africa, inspiring creative expression through artwork. The mission for the Chapter, encapsulated in the phrase “One Heart, One Mission,” was reaffirmed as a unifying force that transcends vertical hierarchies, fostering harmony and collaboration among diverse groups.
Larry’s dedication to supporting migrants in the garden was commended, highlighting the sense of shared ownership and belonging fostered within the community. Gratitude was expressed for the friendships forged and the love shared, underscoring the privilege of collaborative endeavours and the transformative power of collaboration.
The openness of the sisters to embrace new opportunities, attributing it to the power of networking and fostering meaningful relationships, was highlighted.
Tatenda Zira of SHEP summarised it this way, “It’s all due to the willingness of the OLA Sisters to say ‘yes”. If they had not said that first ‘yes’, none of us would be where we are today.”
Amidst the dialogue, we were reminded of the scripture that serves to guide us through our next chapter:
Behold, I am doing a new thing; do you not perceive it? (Is.43:19)
Drawing these threads together, it becomes clear that the willingness to embrace vulnerability, to say yes to new opportunities, and to work hand in hand has been instrumental in fostering not just communion but profound transformation.
Overall, the reflections from the floor underscored the depth and breadth of collaboration, emphasising its transformative impact on individuals and communities alike.
The willingness of the OLA sisters to embrace vulnerability and say ‘yes’, as noted by Tatenda, together with some magic and the little miracles mentioned by Jim, have been instrumental in fostering deeper communion and realising our shared mission.