Sr Mary Cathy Howard OP (pictured above) is the most recently professed member of the Dominican contemplative nuns at Siena monastery in Drogheda, Co. Louth. In a recent blog entry she recounts her vocational journey - which I am sure readers will find inspiring. It is reproduced here in full. For more on the Dominican contemplative nuns in Ireland, please visit www.dominicannuns.ie and www.dominicannunsireland.blogspot.com
My name is Cathy Howard. I am 32 years old and I come from Finglas, Dublin. Both my parents are living and I have four brothers, two sisters and nine nieces and nephews. I entered the Monastery of St. Catherine of Siena in Drogheda, County Louth, in April 2010. I spent nine months as a Postulant, two years as a Novice, and made my First Profession on the 2nd February 2013.
I did not really know anything about God or the Church until I got involved with the Legion of Mary in 2004. A member of the Legion working in the Regina Caeli Hostel, encouraged me to go to Confession – the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and so I did. This was the first time I had gone to Confession since my First Holy Communion. I spent two hours with the priest and it was during this Confession that I experienced God’s love, mercy and forgiveness. For the first time in my life I felt free and alive. This was the beginning of a new journey for me. I was to spend many more hours in confession during my first years following my conversion. This sacrament continues to be a great source of healing for me.
I became a member of the Legion in 2005. Part of the Legion’s work is door to door visitation by two members. I found this work very challenging as I had very little knowledge of the teachings of the Church and found myself for the most part, to be the one praying for the guidance of the Holy Spirit on my companion who spoke, and on the people whom he/she addressed. While doing this work I learned so much myself about the faith.
In the first years of my conversion, going to daily Mass and Eucharistic Adoration were essential for me – I felt I could not live without them. It is even more so the case today. I attended many Youth 2000 retreats all over the country and also went for weekend or week long retreats to a retreat house in Scotland, called Craig Lodge. This retreat house is run by a married couple and there are 8-11 people, of my own age, living and working there as a community- looking after the retreatants who come there. What attracted me greatly to this retreat house was the fact that Morning, Evening and Night Prayer were sung daily and there was adoration of the Blessed Sacrament throughout the day. I felt attracted to joining this community and felt that there was where the Lord was drawing me. To join, it is necessary to do one or two years formation with them and I asked if I could come and stay for a week or two to see if it was for me. They agreed and I went the following December for two weeks but could only stay four days as I had to return home due to an urgent family situation. I went back many times after that but never joined them.
In the first year of my conversion the company I was working for, went into liquidation and it was some time before I got another job in a sweet factory in Finglas. In the work place I seemed to be the only one who had the faith and was not afraid to speak about it, but I felt very much out of place in that work situation, as if I did not fit in at all. It was the Lord alone Who kept me going in that job for two years. I used to begin to pray the rosary on the way to work as I walked to the bus, getting three decades said, and then continued the remaining decades on the bus itself. After that I took out my breviary and began to pray Morning Prayer. I used to get the funniest looks from the people sitting beside me but I did not care in the least. I knew this was the only thing that would get me through the day as work started at 7:30 am and I would have to wait until after work to go to Mass – which was great to look forward to. During this time my faith was growing and my relationship with the Lord becoming stronger and deeper. I spent most weekends away on retreat and during the week I would spend time each day in adoration.
Eventually the factory closed following a fatal accident and the idea of joining a community for a year or two came to my mind again - since I was out of work I thought it might be an opportune time. However, on the advice of a friend I took time to think and pray about the situation as he said that if I were to join a community for a year or two I would still have to return to Dublin with no job, flat, money etc. It was a real test for me to see how much trust I had in God’s providence – that he would look after these things for me.
I prayed about this and remember sitting in Adoration in the presence of the Lord and pouring out my heart to Him – saying that if it was His will that I put the formation year in Craig Lodge out of my mind, then, that He would help me find work with people who had faith and on the south side of Dublin as I could not bear working in Finglas again. ‘Not my will but Yours be done’ – I prayed.
Weeks or months after making that prayer – I can’t remember how long exactly, I received a phone call from a friend asking if I would be interested in working for a period of seven weeks, in a Carmelite Monastery, making altar breads and this monastery was on the south side of Dublin! If that is not an answer to prayer then I don’t know what is!
I accepted the job and really loved this work. I attended Mass with the sisters and prayed the Divine Office with them before I started work and then for my lunch break I would sit in prayer with the Lord in the chapel. After a while the sisters let me use their own little oratory where I could expose the Blessed Sacrament. Until I worked there, I never actually thought about where the altar breads came from even though the priest reads from the missal everyday at Mass ‘….. Through your goodness we have received the bread we offer you: fruit of the earth and work of human hands, it will become for us the bread of life’. I really could not believe that I was making altar breads knowing that the bread was going to be changed into the living and true flesh of Jesus Christ. This blew me away.
The seven weeks turned into eleven or twelve weeks and when it was time to leave my heart was breaking. One day the Prioress took me by surprise and asked me to stay behind after work as she wanted to talk to me. She asked me if I ever thought of Religious Life? “No way, I said. I was not humble enough”. She laughed and said that none of us are. I must have mentioned that I was interested in joining a community for a year’s formation but never thought of Religious Life, especially the enclosed type. She said that I had the capability for it and that I was very balanced. I really could not believe this was happening and I remember going home very excited that day. I spoke to my spiritual director and he was very encouraging.
Working for, and praying with that Carmelite Community was very important on my faith journey and I am very grateful for that period of my life. At this stage I also started looking at other communities and I thought about a fraternity, the Fraternity of Mary Immaculate Queen, whose members had become good friends of mine. We set a date for a month’s live-in/trial with them but something happened at the last minute and I was unable to do it.
When I first came back to the Church I used to come to the Dominican Church (St. Saviour’s Community, Upper Dorset St., Dublin 1) in Dominick’s street, for Mass and Morning Prayer on my days off. I also attended the weekly Divine Mercy Holy Hour. I had a tremendous healing experience during a Novena to St. Martin in 2004 and since then I have had great devotion to him. I would never pass the church without going in to say a quick prayer and light a candle. Over the years I got to know the priests and students very well and you could almost say that I had became part of the furniture! I felt very much at home there. My heart was there.
I remember sweeping the floor at work one day and really feeling that the Lord was calling me to religious life. But where was the question? This conviction was very strong and I spoke about this to my spiritual director. As he pondered on my situation and knowing how attracted I was to Eucharistic Adoration – how it was my lifeline –it was then he told me about the Dominican Nuns in Drogheda- how they have Eucharistic Adoration all day, how they sing the Liturgy beautifully and pray the rosary daily. I had never heard of them before – it was only the friars that I knew from the Dominican Order. I was really taken by all of this and thought that this may be where the Lord was leading me to. They hold vocation weekends every couple of months and when I rang, the Novice Mistress said that there was a weekend coming up soon and that I was welcome to attend.
I was so nervous about going that my spiritual director drove me to the monastery and left me in the chapel. I remember feeling a beautiful Presence when walking in. After the weekend I knew that there was where the Lord wanted me to be. During the weekend, when talking to the young sisters I mentioned that I was not too keen on the study because I had missed out on some of my education, due to a medical childhood condition and family circumstances. One of them put my mind at rest when she said that if you are passionate about something or if you are in love with someone you want to know everything about that person and that it was the same for us with the Lord – we study for the sole purpose of growing in the knowledge and love of God and for no other reason.
My parents did not take the news of my entering too well, especially because of what the media was saying at the time. My Mam did say that as long as I was happy she would be happy but I knew she was hurting inside. However, my parents and most of my family have been very faithful in visiting me. The Lord said “Everyone who has left houses, brothers, sisters, father, mother, children or land for the sake of my name will be repaid a hundred times over, and also inherit eternal life”. ( Mt. 19:29). I now feel a new bond with my family that was not there before and I am very grateful for it.