Sister Stanislaus Kennedy, or Sister Stan as she is affectionately known, has dedicated her life to championing the cause of the poor and working to bring about a fairer and more equal Society.
Constantly reaching out to the most vulnerable people, Sister Stanislaus Kennedy has overcome tremendous challenges to pioneer and develop a whole range of services to cater for the needs of those who have experienced exclusion in any of its forms.
Amongst her many achievements were the establishment of Focus Ireland now the biggest national organisation for the homeless; Young Social Innovators which provides social awareness education for 15-18 year-olds, and the Immigrant Council of Ireland, a human rights organisation which promotes and supports the rights of immigrants. She is also responsible for the creation of The Sanctuary Meditation Centre as a place of peace and healing in Dublin.
Sister Stan was the first chairperson of the Combat Poverty Agency and in 1985, the European Commission appointed her as transnational co-ordinator in the European rural anti-poverty programme working right across Europe.
She has low published a thought-provoking and fascinating memoir “The Road Home” which provides many insights into the life and work of one of the most remarkable and influential social activists of her generation.
Sister Stan was born Teresa Kennedy near Lispole on the Dingle peninsula in Co Kerry. In 1939, at the beginning of the Second World War, and she was one of six children.
Her first school was Lispole National School, which was a two mile walk away. Going to Secondary School meant riding three nines into town, in Dingle.
Life at home, she recalls. “Had gentleness to it.” She remembers her mother bringing the eggs from the henhouse in her turned up crossover apron and how she would mindfully, gently place them in a bowl in the kitchen.
She remembers too, watching her mother kneading bread or carefully rolling out the pastry for the delicious apple tarts she baked.
“Nothing was rushed or forced”, she recalls. “Just mindful, focussed work that she seemed happy to do”.
Her father was tall and slim and was very much the bread-winner because he worked the farm and that was their only source of income.
Her fondest memories of home during her childhood were of Christmas time.
“Christmas”, she says, began early in our house. It began really with baking the Christmas cake. My mother would get in a store of currants, raisins, candied peel, nutmeg and other spices, and the day of baking the cake was a big day.
“We gathered round the table as she fixed the ingredients, and there was a lovely aroma. When the cake went into the oven we all had to be really quiet because we understood that if we made ally noise, the cake would fall. It was very exciting seeing the cake come out of the oven and there that gorgeous smell.
Another exciting Christmas preparation was the collecting of holly and ivy to decorate the house. Then there was the Christmas shopping, and it was a tradition that the shopkeepers gave Christmas presents to their customers and these included port wine and sherry and different kinds of sweet cake and loaves.”
Another local tradition on Christmas Eve. Sister Stan remembers, “Was that the whole house was lit up to welcome the child Jesus. All the windows would have a candle lit in them — even after we got electricity we still lit candles in the windows the whole afternoon of Christmas Eve we, as children, spent getting the candles ready, cutting out turnips anti filling jars with sand to hold the candles.
We had to wait until my father gave us the OK to light up. We couldn’t wait for darkness to come It was so exciting. The other households did the same so when we looked out towards the hillside and towards the valley, all we could see where all these little lights, like lanterns hanging from the sky. That to me was magical.”
Secondary School was a new world, dominated by nuns, where everything was correct and proper and one was expected to be polite, in place and on time. Sister Stan did well in school. She enjoyed the camaraderie or her friends, and was often involved in mischief and escapades. She was lonely, too, at times and unhappy, rebellious and moody.
“I had no idea,” she admits, “what path my life was going to take, and I was restless and unfocused. It was not until I reached school-leaving age that I began to see a way forward.”
The way forward involved joining the congregation of Religious Sisters of Charity founded by Mary Alkenhead in Ireland in 1815. Mary Ailkenhead was a Cork woman, who was shocked by the social, economic, educational and spiritual deprivation all around her and determined to do something about it. She founded an order whose principal mission was to work with and on behalf of the poorest of the poor.
Sister Stan confesses that it was with some nervousness that she approached her mother to tell her of her decision to enter the convent.
“I think,” says Sister Stan. “ She was taken aback at first but she neither encouraged, nor discouraged me: she merely warned me how strict convent life would be. Perhaps because I was enjoying spending time with other young people and going to parties and dances was very much part of my life, she thought I wouldn’t stick at it and that I would soon be looking for another job. When she told my father, he was totally shocked and said nothing about it for a long time. Eventually he simply said to my mother isn’t that a damn quare thing that Treasa is doing?”
Sister Stan didn`t really want to be a nun. She wanted to work with the poor and neglected, and when she heard of the Religious Sisters of Charity (often called simply the Sisters of Charity or the Irish Sisters of Charity) who worked with the poor, she decided that joining them was the only way she could work directly with the needy.
After three months in the novitiate, she was sent out to work on a kind of placement with an older sister. Her name was Sister Agnes Eucharia and she worked in Sandymount and Ringsend in Dublin as a parish social worker. She was, says Sister Stan “a wonderful character. She had worked in England during the war and had been evacuated from her convent several times. She was a very experienced woman and I was lucky to be sent to help her and to learn from her.”
Her first task was to assist Sister Agnes Eucharia in begging from door to door, which was a strange and ml embarrassing experience, but they collected a good deal of money and they used this to buy brand new clothes for poor children.
Sister Eucharia taught her a valuable lesson. “She taught me real respect for the poor — you didn`t give shabby clothes to people who felt shabby about themselves or worn out clothes to those who were worn down.”
Her time spent as an assistant to a pastoral worker in the Hammersmith and Paddington area of London, helping poor Irish families, was a real eve-opener, and then, after her novitiate, she was sent to work in a school, laundry and youth club at Stanhope Street Convent in Dublin, in the early 1960`s.
A big turning point in her life came when a young bishop, Peter Birch, was appointed to the Diocese of Ossory In Kilkenny in the mid-1960`s at a time when social services were practically non-existent in Ireland. Bishop Birch was looking for someone to help in his pioneering work of setting up Kilkenny Social Services and Sister Stan was sent by her order to join him.
Inspired by Bishop Birch, who was an outspoken advocate for a comprehensive program of community care and social services. Sister Stan became Involved in developing new ideas and new services to help the young and the old, the disabled, the sick and the poor. She helped to set up a comprehensive system of commniunity care in Kilkenny which became a blueprint for the rest of the country.
Bishop Birch enkindled in Sister Stan a deep desire to see things through to their completion and to see the possibility In people and in situations. In Bishop Birch’s eyes, says Sister Stan, “everybody is an artist of some kind and it is up to us to try to help them to realise their potential, to identify people’s particular gifts and skills and to draw them out.
He was committed to establishing social services, but he also wanted everyone to experience valuable things, things that would be healing and that would bring beauty into their lives.”
Sister Stan trained as a social worker In Dublin and Manchester before moving to Dublin where she did a year’s research on the homeless in the City. After that, she spent a year with eight young women she had met during the course of her research and she set out to try to understand their lives.
This was an extraordinary year during which she began to understand that what was almost worse than having nothing was being treated like dirt by people. At the end of that year. Sister Stan went about setting up Focus Ireland to cater for the homeless.
Sister Stan has never been afraid to speak out and her criticisms of various institutions have landed her in hot water more than once. In her latest book, she criticises the church for excluding the laity.
“I attended the funeral in Kilkenny in 2010”. She says, “of the woman who had been Bishop Birch’s secretary from the very beginning. She was the first layperson in the country ever appointed as secretary to a Roman Catholic bishop, and as far as I know at her death more than forty years later, she was still the only laywoman who had ever served in this capacity in Ireland — an indication of a narrowness of attitude In the Church in general and of the forward looking thinking of Bishop Birch all those years ago. I often think that if more bishops had been like him and the Church had been open to working in conjunction with laypeople, we might not be in the mess we are in today with a Church in dire straits fast losing touch with its people.”
She goes on to state: “The Church has always been Inward looking, and a celibate and hierarchical clergy supports that inwardness. It isn’t just that the laity are neglected or forgotten, especially in those days, they were deliberately excluded from the work of the Church.”
In the year 2001. Sister Stan founded The Sanctuary a centre in the heart of Dublin City where people can find a quiet space and time for themselves to explore and develop their inner world and wisdom.
Sister Stan explains. “I wanted to create a place that would offer deep peace and serenity a centre for the sort of meditation, contemplation and reflection that awakens for us the deeper meaning, value and purpose of life — an inward eye in the centre of the storm.”
Although she had difficulty getting the concept across to the Sisters of Charity The Sanctuary is now a reality— a place of meditation in contemporary life.
£It is”, says Sister Stan “a place for everyone — people in all kinds of work and in all kinds of professions and some with no work. We reach out to many people.”
Her faith is strong and unwavering. “At times”, she says, “the work I have undertaken has been daunting, and has even appeared impossible, especially when I started new projects, new activities or new research and there was little or no funding, and very little support at first. But I always knew that if this work was right, it would develop and grow and would be supported, that if it was God’s work, nothing could stop it.”
Sister Stan has spent most of her life fighting for a more equal society in her view,the most blatant manifestation of social injustice is poverty.
“We will never have social justice while we have people living in poverty in this country,” she says “Even when this society was at its richest before the end of the twentieth century ten per cent of our children lived in consistent poverty — not having enough money to supply even the most basic needs for food and warmth. We had a national plan to eradicate poverty by the year 2016, but”, says Sister Stan, “it seems unlikely now that we will meet this target.”
Her vision for the Ireland of tomorrow is of a place where any parents of a newborn baby can be sure that the needs of their child will be met.
“It should not”, she says, “be relevant whether they themselves are well off employed healthy and well supported by family friends and neighbours or whether they are themselves young and vulnerable, have health issues or a disability, have experienced poverty or homelessness in their lives ideally any baby born in our country will have equal and unquestioned access to the services and help it needs. Access to suitable housing in a safe environment with appropriate facilities; quick and easy access to the healthcare that it needs, regardless of its parents’ income, easy and unquestioned access to suitable education, from pre-school onwards, especially if the child has particular educational needs — without its parents having to fight and plead and take court cases about it.”
So what important lessons has Sister Stan learned in the course of her work?
“I have worked with the poor for over fifty years now, and they have taught me many things, but above all, they have taught me to be grateful. They point out all the good things that have been given to us, and how much we take them for granted. The people I live among in my home at Stanhope Centre include many who have experienced homelessness, poverty, depression and exclusion.
“Over the years I have had the privilege of sharing with them prayers, liturgies and rituals. What strikes me more than anything else is the extraordinary way in which this group is able to name and claim the moments of grace and gratitude in their lives. They are not calculating or doing cost-benefit analyses of their lives; they are simply acknowledging and recognising and being grateful for everything they have.
In a forward to “The Road Home”. President Mary McAlese says ‘It is hard to imagine Ireland without Sister Stanislaus’ special charisma of care and her utter fidelity to the great commandment to love one another, which infuses all she does. I am proud to know her, proud to have worked with her and grateful to have such an inspirational champion of charity helping our country to fulfil its destiny as a republic that ‘cherishes all the chlldren of the nation equally.’’
Sister Stan has received numerous awards for her remarkable work for the poor and needy in our society and these include:
Kerry Person of the year in 1981, Honorary Doctorate in Law from Trinity College Dublin in 1982; University of New York Special Honour for Commitment to the disadvantaged in Ireland in 1993.
The Lord Mayor of Dublin’s Award in 1996; Honorary Doctorate in Law from the National University of Ireland in 2003; Meteor Awards prestigious Humanitarian of the year award in 2004 and Honorary degree of Doctor of the Open University in 2005.
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