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June 2019
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2006-10-03 Catching the sister act at my Dublin debut in Ohio

Last month I made my Dublin debute. The Celtic Tenors were invited to perform at the huge open-air Irish Festival in Dublin, Ohio, alongside several leading Irish and Irish-American acts.


During the early afternoon, before we went onstage, I was strangely drawn to one of the smaller stages by an act who called themselves "The Singing Nuns". Growing up in Sligo, when I passed by a nun in the street, I would smile politely and not even think twice. My paternal Grannie kept a miraculous medal in her purse, given lovingly to her by her close aquaintance Sister Nathy. But somehow in the 21st century, with vocations to religious orders at an all-time low, when one sees a nun in her full regalia, one can't help but stare at these rare and almost exotic apparitions.


So I must ashamedly admit, with hand on heart, I went along to witness the 'Singing Nuns' out of a sort of naughty curiosity, half-expecting a cross between Sister Act and The Sound of Music.


"The Singing Nuns" are Catholic teaching sisters, members of the congregation of Mary Immaculate Queen, based at St Michael, near Spokane in Washington state. On the incongruously named Irish Thunder Stage in Dublin Ohio, there were inevitable elements of both of the aforementioned classic films. But in the blistering Ohio August heat, dressed in full length blue habits, and with a real sparkle in their eyes, it was clear to all present that for these gregarious ladies - singing was a mission.


The original Singing Nun was the Belgian Jeanine Deckers who topped the charts in the 1960s with 'Dominique'. Known as Soeur Sourire (Smiling Sister), Jeanine Deckers appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. A movie about her life starred Debbie Reynolds in the title role. Sadly it all went wrong for that Singing Nun. Fame did not suit her, and her self-depricating second album I am not a star signalled the start of her tragic demise, ending in debt and suicide.


Nuns of course have been around since the early era of the Church St Paul talks of spouses of Christ - devoted to a life of perfection and committed to the Lord. These female ascetics chose voluntarily to leave mainstream society in order to live a life of prayer and contemplation in a convent, strictly following vows of chastity, obedience and poverty.


Carmelite nuns, inspired by St Thérse of Lisieux, give their lives completely to Jesus, to follow Him, and belong 100% to Him. While one has to admire the sincerity of these hermit-like ladies who shut themselves away and observe silence for almost the entire day, every day of their lives, I have to admit to never fully understanding or accepting the alien idea of nuns in closed orders


Most of us are too ashamed to admit that we boast a large repertoire of nun jokes, or that we have been entertained by Robbie Coltrane as one of the Nuns on the run, or Sr Assumpta and the Father Ted nuns, or smiled as Sr Wendy with her unique toothy smile analysed naked revealing Renaissance paintings on her own BBC TV show.


While many nuns, and entire orders, have received very bad press through such horrific situations as the Magdelene Launderies and Goldenbridge, society tends to forget those living saints who perform God's work on a daily basis in the teaching and caring professions. Catherine McAuley set up the Mercy Nuns in Dublin, to care for the poor, the sick and the ignorant. We are privileged to have helped raise money for one such living saint Tullamore's own Mother Teresa.


Sister Veronica in the Tullamore Convent of Mercy has devoted her life to setting up the Tullamore Housing Association, and to caring for, and rehousing the homeless of her community. Even closer to home, one only has to pay a visit to St John's in Ballytivnan to see God's work in action.


When I spoke with Sr Mary Eucharista of the Singing Nuns, I could honestly sense that she and her unique order were spreading faith and love through teaching and music in a very relevant way. We all want to love and be loved. The Singing Nuns say you don't live until you love, and you don't love until you give your heart to someone. Surely that's not a bad starting point for us all?