At 10 years of age, I wrote an essay to say that I wanted to be a Holy Faith Sister – I had forgotten all about it until it was given back to me 16 years later!
I had been an only girl in my family for 14 years, and I was very shy, so my mother signed me up for a club for girls on Saturday afternoons, which was run by the Legion of Mary. We must have been asked to write about what we wanted to do when we grew up. I was in fourth class in school at the time, and I loved the Sister teaching me, who was always getting me to do jobs for her.
Fast forward to when I was about 26 or 27, I was at a prayer meeting with my mother. I was dressed in my religious habit, when a lady came up to me. I recognised her, she had been a ‘Sister/leader’ in the Legion of Mary, and said she had something at home that I would be interested in. She had kept my letter for 17 years. She said it was the only one she had kept, and had often wondered if I’d joined the Holy Faith Order.
When she gave it to me, I couldn’t believe that I had been able to articulate what I wanted to do with my life at the age of 10. The essay was subsequently read out later that year at my final profession in Celbridge!
I grew up in Artane and, even as a child, I felt drawn to something deeper, but I did not know what it was. I grew up in a very strong faith-filled home, although I thought it was the same for everyone else. I was particularly influenced by my mother, we were always great friends. She used to always say: ‘Good comes out of everything, no matter how bad a situation is, God will never let you down.’ That has become part of my spirituality and philosophy.
This trust came from my mother’s own faith, but definitely also from her experience of pain and her own loss. Her first fiancé died jumping off the Forty Foot (an historic swimming area in Dublin Bay) just six weeks before they were to get married, and she lost a baby boy, which also brought a lot of pain to our family.
When I was a teenager, I didn’t focus too much on religious life. I enjoyed myself socially. However, it was always in the back of my mind that I would take this journey or that I would at least try it. I entered the Holy Faith Sisters when I was 18, just after I did my Leaving Cert. I probably wanted to see how it would go, while giving myself the option of leaving if things didn’t work out.
My parents supported me in whatever I wanted to do, just as they supported my brothers and my sister in the choices they made. For me, there was a rightness about my vocation from the very start. But, it was a big change for the family, as my brother, who was a year younger than me, joined the Navy the same week that l eft home.
Looking back, I think my parents, especially my mother, made a huge sacrifice – I wasn’t making one, I was following my dream. I opted for this life of not getting married, not having a family. But, it’s not like you are giving it up, you never had it to give it up. It’s a sacrifice for parents, though.
Looking back, I think my leaving home for religious life was a greater sacrifice for my parents than for myself. I was following my dream. I can still remember the tears in my mother and father’s eyes the day they brought me to the novitiate in Glasnevin. While I did settle down quickly into my life’s new journey, we only got to see our parents every 4-6 weeks after that. And while I did get home for a week before being received as a novice, it was another five years before I could go home for a visit.
That must have been so hard for our families, but it was a long time ago and things are very different now. I knew about that when I was signing up! When you really believe in where you are going, nothing holds you back on the journey to fulfilling what you feel is your life’s call.
Music is very significant in my life. I began learning the piano when I was eight years old. Piano was taught in the convent by a wonderful Sister, Mary Declan. My regular visits to the convent for music, and familiarity with this environment as a child, also influenced me towards religious life.
As in my faith life, my parents encouraged my music journey, and we had a lot of music in the house. My Dad played accordion, while my mother’s love for music was in her appreciation of it. Her grandmother (my great grandmother) had been an opera singer and taught music, so music is definitely in the genes.
While I have been involved in primary, second level and third level education (the latter in the area of Chaplaincy), I now work in the area of faith and music ministry. I direct a number of choirs and am involved in the area of pastoral ministry with a number of groups. I have been composing liturgical music for many years. Through this, I endeavour to reflect a message of hope, which relates back to my mother’s influence of faith and hope in my life.
I find music very therapeutic, both in the composing of it and playing it. Even without words, it transcends so much. I’m always fascinated that I can walk into a room of musicians that I have never met before, but we can all play together. Music unites, it transcends communication and words, it brings hearts together, and it can help heal people.
Some of my work is with the Hospitaller Order of Saint John of God. One area of my work is in music therapy at Suzanne House – working with children with a life-limiting conditions. It is a privilege to spend time with them.
For those who suffer with Alzheimer’s Disease, familiar music is so therapeutic. When I play old familiar songs, it brings them back to special times in their lives, and that in itself is healing. Sometimes I’d hear a song that my mother or father used to love, and while I’d feel sad for their loss, music brings me close to them.
Family means a lot to me. I remain close to my sister, to my brothers and to the extended family. One of the most painful times in our family life was the death of my late sister-in law Liz, who died 18 years ago, at the age of 39. She and my brother had moved to London a number of years before that. Liz too was a wonderful woman of love, kindness and faith. This was such a difficult time both for my brother and their five children. While they are all grown up now, I still play a significant role in their lives and in the lives of all my nieces and nephews.
My name is Sr Marie Dunne, and I will be a member of the 5,000-strong choir for the Papal Mass in the Phoenix Park on August 26. An experience I will be repeating, having done the same for the visit of the then Pope John Paul II to Ireland in 1979.