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Kate's Story!

Sr.Kate Tobin from Lismore, County Waterford has become a nun...not once.........but twice.....After working as a Prison Chaplain in one of Britain's most dangerous prisons.

Here is her story.....

Second Time Around.

Any Careers officer visiting a modern Irish school today and asking for a show of hands from those pupils interested in building a career as a priest or a nun, would more than likely be stunned, if even one young person in a thousand were to raise their hand.

Since Vatican 2 in the 1960 s, which was intended to update the Catholic Church, and remove some of the restrictive rules of religious life, many thousands of religious around the world, both male and female, have left. Vocations in Ireland and here in County Waterford have plummeted to an all time low, with convents and religious houses closing all around the country. But its not all gloom!


Kathrina 'Kate' Tobin, originally from New Street,'Botany' the third, eldest of eight children , was the last girl from the ancient monastic town of Lismore to enter the religious life, when she joined a convent in London in 1985. She has been telling Pat Kiely, about her life, and why she decided, after eight years away from a religious community, to become a nun for the SECOND time.

'I knew at fourteen years of age, several years before I left the Presentation Secondary School in Lismore, that I wanted to be a nun, I had spoken about it in the convent and had received lots of encouragement. Sr Regina who is now based in Mountmellick and Sr. Perpetua in Kilkenny were my greatest influences and still are, that is why it was so wonderful to have them at my profession last year.'

'There were other influences, Sr. Maureen Glendon who was the last nun to die before the Lismore convent closed, was a really close support even though she herself was dying of Cancer, I am still in contact with her sister Eileen who is also a presentation Sister, based in Mooncoin.'

'The other big influence in my life was actually Sr. Eileen Ross, who was a Presentation Sister from Lismore and based in Lismore, but she left the order 5 years ago after about 28 years.' .

After leaving school at 18, still unsure about her vocation, Sr. Kate, worked as a teacher's assistant in an Irish speaking boarding school in Glenmire for a few months, and then moved to England where she worked as a junior secretary for Coca Cola for a couple of years before she gave into the spiritual calling she had felt, but dismissed, from her childhood years.

'I was 21 and living in London when I took my religious vows the first time round, which looking back on it now, was perhaps a bit too young to make such a major decision.'

' I remember I was with the community for two years when I suddenly became very ill. I was found to have a tumour on my lung and underwent a 15 hour operation which involved severing the nerves in my right side to stop the tumour spreading, and six months later another tumour was discovered only just in time, near my spine.' The first operation left me with nerve damage down the right side of my body but at least I'm alive and now I have learnt to live with it. If I had been left much longer without treatment I doubt if I would have survived.'

' Around this time in the late 1980 s, and after undergoing twelve months of treatment after my operation, the time had come for me to make a permanent commitment to the convent life. This did not feel right for me at the time and I decided to leave.'

'I can honestly say that the decision to leave was more difficult than the decision to enter, but after my time with the congregation, and because of prayer, I was a different person. My faith had been strengthened. I was glad I spent the time with the Sisters there, and I still keep in contact with them.'

Sr Kate with her Mam.

'I knew I had a lot to give to the world, also I live by the theory that you only have one chance in this life so you need to make the most of it.'

I loved life in London, before and after my time in the convent. I had lots of friends, the variety of food was excellent, I loved the theatre, shops and museums etc. When I left the convent, I got a job with Citibank as a mortgage consultant with customers who were in arrears, the job started part-time but very soon I was working every day and on Saturdays and I was offered a job as a Supervisor.

'By the mid 1990 s, I had been away from the religious life for about five years and only my closest friends knew that I had once been a nun.'

'Gradually , I began to feel the desire to enter the religious life again, it was like Jesus gently whispering in my ear, calling me back. I found an Ad in a Catholic paper and wrote off to a community in Liverpool, one of the sisters replied and followed the letter up with a phone call the next day, one of many she was to make to me over the next two years.'


Ince Blundel Home.

'At about this time I had also been job hunting, and received a letter from the Prison Service Chaplaincy, I had applied to, asking me to attend for an job interview.'

'Although I was only 26 the board seemed to think I would be suitable for the job, and offered me the post as Lay Catholic Prison Chaplain in Durham Prison. I was one of the first females to be chosen for this job in England and Wales.'

At work in the Prison. 'My first impression of prison life was the same as that seen on TV, noise, oppression, smells, violence and being totally confined.'

'However as time progressed these impressions left me and although I was very aware that at the end of each day I had keys to let myself out, prison became a place where I made friends and experienced loyalty that I had never before seen.'

'It was also the place where I was able to experience first hand the Love of God, His acceptance and His unfailing mercy. It was also a place where I experienced a life unseen by my peers, family or friends, a life unable to be shared in its totality. I daily came into contact with pain, suffering, anger, fear, hate and a whole range of emotions.'

'I dealt with teenagers who stole cars as a hobby, women who shoplifted, men who raped and perhaps what is seen as the ultimate crime, women and men who had killed.'

'One mother had poisoned her children and then when the police were exhuming the bodies to get the evidence to convict her she asked me to pray with her for them!!!.'

'Prison is a place where people often find God and it was where I too was very aware of his presence.'

'We had prayer groups, bible study and retreat days and the prisoners all just seemed to accept them, yet we on the outside don't always do this.' .................................................. Myra Hindley

'It was a very strange experience, sometimes I wish I had been older as to have seen all I saw in my mid 20's was perhaps different and some of my peers will never see or hear what I've seen.' 'To describe my experiences is difficult, many people made an impression on , me particularly the females who had killed and the stories behind what had made them do it.'

'The stories I heard, the tears I shared, I still carry with me through life, they played a part in me becoming the person I am today.'

'Some people find it easy to adjust to prison especially the teenage boys, others unfortunately cannot cope and so take their own lives.'

'The women I dealt with, had all killed, most had killed children, others husbands often brutally. '

'There was a woman who had suffered years of abuse at the hands of her father and more at the hands of an alcoholic husband who also abused their children, after one such beating, when the children were out to play, she set fire to the house while her husband was sleeping, she didn't realise her little girl had returned indoors and was in her room, both father and daughter died in the fire and the mum received 2 life sentences for the crime. She has gone blind in prison and despite her crime I can say she was a person, who held out an unconditional friendship for me.'

'There was also the young girl, pregnant at 16, married at 17 and in prison shortly afterwards. After the birth of her baby she suffered post natal depression, attempted to murder her own child, killed her step daughter (she had 3 step children under 6 ) her sentence 5 years for manslaughter and a roller-coaster of experiences that involved her having to deal with the adoption of her own child and her foster children going into care, also her monthly attempts at taking her own life and the non- treatment of her severe depression'.

'It made me ask myself, where was society when this girl needed help, who was there to hear her cries when she needed support, and what was society going to do when she was released at 21 unable to cope with life.'

'During my first week in Durham prison, I was shadowing another chaplain until I had the lay of the land, and then it was a case of sink or swim. It took a while to gain the trust of the inmates and after that, well they were willing to share anything.'

'As a Chaplain I was expected to remain neutral be non-judgmental, and try not to get emotionally involved. Not always easy but I tried. Some of the prisoners used to request to see me, so I must have been doing some good.' ' I also found myself having to listen to the officer's problems as I was there for them also. On reflection now I feel that I was perhaps too young for the job but the service chose me above all the others so they obviously thought I had it in me.'

'I worked in Durham Prison for about 16 months. While there I met many notorious prisoners including Rose West, who with her late husband Fred, murdered and tortured ten girls including one of their own daughters. The strange thing was though that she seemed so ordinary , just like anyone' s Mam. Like so many of the other female killers there.'.Rose was a woman I could sit down and talk to over a cup of coffee. She would chat about life in general and her bereavement from Fred. One day she offered to sew up a tear in my skirt.' ................................................................................................................................RoseWest.

'Another notorious killer I met in there was Myra Hindley, the Moors murderer, a very sad lady! . She was housed at the other end of the prison from Rose West, and is not in good health. Over the years in prison Myra has used her time to become very educated. She still has the support of Lord Longford, and also often leaks her own stories to the press.'

'During my time in the prison, I put the idea of re-joining a religious community on the back burner, but the nun I had contacted before going to work in Durham would occasionally ring me, usually when I was having a bad day, and invite me to visit her community.'

' Time went on, and eventually I took advantage of a long weekend off to get away from the stresses and strains of prison life and take a trip to Liverpool, to visit The Ince Blundell Hall, Nursing Home, run by the Augustinian Sisters of Mercy of Jesus, for elderly, the sick and some retired clergy who are also resident there.'

'After the chaos and noise of prison life, the peace and tranquillity I found there, was amazing, and I could feel the presence of Christ.. After staying there for only a short while I was bitten by the bug, and realised that Jesus was still gently calling me to serve him. I knew that when I was ready, this was the place to be.'

'I returned to the prison with a heavy heart, but God works in strange ways, and shortly after my return I injured my foot and was unable to walk for several weeks. I decided to return to Liverpool until I had recovered.'

'As my foot healed I began to help the Sisters in there Apostolate and was able to experience the richness of their community life. I found I loved working with the sick, and after praying a lot, decided I finally had to say 'Yes' to God. Shortly after this I resigned from my job, as Prison Chaplain and applied to enter the Augustinian Sisters.'

'That was in 1995, and I entered the community on the feast of the Holy Souls, in November, and at last was truly happy.'

Sr. Kate with friends.

'Just over a month later on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, I received a phone call to say that my dad, who had great devotion to our Blessed Lady, and who was so pleased that I had returned to the religious life, had died.'

'Six months later I received my habit and began my Noviciate. This was ten years to the day from when I had started on my journey to the Lord, and this time it felt so right'

'In July 1998 I made my first profession in front of my Mam and some members of my family, as well as some of the people who had played a big part in my life, and who had been part of my spiritual journey since it had began all those years ago.'

'Next year please God, I will have to apply for my life vows as my vows expire in July 2001 it is something I look forward too.'

'I would love to meet young people back home, to tell them why I do what I do and to let them see I am normal (I hope ) and nothing changes me and yet life has been worth doing something different with.'

'Asked why I would recommend the religious life, then I could really say it has given me the chance to become the person God wants me to be. To find gifts and talents I didn't know I had. I am loved as the person I am, not as one others expect me to be.'

Sr Kate in 1998 with some of her friends.

'I have a relationship with God, but I am not an unhappy person, I am really happy. When people meet me for the first time, they find it very hard to believe that I can actually be a nun and be this happy.'

'I have my roots firmly in my relationship with God, if I didn't then I would not get myself out of bed at 5.30 am just so as I can spend one hour in prayer before I go on duty, It's something I have to do for me!!'

'People worry about why I have chosen not to have children or get married but my life is really worthwhile. I believe that the Church needs others like me, I think that spending time in a community gives so much and even if I didn't enter for a second time I would always be grateful for all I had received the first time round.'

'Knowing that I had left the convent before working in Durham Prison, Gay Byrne asked me on the radio in 1995 how I had felt about being a nun and then leaving. I said to him that I felt it was better to have tried and left than to spend life wondering what it would be like if I hadn't tried at all.'

'When I made my vows, in 1998 I was filled with a great sense of peace and tranquillity. It seemed so right, and I felt I had found my place in God's plan. I felt I had become the clay that had been worked by the potter. But he hasn't finished yet, I still need to be moulded more.'

' My journey with the Lord now continues to that point when hopefully in a year's time I will once again stand in front of the altar and commit myself fully and totally to him for the rest of my life.'

'While vocations in Ireland have slowed down, generally throughout the world, they are now increasing, said Sr Kate. We have a new girl entering next month, she is from the Channel Islands but has been based in Nottingham for years. She is a lawyer and teacher, and we have f others in the pipeline as well.'

'I am still coming daily to the Lord, he carries my burdens and gives me rest. I pray daily that others will have the courage to follow after me and say Yes to the Lord. It is a challenge well worth taking up.

Copyright Pat Kiely, Lismore 1999/2001. .....Sr. Kate Today!   

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