November 2020
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A nun finds the answers

A conversion story

Angela as a nunHer eyes were closed, her fake ashen. She was dressed all in white. She was dead. And she was my friend. Aged six, I was kneeling by her bedside with some of her brothers and sisters. We were praying for her.

I was baptised in the Church of St Peter and St Paul, Clarecaslte, Co Clare, in the month of my birth. One of seven children, I was reared a devout Catholic. My father worked as a gardener at a Franciscan Friary, and at an early age I was introduced to Jesus, Mary and the saints.

Kneeling by the bedside of my little friend, my young mind was shocked into spiritual consciousness for the first time. Questions clamoured for answers. Why did my friend have to die? Why had God given Me life if I was going to die??

So many questions, their number and urgency increased as the years went by. In the changeless society in which I grew up so much was taken for granted, so many questions left unasked, let alone answered. So many puzzles and contradictions and pieces that would not fit together.

The only thing I was certain about was death. So there was a heaven to be won… and a hell to be shunned. My mother’s piety was a good influence upon me, she was my good angel.

When I was 13 our school was visited by nuns seeking to recruit young girls to join the order. They made a positive impression, and the next year I went away to their school. When I was 15 I was selected to cross the Irish Sea to be schooled at a special academy, and a year later I spent one last holiday at home before entering a convent near the school. Here I would train for the next three years.

Angela's flyerMy preparation years went by in a round of study punctuated by mass and devotional exercises. In April 1967 I became Sister Angela Martin, a daughter of the Holy Ghost. I recited my vows of poverty, chastity and obedience before the bishop and formerly took the veil.

Soon I was moved to Wales, where I taught a class of 7-year-olds. It was here in Wales, faced with the real world, that my former questionings returned; the answers neither sought nor given, the parts of the jigsaw that would not fit.

Angela as a nunLiving in the community, I discovered how ‘human’ the sisters were, and also how ‘human’ I was. One Easter I was cleaning the convent windows in the company of an older nun, Sister Mary Theresa. ‘Sister’, I said, ‘surely we should be in the housing estates telling people about Jesus and how he died for us’. ‘I’m sure’, she agreed with me, but we just finished our cleaning. Later on that evening, on TV, I saw Pope Paul 6 being carried on a chair over the heads of the people of Rome. The atmosphere of pomp and grandeur clashed with my conceptions of the humble simplicity of the life of Jesus. More and more I felt the need to share the Gospel with the poor and needy who I knew had yet not accepted Jesus Christ as their Saviour.

I returned to Bedford for my final period of study in preparation for my final vows. Their significance began to oppress me. I felt that I was not ready for a sincere commitment. I had so many questions and no clear answers. For the first time I realised that I could not continue within the religious life. At times I wished I could die rather than face the decision to leave, and the hurt and disappointment it would bring to my family. However the nuns were loving and helpful. I signed papers relieving the sister of any further obligations to me. We even had a farewell party. They presented me with a beautiful card they all had signed. On it I read: ‘To thine own self be true’.

Now I was in the real world, a bit too real at times. At first I worked in Birmingham as a child care officer, then in London. My Catholic faith was still very important to me, but my life seemed empty. I continued to think deeply about God. I listened to what the Salvation Army had to say, and even Hari Krishna. I would go to dances but experienced an awful feeling of emptiness afterwards. The convent began to appeal again. Mother Theresa of Calcutta impressed me. Her work for the poor attracted me. I actually wrote to ask permission to enter her order, but never got around to posting the letter.

One evening I went to a dance. It would, I decided, be my last. There I met a happy Irishman. He was a good dancer and we became friends. Within a year I was married, and within another year Bob and I were the parents of twin boys. We returned to Eire, and eventually settled in my own home village.

Back where I started from! Now I was a conscientious Catholic mother seeking to observe the church’s teaching with regard to having children. Within 8 years of our marriage I had 6 children, three boys and three girls. My husband was out of work and this proved a great strain on our marriage. I cried a great deal during these years. Still there were the unanswered questions. I was still looking for something.

I studied with Jehovah’s Witnesses for over two years, but returned to my own church. I felt it needed reform, but I believed it to be the true church.

One day in 1978 I was visiting my mother when a visitor came to her door, selling books. Eithne Amos was her name. She looked intelligent and confident, equal to any situation. But she was temporarily floored by my blurted-out question, ‘What is truth and do you have it?’

Walking home hours later I was still astonished that I had asked that question. Her reply, that she DID have the truth had been even more astonishing. She began to demonstrate it to me from the Bible, taking up my questions one by one to answer them. Eithne helped me over a period of 4 years. We prayed together. We studied God’s Word together.

One day she brought some Adventist friends with her, including a charming pastor, Don Vollmer. As Catholics we had been warned by our priest to be aware of ‘private interpretations of the Bible. Always I wanted Catholicism to be right, yet I knew I was not satisfied. Pastor Vollmer introduced me to a revolutionary idea. IDID NOT HAVE TO WORK MY WAY TO HEAVEN. I could not work my way to heaven. Salvation was a FREE GIFT made available by the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Because Jesus came to identify himself with us, by identifying with His death, my sins were nailed to the cross. By identifying with His burial, my sins were buried with Him – lost in the fathomless deep of God’s forgetfulness. By identifying with His resurrection, I was resurrected with Him to a new, vibrant, meaningful, victorious Christian life. I HAD DISCOVERED THE GOSPEL!

These God-led people continued to help me until one beautiful day, 10th July 1983, it all made sense. I knelt on my kitchen floor and surrendered my life to the Lord, my Redeemer.

Jesus came into my life. Life began anew. A different kind of life, lived in a different dimension. In the words of a hymn, ‘Heaven came down and glory filled my soul’. Over 30 years of searching and questioning and blaming God were at an end. I had grasped the Gospel and the Gospel had made me free. I had learned to trust in God, who loves me so much that he gave his only begotten Son to die in my stead. Yes, I was free at last!

One day not long afterwards I was baptised in the Corrib River near Galway by Pastor Vollmer. Now I praise God for the joy I have in sharing with others the wonderful way in which he has led me.

The journey had been long and torturous. It began at the bedside of a dead child. Now there is a new beginning. And each new day feels like the start of a fresh adventure…

Angela O’Brien