Sr Stan: You have to keep going and do the best you can

Outspoken nun, Sr Stanislaus Kennedy, a tireless campaigner, would like to see priests marry, but doesn’t expect there’ll be female priests in her lifetime. COLETTE SHERIDAN talks to the woman who supported the marriage equality campaign and is hugely outspoken on successive governments’ failures to tackle the housing crisis.
Sr Stan: You have to keep going and do the best you can

REBEL NUN: Sr Stan is not afraid to speak up.

FROM an early age, Sr Stanislaus Kennedy, or Sr Stan, as she is widely known, had a strong sense of the injustices in the world, particularly poverty in this country. The eighty-one year old tireless campaigner for the homeless says that as a child, she noticed "differences between people."

She explained: Some people couldn't go on to afford second-level education. There were differences in the way poor people were treated."

Born Treasa Kennedy in 1939 near Lispole on the Dingle Peninsula, the pioneering Sr Stan says she was clever at school but somewhat wild. One of five children, her parents were small farmers. 

"We weren't poor but we were not rich either," she recalls of her childhood.

Sr Stan was determined to work with the poor and disadvantaged and joined the Religious Sisters of Charity when she was eighteen in order to fulfill that ambition. 

"When I was young, there was no social science in universities. There was a choice of being a teacher but I wanted to work more directly with poor people. I had heard of the Sisters of Charity (founded by Cork-born Mary Aikenhead) and joined them for the spiritual life as well as solace for the poor. I was told it wasn't an easy life, that the sisters were very strict and that I wouldn't get home. But I kind of knew what I wanted insofar as an eighteen year old can know what they want. I didn't get home for ten years. But after that, I was able to go home once a year and when my parents were old, I was going home more often."

Sr. Stanislaus Kennedy as a young nun with her family.
Sr. Stanislaus Kennedy as a young nun with her family.

Did she find her life a lonely one?

"No. My family came to visit me. And we were all the same in the convent. There was a big gang of us. We were all young and there was great camaraderie and support for each other. Yes, it was strict. There were rules and regulations about the way you worked, when you talked, when you didn't talk and when you prayed."

Looking back on the regime, Sr Stan says it had positive qualities.

"Any nun that you'll meet will be a very disciplined person who will arrive on time for appointments and will have a regulated life. There's a lot to be said for it but you can go overboard and become institutionalised. But there's something to be said for a good training in one's youth."

Sr Stan says she had occasional doubts about her religious beliefs. 

"I suppose they weren't serious doubts, but I did have doubts. But then I went back to my original idea and that motivated me." 

Initially based in Kilkenny, Sr Stan later moved to Dublin where she is best known for having founded the charity, Focus Ireland, in 1985. She says that the charity for the homeless houses two families every day.

"We take them out of B&Bs and into houses. As we do, three people become homeless every day."

The homeless situation she says "is a national disaster."

"It was caused by the priorities and policies of successive governments who did not take responsibility for providing housing for people who can't afford to buy. We had the biggest amount of house building in the history of the State during the Celtic Tiger, but they were not social houses."

Asked if she finds homelessness depressing, Sr Stan says: "I'm not depressed at all. I'm optimistic and I want to change things. You can't get depressed. You have to keep going and do the best you can." 

Sister Stanislaus Kennedy with her parents after her profession.
Sister Stanislaus Kennedy with her parents after her profession.

But in the long term, Sr Stan says children who have experienced homelessness, will be affected by it "both emotionally and socially."

In the recent election she said "the people voted for change. They want homelessness dealt with as well as health and the climate."

Sr Stan is, in many ways, a rebel nun who is not afraid to speak up. She doesn't expect to see women priests in her life time.

"But I wish there were women active in the church in authoritative positions because the church is losing people all the time. It's in decline and that's very sad. 

"I believe in the Christian Catholic faith and what is possible for it to do. There are some fantastic people in the church, priests and nuns, but they're declining and ageing."

Priests being allowed to marry isn't going to happen in Sr Stan's lifetime, she feels.

"I would like there to be a choice, that some would choose to be celibate and some would choose to marry."

Sr Stan was reprimanded by the Vatican for supporting marriage equality.

"I voted in favour of it and somebody reported me to the Vatican. It came back to the head of my order. She said she had to tell me. That was all she said."

Isn't gay marriage at odds with Catholicism? 

"Marriage equality isn't about Catholic marriage. All they were looking for was a civil right, a human right. They weren't looking for the church to marry them."

Asked if she is out of step with much Catholic doctrine, Sr Stan says she speaks out on issues when she feels the need to do so. She isn't bothered about the official church. 

Sister Stanislaus Kennedy, is also the co-founder of Young Social Innovators. Picture: Marc O'Sullivan
Sister Stanislaus Kennedy, is also the co-founder of Young Social Innovators. Picture: Marc O'Sullivan

"I'm still a member. I go to Mass every day. I adhere to the principles and values of Christianity and Catholicism."

As well as homelessness, what riles Sr Stan is the system of direct provision for refugees and asylum seekers. 

"It's awful. It would make you ashamed to be Irish the way we treat our foreign nationals. I set up the Immigrant Council of Ireland (in 2001) to promote and support the rights of immigrants. We're doing a lot there to prevent racism."

On the recent RTÉ television documentary, Being Stan: A Life in Focus, Sr Stan addressed questions regarding child abuse in the 1960s at St Joseph's Industrial School in Kilkenny, run by the Sisters of Charity. 

"I was accused of being complicit," she says. "It was alleged I knew about the abuse. I knew I didn't know about the abuse."

Sr Stan was diagnosed with breast cancer at the end of 2018. It later went to the lymph nodes. 

"I suppose I accepted the diagnosis and ensured I got proper treatment. I worked hard at my recovery. I couldn't work as I was going for surgery and therapies for the whole of 2019. I'm only recovered since Christmas." 

She says her faith helped her through this difficult time.

Sr Stan describes herself as a positive person. 

"You'd need to be in my work," says this spirited indomitable woman.

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