EVERYONE at Nano Nagle Place on Douglas Street calls her Jo, and that’s the way she likes it.
Founder of the Cork Migrant Centre, Sr Josephine McCarthy from West Cork, is a hands-on type of person with a reputation for getting things done.
However, it’s Jo’s passionate concern for the vulnerable and the marginalised that makes this 71-year-old Presentation Sister beloved by so many.
From the time she was 17, Jo felt a calling to work on the Missions. It was never a question of trying to convert people, more a need to help those on the margins feel less excluded.
“When we were working on basic community development projects with people in Peru and Ecuador, we didn’t know their religion. It was irrelevant,” Jo points out.
She loved the South American people with their wonderful customs, spirituality, food and lifestyle.
Living in a plywood shack in a shanty town didn’t bother her. It served to remind her that she was following in the footsteps of Nano Nagle, founder of the Presentation Sisters.
Nano gave up her privileged life to teach poor Cork children by day and visit the sick by night.
“I would have called on the spirit of Nano Nagle when I was in Cusco in Peru, at a time when the Shining Path terrorists had murdered a number of missionaries,” Jo admits.
“I never felt afraid in Ecuador, even though I was living in an area, known as Wild West country, where the men went around with hatchets and the law of the jungle applied”, she recalls.
Jo came home in the early 2000s to care for her elderly mother. Even before her mother passed away, Jo saw the need to provide support for Cork’s growing migrant population.
“Because of my work on the Missions, I felt a calling to work with migrants here. I know what it is to be a foreigner. In any work I’m doing, I try to bring in people who are excluded. It comes from my belief in God that we are all created equal,” Jo points out.
In 2006, Jo established the Cork Migrant Centre in the former South Presentation Sisters’ sacristy, which now forms part of the Nano Nagle Museum. The Centre later transferred to a former special school in the South Presentation complex.
Jo started by helping EU and non- EU migrants with visa, health and immigration issues. English classes were taught free of charge to migrants from Direct Provision Centres.
“Separation and domestic abuse were big issues which left women in a very lonely place. Project worker, Agata Bialek, worked a lot with women from Eastern Europe and I worked with women from the Philippines,” Jo points out.
She stepped down as Director of the Migrant Centre in 2018 when it became part of the Nano Nagle Place complex. However, she remains a very active volunteer.
The Migrant Centre is now located in the beautifully regenerated Ministry building. This was formerly the Convent where Nano Nagle and her small band of Sisters lived in the 18th century.
The Ministry building adjoins the peaceful, contemplative convent gardens which are once again open to the public, free of charge. Access is by way of the Nano Nagle Place Design and Gift Shop on Douglas Street.
“Dr. Naomi Masheti, who is Manager of the Migrant Centre, pioneered a Culturally Sensitive Parenting Programme (CSPP) for parents in Direct Provision,” says Jo.
“Project Worker, Fionnuala O’Connell, is developing a toolkit for anti-racism training which will be used in second level schools nationally. Fionnuala co-ordinates the different activities for young people,” Jo adds.
Agata Bialek is responsible for co-ordinating the Drop-In Centre for Polish and Eastern Europeans and also looks after the English classes.
Cork people recently responded very generously to an appeal for toys and books for children in Direct Provision. The appeal was organised by Sinead Dwyer and students from UCC. Sinead is doing a six month internship at the Centre, and helps Naomi with the women’s group.
There is a lot of give and take between the Migrant Centre and the Lantern Community Project which is also housed in the Ministry building.
During lockdown, Pat Healy, husband of the Lantern Co-Ordinator, Karina, was able to supply laptops to students in Direct Provision thanks to the generosity of his employer, Dell. The computer company has also made staff available to provide interview coaching for adult migrants.
“In the past, we were not used to migrants and so we were afraid of them because they look and feel different to us. The more we mix, the better. I love the diversity that migrants bring to Cork; the different cultures, customs and foods.
“We are getting less insular and our young people are much better at diversity,” Jo acknowledges.
She has no regrets looking back over her life.
“I have always held onto the inspiration of Nano Nagle. I have had a great life and I hope to continue as a volunteer in the Migrant Centre for as long as I can,” Jo concludes.