“It was a fairly long journey that began in about 2001 when the Columban missionaries started the Migrant Rights Centre,” says Sr Monica Kelly.
“We started in the basement of Stella Maris giving information to migrants, especially Filipinos because our Columbans had been in the Philippines. We became aware there was a great need for assistance to migrants. We started with information and one thing led to another and we eventually set up the Migrants Rights Centre, and moved out of the basement to Parnell Square.
“It is very involved as a voice for migrants legally and in every aspect of the rights of migrants. As they were able to get funding and employ good staff and have the expertise there, the sisters felt that our role was more pastoral or holistic. We felt there wasn’t much time to give to individuals, to hear people’s stories and to support them in other ways, and we realised that English language was a need because if people don’t have enough English they have no power to speak for themselves,” Sr Monica says.
As Sr Monica searched for a new base for this work she reconnected with Claire Carey, who worked as a lay missionary with Monica in Korea and is the present coordinator of mission promotion in Ireland for the Columban Fathers. They had often talked about working together, and had now found an opportunity for collaboration.
“The Columbans in Ireland felt the way to showcase mission and the charism of the Columbans is to work together, to have a place where the fathers, the sisters and the lay people can work together,” Claire says.
“Traditionally they worked together behind the scenes, but there would be projects belonging to the fathers or the sisters, whereas this would be a venue in Ireland where all is under one umbrella.”
They found their new premises on Store Street through providence according to Sr Monica and from the Columban Sisters she is joined in her work by Sr Lucia Soh, Sr Kathleen McGrath and Sr Mary Nolan, and from the Columban Fathers there is Claire and Michael O’Sullivan.
“The sisters brought the work they were doing with them which I think was a great start,” Claire says. “We just didn’t appear here and say what will we do – they brought the outreach to the migrants, the English classes, and that general welcome and understanding that while a lot of migrants get themselves jobs and legal status and become more settled here, there is always that sense of being on the outside.
“For some people that is never an issue, but for others they are on the edge, and feel loneliness, isolation and maybe even confusion when it comes to bureaucracy. So between them the sisters’ work is continuing and developing,” she says.
“We were strangers and had experience of being strangers overseas, and we felt it was important to try and support migrants to integrate into society here,” Sr Monica says.
“From time to time the Migrant Rights Centre will refer someone here who needs some community support. They might be waiting to get their papers and can’t work, so they have no place to go during the day and they only get €19 a week. So they need a place to go and mix with others, for general conversation, practising English and so on. And if we meet people who are having legal issues we will refer them to the Migrant Rights Centre.”
The free English classes are offered by the Columbans themselves and a number of volunteer teachers. Most people find out about it by word of mouth, and the centre receives enquires from many different nationalities.
The Chinese community comes to the Columban Centre through the English language classes already begun by the sisters, and Sr Lucia Soh from Hong Kong is a key person in this work. She not only teaches English language classes but offers an introduction to Dublin and the local culture and customs.
The Korean community use the centre one Sunday a month and the Filipino community use it when they need it.
“The Friends of St Columban are a group of lay friends and supporters that meet here every two months and share what is going in mission, and to see how people can contribute somehow as part of the mission here locally,” Sr Monica says.
“We recently had Sr Susanna Choy home from Burma where she works in healthcare outreach and she spoke at the last meeting and one of the members took that on and said we would like to do something to support that mission. So she organised coffee mornings and cake sales.”
“Also the space is available for those who would like to use it,” Claire says. “There are two small rooms upstairs where we have people who come for conversation, accompaniment, whether it is spiritual direction or a quiet chat.
“The other thing we do is we promote Columban mission and awareness of mission in general whenever we can and we would like to do more of this. We would like people to drop in and be aware that the resources the Columbans have gathered over the years are available, both items and personnel, to heighten awareness around mission, for and in the local church. We don’t want to be isolated from the work that is going on in this neighbourhood.”
Sr Monica and Sr Mary live in the local parish of Sean McDermott St, so they are part of that neighbourhood. Living completely immersed in the community has always set apart the work of a missionary from other development workers and volunteers overseas, and they are putting that experience into practise here in Ireland.
“Missionaries have started to really focus on what’s possible in Ireland in relation to what it was like to go to another country and what they did then,” Claire says. “There were traditional ways of doing things in Ireland which were often more around fundraising and maybe simply awareness and information. While that is still going on there is that sense that if the Irish Church is talking about re-evangelisation and encouraging people to be become more aware of their faith and the values that is in that, then the missionary is part of that, whether it is Pakistan, Peru or Ireland.
“Having the lay missionaries from the Philippines here for 14-15 years, they have seen all the changes in Ireland and can offer insight to that. We are testing the waters. Nobody went to mission countries with any clear sense of what they will do, but with a desire to be engaged, especially with the people that are on the fringes and there are plenty of them within Irish society.”