by Jacinta (Cindy) Maritato, associate and pilgrimage organizer
A group of 20 sisters, associates and friends from Sacred Heart Convent, Fargo, North Dakota, made a pilgrimage to Ireland in May to connect with Nano Nagle’s legacy and the Presentation family in Ireland. Preparations, however, began long before the departure date. The journey was started by viewing John O’Donohue’s “A Celtic Pilgrimage” and an invitation to read Christine Paintner’s “The Soul of a Pilgrim” and join in monthly discussions from January through April.
This in-depth preparation provided an opportunity to explore what pilgrimage meant on an individual basis, from hearing the call to pilgrimage and responding: what each participant needed to pack and what to let go, whether that meant ideas, expectations and attitudes or something else; an awareness of crossing the thresholds in life; being uncomfortable; beginning again; embracing the unknown and, finally, coming home. “The point of traveling is not to arrive but to return home laden with pollen you shall work up into honey the mind feeds on.” (RS Thomas) The monthly book discussions also advanced the trust and cohesiveness of the group before departure.
On Holy Ground was chosen as the Pilgrimage theme. Each day was book-ended with prayer, song and reflection and singing John Michael Talbot’s On Holy Ground marked the beginning and end of each day on the bus. Our pilgrimage booklets were well used and group members shared in leading prayer and reflection. While understanding all ground is holy, the song kept the group grounded in awareness of God’s presence throughout the journey. The traditional symbol of pilgrimage, the scallop shell, traveled with each member as a reminder of personal journey, the sacred path we take from the outer edges to arrive at the universal center of all life and though many paths are traveled, all lead to the One destination.
Associate Judy Drew sewed cozy shamrock scarves for the Presentation Sisters in Fargo, and before gifting them to the sisters on Associate Day a few weeks later, the scarves traveled with group members who wore them in Ireland. The scarves were blessed after Sunday Mass at the Franciscan Friary in Killarney.
The pilgrimage had many highlights, beginning with our stay at St. Anne’s Retreat and Conference Center in Portarlington where Sr. Elizabeth Maxwell took the group through the Heart Aflame Visitor Center where the exhibition is presented in four areas and ends in a reflection space. Everyone was inspired by Nano’s faith and the continuation of her promotion of justice and peace throughout the world by Presentation community.
A major highlight for many in the pilgrimage group was the visit to the birthplace of the Presentation congregation founded by Nano Nagle in 1775. Sisters Emer and Bride gave the group a tour of South Presentation and the Nano Nagle Place in Cork City. Beginning with the life of Nano and continuing to the current time, one can experience the extensive exhibits through modern and interactive technology. The group discovered what life was like in eighteenth century Cork and learned how Nano’s vision is still inspiring thousands of people to transform lives around the world. The Presentation Congregation continues to promote education, but is also involved with social inclusion and outreach, human rights and justice, ecology and sustainable living, and health care projects. The Center is well worth a full day to explore. There are still original buildings from Nano’s time and personal artifacts. It was exciting to witness the vibrancy of past, present and future integrated into South Presentation, and observe the construction of a school of engineering which will eventually help fund Nano’s Place.
At South Presentation in Cork City, there was a short prayer service at Nano Nagle’s graveside and the small door was unlocked in the outer protective enclosure and each pilgrim touched their scarves to Nano’s casket.
At Ballygriffin, a group photo was taken by Nano’s gate. The scarves traveled to special places and were well-received by the Fargo Sisters, many who are no longer able to make the journey to Ireland.
At Ballygriffn, the scenic place of Nano’s birth, S. Norah gave a program and the group learned about the focus on Eco-spirituality. They then enjoyed lunch and had an opportunity to walk around and explore the beautiful grounds.
A visit to George’s Hill, Dublin, foundation house of the Fargo, ND congregation, was the first in-depth visit with Presentation Sisters. S. Marie Therese King met the group to begin with a walking tour and presentation on Nano’s early years, including the penal laws in effect at the time. The group then split into smaller groups to visit the crypt, read through Nano’s records, look through the gallery and continue to enjoy the warm Presentation hospitality and lovely garden. The group was impressed to observe S. Marie Therese greet each of the tenants we met along the way by name. The visit there passed all too quickly.
In Belfast, the group was warmly greeted at Flax Trust by S. Mary Turley. After enjoying a cup of tea or coffee and delicious scones, she arranged for an update on some of the Cross Community projects with an opportunity to meet with those leading them or participating in them. S. Camila Flynn from Belfast also came to Flax Trust to meet with the group.
Perhaps the words of pilgrim Sandy Huseby expresses the impact of our visit: Each of us doubtless had particular moments which resonated with unexpected emotion…the journey to Belfast to visit the epicenter of the troubles and to bear witness to the power of resilience and persistence in the face of great conflict, great challenges to our humanity. The work in Belfast of the Flax Trust to bridge tensions and divides between Catholics and Protestants is ongoing. The projects which they support are uplifting in their hopefulness and understanding that basic people-to-people contact is key to building enduring cooperation. We cannot be naive and presume that success is guaranteed, yet in the lives of people like Marian, who shared her personal journey from virtually barricading herself in her home to working at the Flax Trust, we witnessed steely determination—beneath soft voices and warm smiles—to never go backward…I am grateful for the memories of this pilgrimage and the many reminders I’ll forever carry of this learning experience, of the ongoing mission of the Presentation Sisters to carry forward Nano Nagle’s legacy.
In Kildare, S. Anne Keating and several other Presentation Sisters met with us and shared tea and treats while visiting in smaller groups. Each member of the pilgrim group was presented with a St Brigid’s cross, freshly made that day from rushes. We were then accompanied to the Solas Bhride Centre and enjoyed a presentation by the Brigidine Sisters on the unique ecologically sustainable Centre
One evening in Galway, Ss. Bernadette, Kathleen and Anne Fox came to visit with us. The group was so pleased to meet with Presentation Sisters while on pilgrimage. As pilgrim Sandy Huseby said, “Seeing Ireland through the unique legacy of the good works of the Presentation Sisters gave me an enriching experience far beyond my imagining. I thank you, my fellow pilgrims, and the Presentation Sisters for this opportunity.”
In addition to interactions mentioned above, the pilgrimage also included places such as the National Museum, Trinity College and St. Patrick’s in Dublin; Glendalough, Blarney Castle and Gardens, Killarney; The Ring of Kerry, Adare; Cliffs of Moher, Kylemore Abbey, Clonmacnoise, and the apparition site of Knock.
Comments from pilgrims included appreciation for the grace-filled moments of experiencing the thin places where the boundary between the natural and spiritual world opens up. An insight from another the sense was that although it was a group pilgrimage, it was also a very personal journey. Looking back and unpacking the experiences and memories, the question from Nano remains for each pilgrim, “What will you choose to do?”