A hale and hearty 99, Sr Vincent has lived and seen what few alive today have personally witnessed.
Listening to her recall times long since passed was a rare privilege, a window into history provided by a primary source, “still alive and kicking” as she put it herself.
“I remember running with one of my sisters from our house on Lough Street (now Kickham Street) and standing just below the West Gate, as the IRA men came back across the Old Bridge at the end of the War of Independence,” she said.
“I also remember my mother coming up to fetch us away from any possible trouble!”
A member of the French-based Soeurs de Marie Joseph et de la Miséricorde order of nuns, Sr Vincent left Carrick behind her in 1927 to pursue her vocation.
By 1930, she was professed, thus beginning a long, rewarding and sometimes testing life, working in women’s prisons and orphanages.
Her selfless work and humanitarian approach to dealing with prisoners won her State recognition in her adopted France, offering a timely reminder of the good works our religious have conducted abroad.
Every year, Sr Vincent comes home to stay with her relatives in Carrick, a town much busier in 2010 than it was from a childhood which predates the foundation of the State.
“Oh my gosh, it’s much busier nowadays. You wouldn’t have had all that rush around the town that goes on now when I was young – it’s changed a hundred per cent: I was only saying that to someone I met earlier. But I suppose it’s for the good – things move on.”
While sitting her exams at Saint Joseph’s National School, Nelly’s future path of life was fundamentally altered.
“This nun, a Sister Columba – her family were from here and they went to school with us here and her father was an RIC officer – well, when the troubles came along, they had to leave Carrick and go to live in England. Years later, the parents came back to Carrick, to live on Mill Street.
“But while they were in England, Sr Columba – Julianna McCarthy was her name – she entered our order who were already in England helping many who had little or nothing on account of the First World War.
“Anyway, Sr Columba came home to Carrick on her holidays to see her parents and she came up to the school to see us – we were doing exams at the time. And she asked us ‘who’d like to come with me to England to become a nun?’”
Sr Columba’s words of persuasion impressed Nellie, and she left for England in the company of two of her classmates (from the Torpey and Kirby families) to begin religious life ‘across the water’.
“I knew what I wanted to do,” said Sr Vincent. “I had some idea of what life as a nun was like from watching them in my schooldays, and being a nun appealed to me. I had no bother with that at all. I was going away to do something I wanted to do.”
Sr Vincent spent just a few months in England (“they hurried us off to France for fear we’d change our minds!”) before moving to her order’s Mother House near Limoges in mid-west France.
Opting to work with women prisoners wasn’t a daunting decision for Sr Vincent. “I opted immediately for the prison work,” she said.
“I must admit that I felt quite at home there – I felt as if I’d been doing it all of my life when I began work in the prison. I used to sit on a high bench in a workroom where the prisoners worked, and there I was, in a room with 60 other women and I was barely out of childhood myself! But I never found it difficult, no.”
She’d never admit so herself, but Sr Vincent’s empathy for many inmates and her deep humanity clearly served her well.
She treated all whom she came to know through her prison-located work as human beings rather than sentenced criminals, knocking on cell doors before entering, for example.
It may seem like a small gesture from the outside looking in, but to those innocent, guilty or sadly driven to do what they did due to personal circumstance, Sr Vincent’s thorough decency was appreciated by all.
Not only a child of the War of Independence, Sr Vincent survived the ravages of the Second World War in Occupied France. “It was hell on earth,” she commented.
“You couldn’t imagine worse than to hear the voices of women with children outside when the planes overheard were constantly dropping bombs. It was horrible.”
When discussing World War II, Sr Vincent said: “We weren’t badly off, we had what we needed.” One suspects the reality was somewhat different, but this is not a woman designed for complaining or criticising. It’s simply not in her DNA.
Sr Vincent was involved in saving a German nun (Sr Gerard) in her order from German soldiers who raided their building.
“She was afraid of her life that they would take her back to Germany…so we put her to bed in an infirmary (in a quarantined room), a German soldier opened the door, looked in and when he saw someone in there, they closed it immediately. Well she was delighted, and we were so relieved because we feared that they would take her.”
The constraints of space permit but a few of Sr Vincent’s vividly told stories to be relayed here. Clearly a great friend, a loyal confidante and a wonderful aunt, her secret to long life, as far as she’s concerned, is no great secret at all.
“My life in the convent? If I could keep going a hundred years, I’d do it. Liking your work and the presence of God’s presence has kept me going. I hope it will keep me going.”