Maria Garvey – whose vocation has been to untap and develop the great gifts and possibilities of persons with special needs and to empower them to transform the rest of us – remembers the moment more than 40 years ago as if it was yesterday.
It changed her life forever, just as several dreams which she recalls vividly, have also profoundly altered her course.
She doesn’t have a precise date, but it was 1973 or 1974, she was 15 or 16 years of age, in third or fourth year in the Presentation Convent in Mitchelstown, Co. Cork – where she was born, the eldest of five children.
One day she told her careers teacher, a nun, that she “would like to work with people who have disabilities”.
The nun dismissed the idea saying, “we all have great ideals, that will go, you need to do something ordinary like the bank, nursing or primary teaching”.
“I was devastated, it was so arrogant”, she recalls in her comfortable little house in east Belfast, the city this inspirational woman with strong west Kerry roots, has long made her improbable home.
That evening Maria’s parents – Irish speakers from Kerry who brought her up in Mitchelstown where they were teachers – went out for the evening and she turned on the television.
On RTÉ she saw the late Fr Peter Lemass interview Jean Vanier and she was transfixed by him.
“That was a turning point in my life. I remember saying to myself watching that programme, if Jean Vanier can do it so can I. No nun can tell me no! When Mum came home I told her this man Jean Vanier is amazing and I subsequently read two of his early books, Followers of Jesus and Be Not Afraid,” she says.
In 1964 in France Vanier founded what was to become the worldwide L’Arche movement, which builds communities with people who have intellectual disabilities and today it has 151 communities in 37 countries in every continent.
Maria Garvey was not to know that more than a quarter of a century later (in 2000) she would, having spent spells with L’Arche in Cork and Kilkenny, become the founding director of L’Arche in Belfast and then leader of L’Arche in Ireland from 2011 until 2014.
She was on the selection panel that had appointed a person who declined the Belfast job and was moved to think that the Lord was calling her to take on the post herself, while listening to a prayer being said over her father at his Requiem Mass.
Today, Vanier is renowned around the world as a living saint. And Maria Garvey, (59), still an active member of L’Arche in Belfast is pictured on their website enthusing a group of young people clowning around in a wardrobe swap.
In recent years Maria has progressed into coaching and facilitating, “enabling people to listen to their hearts” and leads retreats and other encounters in dioceses around Ireland “to assist men and women in ministry connect with the deepest call of their ministry”.
For as long as Maria can remember she was “fascinated by people who are different” and had a particular interest in people with disabilities.
“My mother said I was born with it,” she says. “I adored going up to Holy Communion in Mitchelstown behind a man who carried on his shoulders his little boy who had Down Syndrome and making that little boy smile.”
Maria, a bright pupil, proceeded to Mary Immaculate College in Limerick where she told a lecturer “my passion is special education”.
She obtained a first-class honours degree in education - and a scholarship to TCD which she spurned to follow her heart into teaching those with extreme physical and intellectual challenges, dismissing the advice of some – including some close to her – who felt it was a waste of her talent.
She secured a teaching post at the Marino Clinic, Bray and within three years was principal there (aged just 24) and recalls successfully rejecting the counsel of a school inspector who judged one pupil, Peter, who had severe disabilities as being “ineducable”.
She even took Peter home at Christmas and he returned to the school “transformed” having himself transformed some members of her family.
Maria founded and ran the Happy Wanderers scheme, which over a period of eight years provided Christmas, Easter and summer holidays in Castlegregory, Co. Kerry for up to 90 disabled children from broken homes. “Local people raised money all year and gave us their holiday homes. My motto always is if you are going to do something with your life let it be something that [seems] impossible because if it is possible people are doing it!”
Maria is single and her life reached another turning point in her late twenties when she took an extended career break after a relationship with “the love of my life” didn’t work out.
She planned to go to Calcutta (Kolkata) to work with Mother Teresa and when jaundice put paid to that she remembered the RTÉ interview with Jean Vanier and ended up spending a year in Vanier’s founding L’Arche community in Trosly, France, getting to know him personally.
“It was a place where people with disabilities have an opportunity to offer their gifts, where people are not cared for in the traditional way but know they can contribute. I had become part of the movement of God that was planted as a seed in Jean Vanier,” she says.
“My mantra is that every life matters, no matter what. There isn’t a single human life that doesn’t make a difference and irrespective of the conditions and circumstances of someone’s life, irrespective of who they are in the world they will come to do the work they came to do, in their way.”
She adds: “The big thing for me is that God makes no mistakes and my message for everyone in the world is that your life is not a mistake. There is no disability in God’s imagination for the world.”
Under-pinning it all is a deep religious faith rooted in Scripture – passages from the Bible roll off her tongue – and in knowing and experiencing divine accompaniment, exemplified in the Emmaus story (Lk 24:13-35) in which Jesus accompanied two disciples along the road and set their hearts on fire.
“All I am in the world is a good companion, I am companion-based. My job is to set peoples’ hearts on fire, to rekindle that fire in people’s hearts.”
Above all, the God Maria knows is her constant companion. “I would say there isn’t a moment in my life that I am not in some sort of conversation with the Jesus who walks beside me. It is very much the Emmaus journey for me,” she says.
Maria Garvey is a remarkable woman, with so many striking stories to tell that she should write a book.
She confides that she has had “five or six incredible dreams that have changed my life” and one of these relates to how the headquarters of L’Arche in Belfast came to be named as The Ember.
“A very long time ago” she says she had one such dream which she can recount in remarkable detail, more than we have space for here.
She saw an old woman dressed in black whom she recognised as her mother in a garden outside a house in which there were two rooms each with fireplaces. In the dream Maria lights a fire in one room that nearly burns down the house but it quickly burns out.
Her mother then asked her to go into the other room and says to her “let me show you how to light a fire that endures”.
Her mother kindled the wood and blew on an ember and started “a beautiful fire” and told her: “The only source of the enduring fire is when the ember hidden in yesterday’s ashes is ignited by the breath of the unknown.”
Arriving in Belfast for the first time in 2000 to take up her post she told that story to the late Robin Harris, an ordained Church of Ireland minister, former BBC executive in Belfast and founding chair of the L’Arche Committee in the city.
Maria recalls that Robin said to her that “we need to call our L’Arche house The Ember because L’Arche will be an ember hidden in yesterday’s ashes and will be the source of an enduring fire in Northern Ireland”.
In recent years, she has offered her companionship to people in the Protestant Sandy Row area of Belfast, having “fallen in love with the people there” and helping them to re-build their sense of community.
Asked if she had any advice for Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill of the DUP and Sinn Féin as they attempt to rebuild the Executive in the North, she says she would love to meet them and appeal to their respective vulnerability and to the common ground of their shared humanity.
“If Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill were in this room together, I would say how can we be human together, how can we find the human connection which is a leveller? I would really like to get them together to talk about their children, to talk as mothers, not as politicians and for them to bring up with me what – more than anything – they would love for their children.
“What sort of life do they want outside of politics, outside of religion, just for a moment to dream beyond the labels and the limits that stop us dreaming here in Northern Ireland? The minute we start to dream here our dreams get filtered through the colour of our flag,” she says.
So, she would invite Ms Foster and Ms O’Neill to “lay down the flag for one moment and open your heart as a parent or a grandparent and say truly, truly, what do we want for our children to live, what do we want for them?”
Looking ahead to next August’s expected visit to Ireland by Pope Francis and the opportunities this may present for renewal she says she has already been asking the Irish Church “to contemplate how can the Church be family for people who long to belong? What is the role of Church in the possibility of a world where everyone has a place to belong?”
She says that because she is very mindful that when she came to Belfast first as a stranger the only place familiar to her was the Catholic Church.
But she recalls going from parish to parish in Belfast and discovering “it is possible to go to Mass without ever connecting with a single human being, which was crazy because we are supposed to be about communion and community”.
“I was dying of loneliness in Belfast when I came here and that only changed when in my own parish of St Columcille’s [in east Belfast] I exchanged the sign of peace with someone and seeing the tears streaming down her face I said to her are you OK and she said she wasn’t, and afterwards we went for coffee. Her tears gave me a place that mattered.”
That was 17 years ago and notwithstanding the growth of a welcoming ministry in churches in Down and Connor following the listening process a few years ago, she still feels “that our churches are too sanitised of poverty and brokenness”.
Asked what she would say to the Pope if she happened to have 10 minutes with him she would tell him “I agree with you that we have to smell the sheep and can I say to you that our churches are too sanitised. It is like walking into a church that has been sanitised of poverty, of brokenness. The rituals are so clean that there is no room for the mess, there is no room to smell the sheep and I don’t mean that in any critical way but you walk in and it’s beautiful and that’s fine if everyone is OK, but what if they are not? Where is the space where people can connect at a human level?”
To help address this she suggests that if she was in charge of a parish the first thing she would examine would be “what table fellowship looks like”.
She would introduce tea and coffee after Mass in every church in Ireland to help lonely people make friends and a monthly Sunday lunch, “and if you provide the lunch for the homeless the lonely will come to serve them because very often the loneliest people in the world don’t look lonely at all”.
Maria says she is no feminist but welcomes the creativity of some priests in finding ways for the voice of women to be heard in the sanctuary e.g. at the Clonard Novena in Belfast; at the novenas organised by Fr Brian D’Arcy CP at The Graan outside Enniskillen and at the recent Triduum honouring St Benedict Joseph Labre, hosted by Fr Michael McGinnity, in St Malachy’s, Belfast, to which she herself was pleased to contribute.
Maria Garvey spent her youth “juggling and navigating many identities” figuring out where she belonged: in the rural idyll of west Kerry under Mount Brandon, the place of her parents and grandparents; Mitchelstown where she was born and raised; or just across the county boundary in Knockadea, Co. Limerick where she went to primary school?
Then she could not have remotely foreseen that 50 years later her home would be in Belfast “a place I have grown to love” where she has long intended to stay for the rest of her life, contributing in her quiet unique way to community building in such a divided yet often uplifting place while also helping to renew the Church in her understated way. She is needed.