Elisabeth Öhlböck, Tina Hill and Irene Jovaras from Belfast visited Sister Anna Hoare, near Oxford.
[New City Magazine – January 2015]
A little group from the North of Ireland travelled to England to visit Sister Anna Hoare, a Sister of the Love of God (SLG). They have come to thank her who, in the 1970’s, sowed the first seeds of the Focolare spirituality amongst young people in Belfast coming from both Catholic and Protestant backgrounds. Also to thank her for the immense contribution she gave to the lives of so many people inspired by the spirituality of unity.
From Belfast to Tuscany
In 1973 Sister Anna arranged for a group of twelve young Protestants and Catholics from some of the biggest secondary schools in Belfast to attend the first large-scale Focolare international youth event held on the 1 May 1973 in Loppiano, Italy. This event became the forerunner to subsequent youth festivals or Genfests. They left Belfast extremely conscious of their differences as Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists and Catholics. They came back utterly changed, now convinced that their differences were not an obstacle and if they wanted to make a difference, change had to begin with themselves. One of those young people was Sally McAllister from North -Belfast. Sally now lives in Loppiano, in the Tuscany region of Italy, and works with the international Performing Arts Group, ‘Gen Verde’. Through their concerts and workshop activities with young people, Gen Verde strives to contribute to the creation of a global culture of peace and unity, through the arts. Another of these young people was Angela Graham, who is now living and working as a journalist in Wales.
From this first initiative, a vibrant Focolare youth group sprang to life. They were young people, who believed that by letting the words of the Gospel change their own hearts, they could contribute to changing the future of their country. Sister Anna was instrumental in this desire.
An extraordinary Life
But who is Sister Anna who has had such influence on so many people? This Anglican sister was attached to a contemplative Anglican Convent in Oxford: the Sisters of the Love of God. Thanks to Sister Adrian, SLG who has known Sister Anna for many years, we have been able to find out more about Sister Anna Hoare, who was born in 1917 in the South of England, in a family of ‘landed gentry’.
Her life conceals a history of someone truly original. From very early on she had a passion for God, for peace and for unity amongst people. In 1943 she graduated in Theology from Oxford University and felt called to be a ‘monastic pilgrim’ which in her words meant ‘to travel anywhere on the surface of the globe without money, doing whatever providence gives me to do’.
Her first adventure was among a German community of refugees in Leicestershire, who she tried to help recover from their wartime anguish. After that, she went to France where she worked in plantation fields alongside Russian Orthodox nuns who gave her board and taught her their language. Her journey then took her to the Greek Islands where she discovered her gift of ‘getting things done’. She started by ‘begging for portions of corn’ to pay some villagers in order to re-build a derelict house for a family. This eventually turned into a project which saw the refurbishment of some thirty houses.
In 1971 an invitation from Mother Teresa of Calcutta brought her to Belfast. Her welcome to the city included being showered with milk bottles by a group of Protestant children who mistook this Anglican nun for a Catholic. From this came her resolution ‘to train’ the children in the province in reconciliation tactics and she became a pioneer and sower of seeds for peace and reconciliation in the midst of the ‘Troubles’. One of these seeds included giving birth to the first Focolare group in Belfast.
Her limitless faith in Providence enabled her to cross many boundaries. People from Belfast remember her walking out into streets with her bucket in the midst of ‘trouble’ to collect the nails that had been scattered to puncture army vehicles. No bullet ever touched Sister Anna. Her love for her neighbours of both denominations was practical and hands on. She would travel from house to house on her moped with her crash helmet on her head, looking after those whose lives had been shattered, helping both Protestant and Catholic young people to find jobs and to do well at school. She would travel around Europe and America fundraising. She took groups of people away and out of the warzone to have a different experience, sometimes without anything but a flask and tea bags. As she knocked on doors for hot water, she won over people as well as hot meals and lodging! It is said that it was impossible to say ‘No’ to Sister Anna.
Breaking down the walls
One of her biggest contributions to Northern Ireland was her work with the organisation ‘All Children Together’ which established an integrated secondary school in the hope that children could live, learn and make friends with one another. Lagan College, named after the river that flows through Belfast, today has over one thousand two hundred students. Other schools followed Lagan College’s example and there are now over fifty integrated schools around the North of Ireland. In 2008, when Sister Anna was visited in England by some staff from Lagan College, she was asked for a message for the students. Her answer was simple: ‘I want them to be happy. If they are good they will be happy and if they are happy they will be good.’
In 2005 Sister Anna was nominated as part of a group of a thousand women for the Nobel Peace prize and was also honoured with an MBE for her work in Northern Ireland. The Sunday Mirror, an Irish newspaper, said of her: ‘This great lady’s dedication to her vocation and her tireless work among the sectarian divide in Northern Ireland epitomises true Christian values’ (Irish Sunday Mirror, July 13, 2003).
The only person is God
So many things could still be said about Sister Anna and a book would probably not be enough to talk about her multi-faceted life. But how has it been for us to meet her on this memorable afternoon in November 2014? Sister Anna Hoare, a person who saw beyond appearances and touched the lives of so many people. A woman, whose life has been impressively fruitful and has given rise to so many initiatives and projects, working incessantly so that people could experience God’s healing love. Encountering her at ninety-seven years of age, totally blind and with her cognitive ability fading, we were plunged into a reality in which we encountered not so much her actions but her soul. When we asked her whether she was born in England or elsewhere, she answered: ‘Of course I am English, but my heart is in God.’ We understood that at her core, Sister Anna had always been active, but this had nothing to do with activism. The person we met in this little nursing home in Oxford proved this to us: that God is and has always been the centre and driving force of her life. God has remained the reality she now inhabits. While we were with her, she repeated on various occasions that secularism was growing and on a request for a message for her friends in Ireland she asserted: ‘The only person is God.’
At our departure, from her arm-chair, in her small room on the outskirts of Oxford, Sister Anna said to us with a smile on her face: ‘We must gently blow people back to God.’
Photos: New City Archive