MUCH LOVED Sr Ethel Normoyle with Mission Vale Centre volunteers in 2017. Pic: www.missionvaleireland.org
Fr Kevin Hegarty
In ‘On the Farm’, the Welsh priest and poet RS Thomas, wrote of a woman he knew:
And lastly there was the girl:
Beauty under some spell of the beast.
Her pale face was the lantern
By which they read in life’s dark book
The shrill sentence: God is love.
It is an apt description of Sr Ethel Normoyle who died on August 16 at the age of 77. A native of Lissycasey in County Clare she dedicated most of her life to the relief of poverty and oppression in South Africa.
After completing her education locally she joined the ‘Little Company of Mary’ in 1963. Founded in 1877, it is a religious institute dedicated to caring for the sick, the suffering and the dying. It has sisters ministering in the haunts of poverty in England, the US, Ireland, Australia and South Africa.
Ethel was inspired to follow the religious way of life by some words of Cardinal Newman:
“God has created me to do some service. Some work is committed to me which has not been committed to another. I have my mission. I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in the chain, a band of connection between persons. I have not been created for naught. I shall be good. I shall be an angel of peace.”
She proved to be an angel of peace and justice in South Africa to which she was appointed to minister in 1972. For almost 50 years she worked there until ill health brought her home to Clare earlier this year.
Love and compassion
When she arrived in South Africa the country was under the cosh of the evil apartheid regime. She was first based in Pretoria where she started night classes for black youths. It brought her the unwelcome attention of the security forces. She wrote of that experience:
“I did not expect the cruelty that I was faced with. I was threatened, spat on, stabbed and survived an attempted kidnap. The latter was what frightened me the most as when I would close the door in the morning, I had a fear that I would not return.”
She was concerned that her parents worried about her safety:
“It was a cause of great tension in me knowing that if anything did happen to me, the pain and stress I would have caused them and I certainly did not want that to happen.”
In 1988, she was transferred to Port Elizabeth. The apartheid regime was in its death throes, but it still had a sting. In her township she encountered poverty, squalor and an Aids epidemic.
What is now an impressive Mission Vale Centre started under the shade of a tree. Sr Ethel met a small group of children, played marbles with them and told them stories.
She persuaded a glass company, Shatterprufe, to fund her vision. By 1992, the centre had been established. It is an inter-denominational non-profit organisation devoted to providing care and support through love, compassion, consultation, participation and self-development.
It has a community centre where the poor and people with HIV are helped. There are plans for a hospice.
She inculcated a spirit of self-help among residents of the township by organising lessons in gardening, carpentry and basic adult education. She helped people access state benefits to which they are entitled. Every Christmas, 5,000 children receive gifts.
Her ministry has attracted international attention. Among those who visited the centre was Queen Elizabeth on a state visit to South Africa in 1996.
So impressed was she by what she saw that she mentioned it in her Christmas Day broadcast on BBC:
“I witnessed a glowing example of how the inspiration and energy of one person can benefit thousands of others. I suspect that Sr Ethel’s modesty and sense of humour prevent her from appreciating to the full extent her achievements.
“Christmas speaks of peace and goodwill. It is the Sr Ethels of this world who spread the message. It is for the rest of us to welcome it.”
Early this year, Sr Ethel returned to Clare. Diagnosed with terminal lung cancer she knew she was never to see South Africa again. She left the community of the Mission Vale with a poignant message:
“I have loved being with you and I will never forget you. You have blessed me and I treasure you so very, very much. You will always be in my heart and prayers. I love you forever.”