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Thursday, March 13, 2008

As a retired nun turns 100, she reflects on her years of devotion to God, others

By Sophia Rodriguez
The Post and Courier
Thursday, March 13, 2008

Sister Brendan Lacey has led a full life. She immigrated to the United States in her teens, brought people through medical catastrophes as a nurse, helped bring life into the world, and developed a close and deeply personal relationship with God.

She has a lifetime of memories to draw upon, and a few days before her 100th birthday are just as good a time as any to reflect on them.

"All life is what you make of it," she said, sitting in the parlor of the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy convent on Fort Johnson Road, her hands folded serenely in her lap and a slight smile on her kind face.

This is one of those life lessons she has learned from her many years on Earth. It all depends how you view your circumstances and what you decide you want out of life. Some may shun the ideals of a Catholic sisterhood, a life void of a spouse, raising a family and pursuing a layman's career as too quaint, too provincial, maybe too boring to seriously consider. But in a way, Lacey has all those things.

Even though she had never considered working as a nurse, she found her way into that field as a result of her pull toward the religious life as a young teenager. Not only does she have other family members in the United States, but she always has had a built-in one at the institutions where she has lived throughout her life. And in a sense, her closeness to God is a marriage: one of love and strong bonds built over the years.

Lacey's story began when she was born as Elizabeth on March 14, 1908, in County Laois, Ireland, about 90 miles southwest of Dublin. She was educated at the National School and then by Mother McAuley's Sisters of Mercy. When she was 13, she started to feel she was being called to serve in a similar capacity as the nuns who were her teachers.

"It was beyond a boarding school," Lacey said. She also was preparing for her future service.

She met two nuns at Our Lady of

Mercy from Charleston. They were vacationing in the beautiful country, but they also had been instructed by the area's bishop at the time, the Most Rev. William T. Russell, to invite young women who were interested in serving in foreign missions to Charleston. The 16-year-old girl took them up on the offer and, along with seven other girls, hopped aboard a ship headed for New York Harbor.

She arrived in 1924, and a few days later, sailed down to Charleston on a Clyde Mallory Line vessel. One of the first noticeable differences she encountered between her homeland and her new land was the temperature jump. The August heat took her by surprise because in comparison, "Ireland is a very cold country." She also had to get used to the Southern drawl. But she didn't feel lost.

"I didn't feel I was in a foreign country because there were four girls here who had come out of school a year before me," she said.

She began her training for the sisterhood, called novitiate, at the motherhouse, which was behind the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist at the time.

"You go through the routine of the day," she said. "You have different times of the day when you pray, and you have different times for meals. You go to bed at a certain time, and wake up at a certain time."

After six months, she received her habit and a new religious name that she got to pick: Brendan.

"I had no other reason than, 'Here is an Irish saint,' " she said.

After that, she entered the standard two years of training. The first year consisted of learning the rules and structure of her new life. She did no outside work and took three vows, that of poverty, chastity and obedience. "We study each one of those vows and what they entail. ... We don't marry, we don't own anything in private and we obey what (the leaders of the convent and church) say."

After that training was over, she entered nurse's training, something she had never considered doing before but agreed to because it was asked of her. She was on the St. Francis Xavier Hospital's staff until 1960, then transferred to Divine Saviour Hospital and Nursing Home in York. She spent three years as the matron of the City Orphan Asylum that was on Queen Street in Charleston, and then returned to Divine Saviour in 1964 and remained there until the early '90s.

Most of those years, she worked as a night supervisor in an active emergency room, treating patients for injuries from car accidents and "things resulting from brawls and fights and things like that."

"I had to accommodate myself to a lot of things, especially OB. You can read about those things, but when you see it, it's a different thing."

She would sleep in the daytime and work 12-hour shifts. It was a happy and educational time. "It gets you into the joys and sorrows of people," she said.

In 1992, she moved to Simpsonville to be a fellow nun's companion. Although she didn't have any assigned work, she found small tasks to occupy her time. She wrote thank-you letters at the St. Mary Magdalene Society to people who asked for Masses to be said for someone or sent money to the church. She stayed there until four years ago, when she retired to her current home at the motherhouse on James Island.

She considers her nursing years as a ministry of service, while her days now are spent in a ministry of prayer. She feels fortunate to have access to daily Mass at Our Lady of Mercy's chapel. Prayer has been the constant thread throughout her years — prayers for families, the community's needs, prayers for people to acquire virtue, prayers for the sick, the deceased, the cessation of war — the list goes on.

"I pray a lot, and that sustains me," she said. "I enjoy the company of the other sisters."

Her pleasures and activities are simple. She doesn't know much about what goes on beyond the convent walls, but she keeps up with newspapers and television broadcasts. She religiously watches Brian Williams on the "NBC Nightly News" even though her eyesight isn't what it used to be.

As for turning the ripe young age of 100?

"Situations make you feel old," she said, gesturing to her walker. "Your body is a good teacher. It tells you what you're capable of and what you're not."

As for the rest of it, "I feel no different in my life than when I was 20. I just know my years are shorter."

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