Obituary: Sister Assunta Kirwan OP

Maureen Dolores Kirwan, nun: born Mountmellick, Co Laois 27 September 1934; entered the Dominican Order 1950, receiving the habit as Sister Assunta; Headmistress, Rosary Priory High School, Bushey 1977-81; Warden, Spode Conference Centre 1982-88; Lecturer in Theology, Blackfriars, Oxford 1988-93; Prioress General of the Dominican Sisters of St Catherine of Siena 1993-97; died London 10 September 1997.

Sister Assunta Kirwan was one of the best known and loved sisters in the Catholic Church in Britain. Her spontaneity, unpretentiousness and enthusiasm for life drew many people to her who never would have imagined themselves befriending a Roman Catholic nun.

Her time as Warden of Spode House Conference Centre in Staffordshire typified much of what made her such an important figure in contemporary Catholicism. Spode House, under Fr Conrad Pepler OP, was one of the main centres for the renewal of Roman Catholicism in Britain both before and after the Second Vatican Council. In Spartan conditions, theologians and philosophers, politicians and trade unionists, artists and social workers would meet to discuss how Christians could face the challenges of modernity.

As Warden Sister Assunta combined a firm commitment to her church with a fearless openness to other intellectual and religious traditions. Jewish Christian dialogue was always a priority. Memorably, the Conference on the Church and Aids, in the Early Eighties when Aids was still the focus of intense and irrational fears, brought together people with Aids and HIV, doctors, nurses and chaplains in a wonderful atmosphere of hope, trust and mutual openness.

Assunta's time as Warden of Spode was also a sign of another central concern, which was the building up of the Dominican Family: friars and sisters, religious and laity. Sister Assunta firmly believed that women were called to play their part in the preaching vocation of the order, which needed the gifts of women and men. When she arrived at Spode House she was the only sister living in a community of friars. The doubts of some were quickly dispelled after a few stiff glasses of gin and tonic with her.

After the closure of Spode in 1988 Assunta organised conferences for the Domiincan Order all over Britain, on topics as diverse as poetry and spirituality, the morality of modern banking, and the role of women in the Church.

Much of her enthusiasm for life derived from her childhood in Ireland. She was one of seven children, and her loving family gave her not only her faith but also a confidence in the fundamental goodness of human beings. She joined the Dominicans at Rosary Priory, Bushey, in 1950.

Entering religious life was a joy but also sometimes hard. Hearing a prayer that "all earthly passions be turned to dust and ashes", she was heard to exclaim: "God forbid!" After final profession she taught at St Michael's School, Garston. It was during this time that she came to a new deep love of Scripture, rushing up to St Dominic's Priory, Haverstock Hill, to study the Bible with Fr Sebastian Bullough OP whenever there was a spare moment.

She acquired a Master's Degree in Divinity at Durham, under C.K. Barrett. Her thesis was on the great Pere Lagrange, the Dominican who founded the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem at the end of the last century. The brethren and sisters had hoped that she might be cured of cancer at Lagrange's intercession, but Assunta explained he probably disagreed with her thesis.

Ths passion for Scripture was at the root of her love for Judaism, and when the Congregation closed Rosary Priory High School, of which she had been Headmistress for four years, she was delighted that it became a Jewish school.

In 1993, Sister Assunta was elected Prioress General of her Congregation. She still found time to teach and preach, although most of her life was spent travelling, visiting the sisters in England, South Africa and Jamaica. She was on the executive of the Conference of Religious, representing it at the National Conference of priests. She could be relied on to speak out truthfully and fearlessly on any topic, with humour and magnanimity.

When she developed cancer last month, she faced her death with courage and cheerfulness. Just a week before her death, at the age of 62, she told me that she was not afraid to die; she had confidence in God.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham
booksLena Dunham's memoirs - written at the age of 28 - are honest to the point of making you squirm
Jacqueline Bisset has claimed that young women today are obsessed with being 'hot', rather than 'charming', 'romantic' or 'beautiful'
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey
tvDownton Abbey review: It's six months since we last caught up with the Crawley clan
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Frank Lampard and his non-celebration
premier leagueManchester City vs Chelsea match report from the Etihad Stadium
Life and Style
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
techNew app offers 'PG alternative' to dating services like Tinder
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden sings his heart out in his second audition
tvX Factor: How did the Jakes - and Charlie Martinez - fare?
premier league
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave crime series
Mario Balotelli celebrates his first Liverpool goal
premier leagueLiverpool striker expressed his opinion about the 5-3 thriller with Leicester - then this happened
Britain's shadow chancellor Ed Balls (L) challenges reporter Rob Merrick for the ball during the Labour Party versus the media soccer match,
peopleReporter left bleeding after tackle from shadow Chancellor in annual political football match
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says
tvSpoiler warning: Star of George RR Martin's hit series says viewers have 'not seen the last' of him/her
Plenty to ponder: Amir Khan has had repeated problems with US immigration because of his Muslim faith and now American television may shun him
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Head of Marketing and Communications - London - up to £80,000

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group Head of Marketing and Communic...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery Nurse required for ...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: L3 Nursery Nurses urgently required...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: We have a number of schools based S...

Day In a Page

A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments