Obituary: Sister Assunta Kirwan OP
Monday 29 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.
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