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Meet Sister Olive Cooney, the woman Belfast's homeless call their very own Mother Teresa

By Stephanie Bell

Published 18/02/2016

Caring nature: Sister Olive Cooney at the Dominican Convent in West Belfast
Caring nature: Sister Olive Cooney at the Dominican Convent in West Belfast
Sister Olive Cooney with her Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year Award
Top prize: Sister Olive with her niece Barbara Agnew at the Woman of the Year Awards
Great honour: Sister Olive Cooney derives great joy from helping others

An 84-year-old Dominican nun Sister Olive Cooney, our Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year 2015 winner in the voluntary sector, says she feels privileged to be helping the vulnerable in society.

If ever there was a winner humbled to receive a Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year Award it was our 2015 winner in the voluntary sector Sister Olive Cooney.

By the very nature of the life she chose for herself committed to serving the Lord and the community as a member of the Dominican Order, Sister Olive's heart has always been in helping others.

While she regards it as a privilege and a joy, those on the receiving end of her selflessness see it differently. To them she is "Northern Ireland's answer to Mother Teresa".

Sister Olive was nominated for our award in honour of her tireless work as a volunteer at the Belfast charity for the homeless, The Welcome Organisation.

Although 84 and retired some years now, every Wednesday at 8am come rain or shine she sets off for the laundry room of the centre where she spends all day washing clothes and sleeping bags for the homeless.

It is strenuous work in a hot, windowless room where she has four washing machines and tumble dryers going non-stop yet those in need, who come through the door, are always greeted with a warm smile and a kind word.

It is not unusual for Sister Olive to arrive at the centre and find clothes stacked to the ceiling. She works alone all day sorting, washing, drying and folding every item.

It was her colleagues at the welcome centre, who witness her dedication week in and week out, who surprised her by nominating her for our award last year.

One year on and Sister Olive is still thrilled by the accolade and recalls vividly how she felt when told she had been nominated: "It really took me by surprise.

"When I was told I had been shortlisted I said 'not at all, I don't deserve anything'.

"My niece went with me to the awards in the Ramada Hotel and I remember saying I shouldn't be there at all.

"When they called my name I was so shocked I said 'I think I'll get under the table'. It was a very pleasant night and a great surprise. I gave my niece my trophy as she has a lovely home and somewhere to display it."

It was 67 years ago at the age of just 18 that Olive left Dominican College in Dublin and decided to join the Dominican Order herself.

At school she fell in love with the Dominican way of life, its ethos and its aims.

She says: "St Dominic taught us this: 'Scatter the grain and bring forth fruit'. This is what I was preparing to do."

A farmer's daughter, she grew up one of eight children in Co Westmeath, and was delighted to have the blessing of her parents, brothers and sisters when she told them her plans.

"They gave me their blessing, but my father took me to one side to remind me of something.

"He said, 'This is your choice, Olive, and we are happy for you, but never forget, our door will always be open for you here, no matter what, no matter when'," she recalls.

During her career she has been located across the length and breadth of Ireland, north and south, working in various capacities as a teacher, a pastoral counsellor, a manager and carer for those in need, while maintaining and observing the Dominican way of life every step of the way.

In 1964, she began teaching Home Economics in St Mary's College on Belfast's Falls Road and spent what she describes as "a joyful few years" working with the young people who she treated like they were children of her own.

Many of her past pupils and students kept in touch with her after leaving school and, to this day, still write and visit. "This was a very challenging time for me, but the things that I had missed by joining a religious life, like family, relations and friends, were all now there for me but in a different way. Working with these children and being a part of their enthusiasm for life and learning made every day feel worthwhile," she says.

She left St Mary's College in 1979 and moved to Queen's University, Belfast, where she worked as an administrator.

A number of years followed where she worked as a chaplain in Musgrave Park Hospital before retiring seven years ago when she became a volunteer for the Welcome Organisation.

Working with the homeless is something she always wanted to do and retirement gave her the chance to take on a voluntary role.

Sister Olive says she feels grateful to have good health to allow her to do what is a physically demanding job which keeps her on her feet for hours.

"It is a privilege to be associated with the organisation and to be able to work for those who are less well off than I am," she says.

"I go every Wednesday morning. I get the bus outside the gate at 8am and stay until I am completely finished which can be around 4 or 4.30pm.

"I love going there. I appreciate what the homeless give me rather than what I give them.

"There is a great sense of privilege working with homeless people.

"They are very gracious and very grateful for the work I do and they always thank me and hug me when I give them their clothes back.

"Many of them say that it is the only time they have ever been handed clothes that are folded. The faces change all the time as people get employment or young people get places at college," Sister Olive adds.

"There are definitely more younger people who come in and, with the recession especially in the construction industry, there are a lot of Polish people who came over to work in the building trade during the boom and who don't have the money to go back home. With the economic downturn we have seen older people come in, which is more tragic because younger people, at least, have the hope of going back to school and training for employment.

"People are there for all sorts of reasons, family break-ups or lack of employment." Despite her experience working with the homeless, Sister Olive says she is always moved by their plight.

"They would hand me their sleeping bags and say they had slept under the stars in this weather and it does go to my heart when I think of it," she says.

"We do the best we can at the centre, which has a great outreach programme where volunteers go out on cold nights to give hot tea, coffee and soup to those in need. I thank the Lord that I have the privileges that I have."

While it is a long day and Sister Olive is tired when she gets on the bus back home, she describes it as "a joyous fatigue".

"I am there to help others and it is good for me to be able to help and give my time, and I love my work," she adds.

"I'm going to be 85 in June and I feel very blessed that I am in good health and have the privileges I have."

How you can nominate someone ...

Do you know a woman you would like to nominate for a Woman of the Year award? If so, citations should include your name, address and daytime telephone number as well as the contact numbers for the person you are nominating, and should arrive not later than 12 noon on Thursday, February 25.

Send them to: Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year, Belfast Telegraph, 124 Royal Avenue, Belfast, BT1 1EB or email to: womanoftheyear@belfasttelegraph.co.uk. To secure your seat or for further information about the event, contact Sarah Weir at JPR, tel 028 9076 0066 or email mail@jprni.com

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