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I wasn't running away, says BBC journalist turned nun Martina Purdy

Alasdair McDonnell called because he thought the story about a hard-nosed hack becoming a nun was a joke... and then asked me to pray for him

By Noel McAdam

Published 24/12/2015

Martina today as a nun
Martina today as a nun
Martina Purdy in her reporting days for the BBC

Former journalist Martina Purdy tells today how she stopped wanting to quiz politicians - and began to pray for them instead.

The one-time BBC political correspondent, who left her glittering career to become a nun, says, however, that her transition was a “slow burn”, and insists: “It is a very fulfilling life”.

After announcing her conversion to the religious life, the veteran reporter who became a Sister of Adoration had a private meeting with First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, although they did not pray together.

The former DUP leader and senior Sinn Fein figure invited her for a cup of tea at their office and said “they wanted to hear about my call”.

Sister Martina says she was surprised that Stormont’s top two did not have more urgent business to be getting on with, but they stayed to hear her story.

“We didn’t pray but took a picture,” the author of a best-selling book on Stormont — Room 21: Behind Closed Doors — said.

The former BBC political correspondent also reveals she attempted to contact as many politicians as possible after her remarkable life change was made public 15 months ago.

The-then SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell rang her back — because he thought she was joking — and then he asked her to pray for him.

But one politician who she describes as a good contact but does not name, sent her a text saying: “I don’t understand.”

In her most detailed interview since leaving Broadcasting House for a Falls Road convent, Sister Purdy says: “I keep all the politicians in prayer.”

The Talkback programme — to be broadcast on BBC Radio Ulster just after noon today — focuses on how the former Irish News and Belfast Telegraph reporter gave up continual political controversy and endless deadlines for a life of virtual silence, in which she is only allowed to look at personal e-mails and texts once a week — on Sundays.

But it was not a sudden Damascus-style conversion. After a “very solid Catholic upbringing” she says she “absolutely” did not want to become a nun.

Briefly becoming tearful at one point in the programme, she tells presenter William Crawley that gradually she began to feel she did not have the heart for journalism anymore.

“I wouldn’t say I was unhappy,” she adds. “I was actually becoming more joyful, but that joy was coming from prayer.”

Her old life — as a “dedicated shopper” and going out with friends — became less satisfying as she continued to interview all the major political players.

“I felt I wanted to pray for them more than question them,” the former journalist says.

Martina adds it was a “slow-burn transformation” for her as she kept challenging the pull she felt towards the religious life. “I was still negotiating with the Lord,” is how she puts it.

And asked about her life now, she reveals: “It’s not a life I would have chosen for myself. The Lord chose it for me. It’s a very fulfilling life. It gives me joy.”

Martina’s final moment of epiphany came when she was outside walking at Drumalis Retreat near Larne and was transfixed by a tree.

It was a little bare but beautiful and she began to think of how it would look in full leaf and with fruit, transformed.

“I realised I was being offered transformation,” she says.

Yet she insists the change was her choice.

Ms Purdy discloses how she gave away all her possessions, including her clothes — many of them to charity — as well as selling her car and now does not own anything.

“I don’t want anything, I don’t need anything...I live as a child of God,” she adds.

Sister Martina says people who knew her well were not as shocked by her announcement as others.

But she was hurt when a friend of her brother Logan’s asked her, “What are you running away from?”

“I was not running away from anything, I was running towards the Lord,” Martina tells the hour-long broadcast which is the first in a series of seasonal specials also including former Deputy First Minister Seamus Mallon.

Nun Martina also insists, however, she is still in the communication business. She writes the convent’s journal and she tweets the Gospel. There is a “spiritual famine” out there, she says, even if people tell her “there must be something wrong with you”.

In terms of her personal appearance, Martina describes her experience as a “makeover in reverse”.

“I used to joke that my mascara would have to be wrenched from my cold, dead fingers,” she adds. “It’s great not to worry anymore about how [you look].”

But she confesses that she has been surprised at catching her own shadow at times in the convent — and seeing the shape is that of a nun.

In the programme she also chooses a number of songs, including Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run, Rod Stewart’s Forever Young and Danny Boy, sung by her mother, Margaret, who is 73.   

Presenter Crawley, conducting the sort of interview he was more used to on Sunday sequence, said the choice of music of all the subjects in the series told him a lot about them.

“You might think that a nun is going to chose Ave Maria, but not when the nun is Martina Purdy,” he said.

And yet her Christmas song is the Johnny Mathis classic, When a Child is Born.

Martina also talks about the reaction of her family and colleagues when she first disclosed her decision to take up the contemplative life.

“What surprised me was how good and supportive people were,” she says. “It seemed to bring joy to people”.

Among the more surprised of people she knew, however, was her brother, Logan, who had called her an “a la carte” Catholic in the past.

Martina also reveals the details of her “early to rise, early to bed” life in the convent, insisting that time flies.

But the self-confessed chatterbox admits it took a while to get used to an existence lived largely in silence.

“At first it was like, okay, I need to talk... but you grow into it,” she says.

There is much laughter throughout the revealing interview, and Martina says God has “a great sense of humour” and “loves irony”.

Belfast Telegraph

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