Br. Stephen's Story
Br. Stephen and other referees receiving an Adult Referee Course Certificate from the GAA President, Mr John Hogan.
One of my earliest memories is of my two brothers and myself ‘saying mass’ when we were younger in the upstairs of my father’s pub. In fact, thinking back, many of my memories revolve around such things as attending Mass, going to altar-boy practice or participating in the local novena. If this makes me sound devoutly religious, I am anything but. However, the point is that I had a normal Irish childhood, and many reading this will have similar memories.
Obviously, at such an early age, I had little intention of entering Religious life. But this changed when I entered Secondary School, and a returning missionary showed us a presentation on leprosy in Ethiopia. This deeply touched me, and I remember fundraising for the Brother, and my Religion teacher saying that she would be proud if I became a Priest/brother. Perhaps she saw something I didn’t? At that time, I remember thinking the life of a religious was very daring and exciting. As one was helping the poorest in our world and society. I still think this is part of my vocational calling today!
Call to Priesthood
However, it wasn't until I was about 16 that I seriously considered the idea of Priesthood. I remember sending off a letter requesting information around that time to my diocesan vocations director. Whether or not it was received, I don't know, but the fact that I never heard anything back made me think that I wasn’t good enough to be considered. The thought then evaporated from my head for some time.
And so life continued, and I did all the things that a young man does. I had girlfriends, I went out socialising with friends and played a huge variety of sports. With hurling being my first love in sport! I had various jobs while I attended university, and I finally qualified as a secondary school teacher. Eventually, working my way to be a Deputy Headteacher. I loved teaching, and those years were undoubtedly the most enjoyable of my life. I still miss the interaction with the pupils to this very day, and I do hope that I might one day work in one of our Augustinian schools here in Ireland.
During my long school holidays, I volunteered with the Missionaries of Charity in India, Ethiopia, Romania, London and Albania. It was those experiences that were hugely influential in my vocation to Augustinian religious life. As a volunteer, I was encouraged to participate in the life of the Sisters. And I must say I thoroughly enjoyed their rhythm of life. In fact, this way of life is very similar to our own Augustinian life. Both lives having an emphasis on prayer, ministry, silence and contemplation. Maybe that’s why as Augustinians, we are sometimes referred to as Active Contemplatives?
A Religious Vocation as something Profound
Even though I had a successful teaching career and all the outward signs of fulfilment, I was always seeking something more profound, and I found this when I prayed and spent time in silence with God. And this led me to the Augustinians. You see, the essential Augustinian charism of coming together as a community, “one in mind and heart”, is very appealing to me and something I feel that I contribute positively towards. I desire to serve God in many forms, from serving His poor in whatever way poverty manifests itself – physical, spiritual, material, financial etc., celebrating the sacraments, studying or just merely being present in community with my brother friars. I believe I am making a difference, however small that may be.
Contrary to what many people think, living as an Augustinian does not mean sacrificing everything that I know or believe in. In fact, I experience a great sense of freedom living the life I know God wants me to live. And I know our Order actively tries to make sure that each Friar is living their true vocational calling. I can honestly say that I feel entirely at home in our Augustinian communities. So I simply can't imagine not being an Augustinian now.
There is so much more to say, but I hope at least this gives you some idea as to my Augustinian journey. If you are interested in finding out more, I am more than happy to hear from you, so please do get in touch through our Vocation Director, Fr Colm O’Mahony, OSA (details on below)
Good luck in your discernment, and if you are open, God will grace you with all the answers you require.
Bro. Stephen Shields, OSA
Fr. Colm O'Mahony's Story
Originally from Cork, Fr. Colm started out studying and working in Social Science and Social Care. Now, an Augustinian friar based in Drogheda, Co. Louth, one might well ask how Fr. Colm changed course to a life of community and prayer with the Augustinians. Or perhaps it was not that much of a shift! Let us follow the story some more and discover the man that has formed into the friar and the Order that has inspired the man. So, after leaving school in Cork Colm continued his education in UCC for three years, qualifying in Social Science in 1999. This degree opened the door to a life changing experience of working in residential centres for children and for people with specific needs. Working in such an environment comes with its rewards and challenges. As Fr. Colm says “No day was the same; I was working with people who were severely intellectually or physically disabled. Over two years I worked particularly with one young man who was autistic. I had to assist him in all aspects of self-care, social interaction and life skills. I learned so much from him; how a person’s personality can shine through even with such limits and how to communicate and be with someone without having to speak.”...
Then something else began to emerge from within Colm’s life and that was a sense of vocation. As St. Augustine might put it “Since love grows within you, so beauty grows. For love is the beauty of the soul,” and to dip one’s toe into the waters of any vocation is to step into a whole new world of discovery that will unfold from within and without oneself. So, in 2005 Colm did not just step in, but fully immersed himself in the Augustinian way of community life and rhythm of prayer. His first stop as a student was to Galway before he set off on an adventure of a lifetime and a world tour of the Order over the next few years. He lived, studied, worked and prayed for periods in the USA, Cork, Rome, New Ross and Dublin before eventually moving to Drogheda in 2013.
The Augustinian life is a busy but rewarding life filled with growth, purpose and passion. A passion for the community within the friary but also a passion for those the friars serve. This passion is what energises Fr. Colm in his busy roles as Prior, Vocations Director, Pre-Novitiate Programme Director and chaplain to a local school, to name but a few of his roles. He finds vocation work to be a very fulfilling experience as it has brought him to meet young men and women from all over Ireland who are discerning religious life, and indeed the world. Kenya, Philippines and Pakistan to name just a few of these countries he has visited. However, Fr. Colm finds a common theme amongst all these people who are searching out their vocation in life and that is “everyone wants to find where they belong in life; what am I here for? People sense that there is more to the world, to life than what we are told by the media and society. They want to try something different, to fill that inner yearning we all have.”
The sense of community and the shared spirit he has experienced in Augustinian Communities around the world is what continually draws him back to his own community in Drogheda. The Augustinian Community there has a strong tradition of outreach and Fr. Colm has worked with Vocations Ireland to bring youth evangelisation to Drogheda with NET Ministries, as well as working with the local religious communities on common projects around prayer and vocations. One such project, in which Fr. Colm was involved was the restoration and opening of the old priory stables as a house of formation. Since the “The Stables” opened 5 years ago, the community has welcomed someone new each year to discern their vocation. They spend time in prayer, reflection and partake in the rhythms of community life to experience what it means to be an Augustinian. An Augustinian, that is, someone who is grounded in over a millennium of tradition and history but who is ever present to the challenges of the world around them. Fr. Colm’s membership on the Board of Directors for the Red Door Project is testament to this connection to the realities of modern life. The Red Door Project is a charity that works with people in addiction and crisis and plays a pivotal part in Drogheda’s re-generation project. Indeed, ever present to the needs of the wider community the Augustinians have opened the “The Stables” to Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous. Fr. Colm says of “The Stables” that it is a space where, “people feel welcome, wanted and not judged. On a practical level it is warm and inviting. You can’t expect people to heal or journey through difficult times in their life if the physical room is cold and unwelcoming. We have a small garden here so there is the sense of nature and life. It is private yet in the middle of town. It is also a space where we can invite people to come and share in our life in a more real and deep way. It is one thing to read about St. Augustine or the Augustinians, but it is only when you come and live with the friars that you have a full sense of what it means to be a religious in 2021.” So, it is a dynamic space founded on Augustinian principles and where other groups and individuals come to share their lived experience and grow together, whether it is through counselling, prayer groups or youth ministry and music.
Fr Colm believes that “community” is the core of the Augustinian life and the current pandemic has really highlighted this for him. He and the Augustinian Community in Drogheda have received overwhelming support from the local people. Fr. Colm would go so far as to say the local people's support “…from early on in Drogheda amazed me by the level of involvement in the Augustinian. We have been blessed with people active and interested in their faith, their church and in being Augustinians. We are especially known for our music which varies every Sunday as well as having two static choirs here: The Augustinian Choir and the Augustinian Gospel Choir. A few years ago, when we as a province first started seriously engaging with the laity all communities were invited to meet with their volunteers and those interested in the Augustinians to gauge the level of support etc. We had to hire a room in a hotel as over 120 people turned up! There is hardly ever a time that you can walk through our church and not find someone at prayer, chatting to a friend, or lighting a candle. The friars are very much loved here and supported because we make an effort to be visible, to be among the community and they appreciate that.”
Fr. Colm has brought this sense of community into the way he deals with the inclusion of the marginalised in society such as those with disabilities. He states with great enthusiasm that “there should be no physical barriers to people entering our buildings to pray or participate in whatever is going on.” This is the very reason why he installed a disability access point in the church and insisted that the construction of the Garden of Remembrance be accessible to all, especially those with limited mobility. A passionate and active member of the Augustinian Lay Forum he always encourages people to use their voice and take leadership roles in the lay organisation and in the running of their church. Fr. Colm points out that “the laity who work with us are “Augustinians”. They enable us to do so much and they really want to be part of our journey. The friars may come and go in a particular area, but the people stay and carry on this sense of welcome, inclusion, non-judgement, laughter; in essence community. It is about empowering them to have a real voice, a real role, which isn’t always easy as sometimes the friars do not like change.” In more recent years the Augustinians in Drogheda featured prominently during the Fleadh festivals. Over two years there were concerts, talks and poetry recitals held in the Church and Garden of Remembrance. Yet, another way that the Augustinians in Drogheda support a church that is there for everyone to feel at home in.
Reflecting over the past few years since joining the Augustinians Fr. Colm comments that “I never thought I would do half the things I have done. I loved working in the prison and in the school and hospital. I love meeting people who are trying to figure out if they have a vocation. I love community life; it is not always easy or perfect but the care, love and support I have experienced from my Augustinian brothers has been amazing at times. We like each other and like being in each other’s company even though we may be from different background experiences, ages, outlook, etc. I sense God when I am with them and in my ministry.”
We started Fr. Colm’s story in Cork and travelled along his life’s journey, taking stops at key moments that have shaped him. But if anything, we hope this has been a story that has journeyed to your heart and you have connected with a man, a friar and an Augustinian who has grown in the Augustinian tradition of community and prayer to now share that same fellowship with those he now serves.