Caption Sister Catherine Lillis, Archbishop Luis Mariano Montemayor, Bishop Tom Deenihan and Mr Seán Ó Fearghaíl TD
The Apostolic Nuncio to Ireland, His Excellency Archbishop Luis Mariano Montemayor, Bishop Tom Deenihan, Bishop of Meath, and Independent Senator Rónan Mullen were amongst the many who attended, on 14 December, a special ceremony of recognition in Leinster House, Dublin, during which the Ceann Comhairle, Mr Seán Ó Fearghaíl TD, honoured Sister Catherine Lillis with a Human Dignity Award. The decision to present the Human Life, Human Rights and Human Dignity Award (Human Dignity Award) to Sister Catherine was proposed by Senator Rónán Mullen following agreement of the Oireachtas Life and Dignity Group, which was established in 2014 to promote discussion in Leinster House about the importance of respecting human dignity at all stages of life.
Sister Catherine, a 94-year-old Columban nun, is the founder and currently a director of Tabor House addiction treatment centre in Navan, and received the 7th Oireachtas Human Dignity Award from the Ceann Comhairle for her contribution to the cause of human dignity, which was described as “inspiring”.
Originally from Kilkee, Co Clare, both Sister Catherine’s parents were teachers. Her late brother Jimmy became a Columban priest and her late sister, Margaret became Sister Camillus, a Columban Sister. Both spent their missionary lives in the Philippines. Sister Catherine spent the early part of her missionary life in Burma (Myanmar), where she directed the Columbans’ medical clinic in the town of Manbaw. After the military took over in Myanmar, she worked at a Columban TB hospital in Hong Kong. In these places she first witnessed the dire consequences of substance abuse for individuals and families. She later established a rehabilitation hospital in Egypt for soldiers paralysed in the conflict with Israel. Thereafter Sister Catherine travelled to the United States where she trained as an addiction counsellor in the early 1970′s. Her training was based on the Minnesota model of addiction counselling, focusing on abstinence-based therapy. She believed this is the ultimate way to facilitate the restoration of the full person and has pursued this belief throughout her career.
Upon her return to Ireland, Sister Catherine worked in the Rutland Centre (Minnesota Model Treatment Centre) initially and subsequently in Dublin’s Inner City with the Health Board. During this period Sister Catherine also worked on a voluntary basis in Navan over the weekends – counselling people with addiction and their families – recognising that for many people suffering from addiction, primary treatment as provided by the private treatment centres was not sufficient. She realised the need for extended secondary treatment and this led to her founding Tabor House with a group of friends and supporters. The State began funding the work of Tabor House in 2003. Currently there is a ten-bed secondary treatment centre which helps men in early recovery to improve their quality of life through abstaining from addictive substances. Tabor House is now developing a similar centre to provide much-needed therapy and support for women recovering from addiction.
Decades ago, Sister Catherine also helped set up a rehabilitation hospital in Egypt to treat soldiers paralysed during the conflict with Egypt which ended with the Egypt-Israel peace treaty in 1979.
According to the Ceann Comhairle, “Sister Catherine is being honoured for her service to humanity on four continents. It seems like many lifetimes of good work have been packed in to just one life. Certainly not an easy life but she’s had a wonderful life.”
Senator Mullen described Sister Catherine as, “a living lesson to people tempted to despair over the problems in the world. She is a heroic figure, whose motto seems to have been ‘Do as much as you can, for as many as you can’, for as long as you can. In nominating Sister Catherine for the Human Dignity Award, we are honouring the woman herself, but also the work of Columban and other missionaries and many lay Irish people worldwide for their superhuman efforts in the cause of human dignity over the years.”
Sister Catherine received her award in the presence of family, Columban colleagues, friends and associates of Tabor House, and members of the Dáil and Seanad. There will also be an evening fundraiser in support of Tabor House, to help raise funds for a dedicated women’s facility at the centre.
Previous recipients of the Human Dignity Award were Sister Consilio Fitzgerald of Cuan Mhuire; Barney Curley, founder of Direct Aid For Africa; Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow founder of Mary’s Meals; Gina Heraty of Our Little Brothers and Sisters Orphanage in Haiti; Ronan Scully of Self-Help Africa; and, Brother Kevin Crowley OFM for his working in establishing, in 1969, the Capuchin Day Centre in Dublin city centre.
Earlier this year, Sister Catherine received a papal award, Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice, from the Bishop of Meath Tom Deenihan, in Saint Mary’s Church, Navan.