A simple but beautiful stone nameplate at the entrance
The word ‘Solace’ was borrowed into English in the 14th century (via the Normans) from the Latin solacium, which in turn derives from the Latin verb solari, meaning "to console."
“Solari” is also the source of the English words "console" and "consolation". When I first visited ‘Solace’ in St. Joseph’s Avenue in Donegal town, Billy Love was tending the lovely grotto and gardens. There is an innate feeling of tranquility as the fountain water trickles over the stones, and inside Sister Magdalene was meeting some of her service users. She is a tireless champion of hospice home care, reluctant to take any credit herself, but behind her gentle humble demeanour, there’s a serious resolve born out of faith and compassion. As Phil Gallagher, the PRO for Solace tells me: “She’s great craic, Frank, you can say anything to her!” When Billy Love meets her outside, he says: “God, you’re all dressed up today, Sister...you must have known you were getting your photograph taken!” Magdalene dissolves into laughter.
She was the only girl born to the Moore family in Ballygar, on the Roscommon side of County Galway. “ I always wanted to go on the Missions, but being the only girl, I wanted to be fairly near my family. Believe it or not, I first studied hotel management in Sligo but I met a nun, Sister Peter, on a bus heading home from Dungloe where she nursed with the Sisters of Mercy.
After a chat with her, I went to Ballyshannon where I met Sisters Raphael, Jarlath, and others from Galway. I decided to stay and have never regretted a day since. The toughest part was that Novitiates didn’t get home for six years, but after I took my final vows, I went to Belfast for nurses training and Salford in Manchester for maternity.
In 1966, ten Sisters from the Raphoe Diocese went on their first missionary venture outside Ireland, to Billings, Montana, to the Diocese of Great Falls. While the invitation was given by Bishop W. J. Conden, it was Fr. John Joe Moore, Sister Magdalene’s brother, who was instrumental in bringing the Sisters to The Big Sky State.
Four took up nursing posts at St. Vincent’s Hospital, while the other six, following a period of initial training, began teaching at Billings Central High School. “I loved Montana...there were many of Irish descent, particularly in the mining areas around Butte, and they were tremendous workers.
“While I was there, my 42-year old brother died of cancer in Ballygar, leaving a family of 5 children, so I took a leave of absence to come back, after which I returned to Billings, but I was 15 years in total in Montana.”
She returned to Letterkenny General Hospital and with Helen McMahon, was responsible for the setting up of Hospice Cancer Home Care, under the auspices of the then NWHB.
Phil Gallagher explained, cancer was not a subject mothers could discuss at home with their children, so initially the women met over tea or coffee and not only talked, but crucially listened. That was in 1989. Ten years later, they started looking for what they called a secure and permanent ‘place apart’.
Thanks to Councillor Peter Kennedy, whose contribution is acknowledged on a plaque in the grotto, a site was identified in St. Joseph’s Avenue, and the Solace Cancer Centre was opened on 6th September 2007. It operates on donations alone...there is no funding from the HSE.
Sister Magdalene, who came to Donegal in the 90’s, lays emphasis on the importance of listening. “It’s so important..as is empathy. It’s all part of the counselling here in Solace.”
Phil reminds me that “Everything we do at The Solace Cancer Centre is confidential and is carried out in a professional, caring and welcoming environment with total consideration for all concerned.
Sister Magdalene who along with Helen McMahon, was responsible for the setting up of Hospice Cancer Home Care, under the auspices of the then NWHB
“We know that it is difficult to make that move and make the call, but don’t worry, you will be met by a trained volunteer who will chat with you over a cuppa.”
The aim and objectives of The Centre is:
To offer emotional and practical support to people with any life limiting condition, as well as their family and friends
To lessen the fear associated with the word cancer
To provide a “drop-in” centre where people with cancer may access support and information
To make sure The Centre is open to all whose lives have been affected by cancer
To continue to develop and meet the cancer needs of the people of Donegal and the wider locality
To offer one to one counselling services, to include bereavement support, by appointment
Complementary therapies such as Reflexology, by appointment
Closed group courses such as Mindfulness, Art Therapy, Dream Therapy, Relaxation Classes, Pilates, Knitting Groups, Monday Night Relaxation and Prayer Group. It also offers a series of information talks by the professions, such as dealing with Prostate Cancer, Cancer and Fatigue, Cancer and Nutrition, Positive Appearance, etc.
There is also an extensive library with a large range of reading material. Phil also shared details of the The Rainbows programme which supports children and young people affected by loss because of bereavement, separation and divorce.
So what does the future hold for Sister Magdalene? “There is some improvement in the distances cancer patients have to travel compared to a few years ago but my wish is that they improve, particularly the ‘fragmentation’ of the services currently.”
As I depart, I chat to Billy Love again as he delicately wields his secateurs in the plants and flowers in the gravelled margin at the entrance.
I’m struck by a number of things...firstly, Billy’s surname sums up the ethos of this haven of peace, and secondly, thank God for opportune encounters on the Donegal/Sligo bus. Little did Sister Peter know then that her gentle nudge towards Ballyshannon transformed a possible Hotel Manager into a Sister of Mercy, whose vision and commitment has given hope and solace to so many.