Sister Irene McCormack: Australia’s next Saint?

"Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of men; for they will deliver you up to councils, and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear testimony before them and the Gentiles. When they deliver you up, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.”
Matthew 10:16-20

On the 20th anniversary of her death, Catholic Mission pays tribute to Sister Irene McCormack RSJ, a Sister of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart on mission to the Pueblo people of Peru who was martyred on Tuesday 21 May, 1991.

The tragic events of 20 years ago occurred during a turbulent period of violent insurrection in Peru when the Marxist guerrillas Sendero Luminoso (‘Shining Path’) were prosecuting an anti-government war based on terrorist acts and executions of anyone deemed to be supporting the government.

Mary MacKillop’s Sisters of St Joseph had been in Peru since 1981, living among the poor in the capital of Lima. But it was to an Andean village 270 kilometres away by tortuous mountain roads and 3,200 metres above sea level that Sister Irene and her companion Sr Dorothy Stevenson were called in 1989 to supervise the distribution of emergency goods by Caritas Peru.  

This was Huasahuasi, a village of 5,000 Pueblos people who eked out a living growing potato and maize on the slopes. Sister Irene called life among the people of Peru “a gift” and even in the presence of a disease like cholera reflected that “it brings home the fragility of life and that every day is a gift to be lived.” She ran a simple village schoolroom and library for the local children and supervised a community kitchen.

Her mission in Peru was the continuation of her dedication to bring literacy and God’s love to the poor and marginalised. Irene had been raised in a farming family in the town of Trayning in Western Australia. She was taught by the Josephite Sisters at the local school. Her family were supportive of her choice to enter religious life which she did at age 17.  She professed her first vows at age 20.

Known for her diminutive size ¬¬¬- compensated for by a large, lively spirit and gregarious personality, Irene was a much loved teacher and school principal in Western Australia. She was also an accomplished golfer and tennis player who enjoyed dancing and was a passionate supporter of Aussie Rules football, following the fortunes of the Fremantle Dockers and the West Coast Eagles.

To go on mission to Peru was to trust God and to go into the unknown. Her friend Bernadette Lush recalled that she wrote about “problems learning the language, acclimatising to the altitude and the weather, and then coming to terms with the utter poverty and degradation of the people”. She left for Peru in 1987, making only one unscheduled return trip to Australia because of ill health. Yet it was the thin air of the Andes and the people of Huasahuasi that called her back.

Due to the activities of the ‘Shining Path’ authorities had warned the resident priests and the sisters to leave Huasahuasi. They returned to Lima in December 1990 but Sisters Irene and Dorothy made the eight hour road trip back to Huasahuasi in January because they felt strongly that the Church should not abandon the people in their need. Without a resident priest the sisters continued to serve the people, leading liturgical services, teaching and providing nutritional meals.

On the evening of 21 May, 1991, a band of Shining Path guerrillas entered the village. Four men were taken from their homes and brought to the central plaza. They were the professor of the Community Agriculture College, Ruban Palacios Blancas, 54; the former Deputy Mayor, Alfredo Morales Torres, 56; a member of the town vigilante committee, Predro Pando Llanos and the delegate for the committee which purchased the television dish for Huasahuasi, Agustin Bento Morales, 50.

The guerrillas also went to the convent where Sr Irene was alone, as Sr Dorothy was receiving medical treatment in Lima. They threatened to blow in the convent door if she didn’t come out, so Sr Irene stepped out into the night and was escorted to the plaza. She was one small player in the kangaroo court that the Shining Path would conduct over the next hour.

The captives were seated on benches and harangued for their alleged crimes, even as local people interceded for their lives, saying these were good people, not wrongdoers. But the Shining Path retorted that there would be no “dialogue”, only “sentencing”.

Sr Irene’s alleged crimes were feeding the poor and educating the local children. Dispensing Caritas provisions, they charged was pushing “Yankee food”; bringing in books was spreading “Yankee ideas”. During this horrible ordeal, a group of young people gathered around Sr Irene and managed to move her back into the crowd, but the guerrillas returned her to the bench.

Eventually the five prisoners were ordered to lie face down on the terrazzo-tiled surface of the plaza. Sr Irene was the first to be executed, shot through the back of the head by a girl soldier, some metres from the door of the church.

That night the villagers kept a candlelit vigil by the bodies. A group of women laid Sr Irene out in the sacristy. On 23 May 1991 a funeral Mass was held and Sr Irene McCormack was buried in the Huasahuasi cemetery, in a niche donated by a parishioner.

In the 20 years since her death, Sr Irene McCormack’s name has come to be associated with many life-affirming works. In Perth a college is named after her. In the Josephite convent in South Perth her life is commemorated in a large icon fashioned in stained glass. In Peru where the Josephites’ mission continues with Australian, New Zealand and Peruvian Sisters her anniversary each year is celebrated with a human rights week. In 2002 the author Anne Henderson wrote her biography, the absorbing narrative of a modern martyr with earthly foibles. But it is on the internet that Sr Irene can be found alive in her writings and in the memories of her friends and in those she inspires today, and where she is counted among the Martyrs of Peru. Incredibly a Google search for her name will yield more than 700,000 references… and even more tomorrow.

Catholic Mission media inquiries contact Netta Kovach or Dan McAloon at 02 9919 7800