From Swimming Coach to Carmelite Nun

A teacher with "itchy feet" walked an unusual road to find her life's work

Before becoming a surgeon, swimmer Gary O’Toole represented Eire twice in Olympic games, and if you ask him who his toughest coach was, he will tell you without hesitation, “it was Sister Gwen Collins.”

“I took him and I coached him, and he began to win,” Sister Gwen told reporter Rachel Beard, “but he was only a kid. He was only 10 when I left, but I was his first coach. But we’ve kept great friends all these years. He calls down and he writes, but he says I was a very tough lady. Very fair, that would be his comment.”

O’Toole has to travel to visit Sister Gwen, because she cannot go to him. As a Carmelite nun, the sister is an enclosed member of the Delgany, Ireland Carmel, and does not often leave her cloister. Hers is a “long and winding” vocation that began in teaching, but quickly morphed into the sort of adventuring that describes a spirit both free and curious. As she told Beard:

“I had this itchy feet that I wanted to travel, just something I always wanted to do,” she says. “So I headed off with two friends, two girl friends. We decided we’d just get on a boat in Dún Laoghaire and travel east and see where we’d end up.”

Sr Gwen’s “great adventure” eventually took her to Australia, where she stayed and worked with her friends. One day, when she and her friends were leaving the church, a couple offered them a ride home. They had to stop by a Carmelite monastery, and the nuns insisted on seeing the three Irish girls in the back of their car.

“So we went in and we said hello and in those days, there was a big curtain and a grate,” Sr Gwen says. “You wouldn’t actually see the nuns. You’d just hear a voice coming through. So they asked us where we were from. The other girls were from Kerry, and I was from Wicklow, then the sister, whoever it was behind the grate, said ‘you must know the sisters from Delgany’ and I said ‘no, no I don’t actually’. I didn’t know it at all.”

A year and a half later, Gwen was back in Ireland, and oddly enough, she couldn’t quite shake her visit to the Australian Carmel, whose memory kept coming to the fore, so she visited the Delgany monastery they had mentioned to her, and found a friendly reception. “So they talked to me and they explained and as I was leaving, one of the sisters who’s still here with us today, she said ‘maybe the Lord is calling you to be a Carmelite’,” Sr Gwen says. “Just like that she said to me, and I said ‘I really don’t think so, no, it couldn’t possibly be, no’.”

Still, she kept visiting the small community. “I could feel this attraction, it was like a magnet. I really couldn’t resist it at this stage. I said ‘I have to give this a try. I definitely have to give a try. It probably won’t work but that’s fine. I can manage.’ They said ‘okay’.”

While it is the custom of many monasteries to allow a brief “live-in” period — an extended visit during which time one who is discerning may “taste” the life without formal entry — it should not surprise anyone that Sr. Gwen bypassed that route and simply entered Carmel with it seemed the right time. “I came, after about six months of meeting them and with the spiritual director and so on, they said ‘look, maybe you should just come and join for a year or something’ so I said ‘okay, I’ll give it a try’.”

Her entrance, says Sr. Gwen, “devastated” her family, who predicted she wouldn’t last two weeks, and thought the religious life had no value at all. “They were good Catholics and they went to Mass and all. My brothers and sisters thought it was off the wall all together.”

The solitude and silence of life as a Carmelite did take some adjusting-to, the nun shares, but she finds her vocation very rewarding, particularly in her ability to offer prayer for the sake of others, especially people who visit the monastery seeking consolation or reassurance. “All they want to hear is that we’ll pray for them. That’s really what they want you to say at the end of the day. Because we’re not counsellors and we’re not specially trained in any other field, but that’s what they come for, the prayer.”

Delgany Carmel
Delgany Carmel