Catholic nun, gay and militant. Bridget Coll, Irish born but a proud Canadian, was a trailblazer.
She and her partner, Chris Morrissey, made history when they challenged Canadian immigration law which had only recognised heterosexual married partners.
As nuns in the 1980s, they stood with the oppressed in Chile against dictator Augusto Pinochet’s regime.
Hers is an inspirational journey. She travelled thousands of miles in just one lifetime.
Now, her story features in a new exhibition in Dublin telling the stories of Ireland’s LGBTQ+ diaspora.
Bridget died in 2016. Her life partner, activist and former nun, Chris, survives her.
Historian Dr Maurice Casey, who curated the exhibition, came upon their story by chance. He had set out to celebrate an LGBTQ+ history of the Irish emigration story.
He was researching the Canadian LGBTQ+ community and was inspired by a series of tapes held by Simon Fraser University recorded in 2009, through which the women tell their story.
There is wit and wisdom, a generosity and a humility about Bridget Coll that shines through on the tape recordings from 12 years ago.
She talks about how she was born in Donegal in 1934, one of 12 children from a Catholic family who grew up near Fanad lighthouse. She never questioned her sexuality.
At 14, she wanted to be a nun and at 16, joined an order in England.
From there, she went to America to work for the Franciscan Missionaries of St Joseph.
That was where the first seeds of dissent were sown.
“There was an encyclical on birth control from the Pope. The priest gave a whole sermon from the pulpit about how it was a real bad thing to do,” she said in the recording.
“I had a lot of contact with mothers of kids that I taught. They would come and tell me their stories about birth control. I listened to the women’s stories and their hardships.
“For the first time in my life, I began to doubt the teachings of the Church.”
She was drawn to read more about social justice and liberation theology – a radical movement that grew up in South America as a response to the poverty and ill-treatment of ordinary people.
The Liberationists said the Church should act to bring about social change and should ally itself with the working class.
It was at that time that Bridget became close to Chris, a Canadian nun in the same order.
When Bridget’s parents died within weeks of each other in 1977, Chris was the one person who truly helped.
“She said she was a lesbian and asked: ‘Do you know what that is?’ I said: ‘No’.
“She said: ‘I think you’re a lesbian’. I didn’t know the word – that was the first time I knew.
“It was 1977, I was 43, that’s the first time I ever heard it and the first time I fell in love with a woman.”
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