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Nun tells of her role at Ecce Homo convent in Jerusalem

Joe Wilson
By Joe Wilson
BBC Radio Lancashire

Sister Brenda Dorrian
Sister Brenda Dorrian spent five years at the Ecce Homo convent

A nun who has returned to the north west after working alongside different, sometimes warring, factions in Israel has been telling a Burnley audience about her love of the Middle East.

Sister Brenda Dorrian, a Sister of the Notre Dame de Sion, spent five years at the Ecce Homo convent in the old city of Jerusalem.

It was at the convent that this white haired diminutive gentle nun worked with all sections of the diverse community. Around her raged some of the fiercest most violent arguments and atrocities in a conflict that is centuries old.

When we met, I got the impression that Sister Brenda had seen it all and was reticent to talk about many of the difficulties that had surrounded her.

We were at the Burnley and Pendle Faith Centre where Sister Brenda was due to speak to an audience about her life in Jerusalem. "I don't want to talk about politics!" she said warily as we settled into two seats.

Poured out

Sister Brenda modestly professed herself as having little to say about anything. As is often the case in this job, once the recording starts her life experience poured out and I struggled to interject.

Sister Brenda first met her order at a very early age having attended Our Lady of Sion Schools in both Highbury and Holloway in north London. She describes her schooling as "an oasis for children."

It was in 1962 that Sister Brenda decided to give her life to God. She joined the very order that had given her such an idyllic childhood. The Sisters of Sion are a religious congregation that devotes its life to social order.

Sister Brenda had been impressed by the nuns she had met. "It wasn't the charisma of the order that drew me, but the individual sisters who were wonderful women."

Her noviciate was spent in Shropshire; Sister Brenda took relevant courses in home economics and began her work in teaching, largely in the Manchester area.


It was in more recent times that Sister Brenda's life then took her to work in Israel for five years in the Old City of Jerusalem. She was based in the Ecce Homo convent where she worked alongside our Palestinian staff.

During her time in the Middle East, Sister Brenda came very close to the reality of the troubles which, for her, transformed themselves from newspaper headlines read in the safety of a Manchester convent to the very real destructive carnage of the after-effects of a suicide bombing carried out just a few yards away.

When I asked her what that was like, Sister Brenda paused, sighed slightly and reflected: "I realised that life is precious and that I was witnessing life being taken away.

"I realised that it was being taken away by ordinary people on the buses, not by the people in cars and I realised that we had two very frightened communities.

"I also realised that we had two very vulnerable communities in the Palestinians and the Israeli Jewish community."


I asked Sister Brenda if being so close to such horrific destruction ever shook her faith. Her response was immediate. "No. I used to wonder why it was happening and I knew there was trouble in the land. I was over there because I wanted to support the people of the land, both Palestinian and Israeli. I worked in the Muslim quarter and the Jewish quarter and I was crossing borders all the time."

It's obvious that Sister Brenda has her faith in both God and people. As she speaks about all sides of the conflict her face lights up and she has deep affection for the people she still keeps in touch with from both sides of the Middle Eastern divide.

As a Sister of Sion, Sister Brenda has a commitment to the church. Sister Brenda also has an implicit commitment to the Middle Eastern people, to a world of justice, to peace and to love.

Sister Brenda is now back here in the north west where she claims to be even more enriched by working with the Sisters of The Faithful Companions of Jesus in their Spirituality and Conference Centre in Salford.

Miss Marple

Though Sister Brenda's humility wouldn't thank me for saying it, she is an impressive person to meet.

Her personality is a gentle cross between Miss Marple and Jessica Fletcher, yet her faith, understanding and optimism would disarm the fiercest of moods.

It is rare, but I have seen these qualities before. A woman outwardly and genuinely frightened of nothing, her fear placed trustingly in the hands of a wider spiritual being. I got the impression that Sister Brenda is unaware that she is a shining example of a woman of immense courage.

Despite the daily atrocities she has lived amongst and the hatred that was her neighbour, Sister Brenda remains optimistic in God and the future.

"The land of Israel is very important to me and my time there taught me to hold the situation of two suffering peoples in a realistic way. I pray daily for the peace of Jerusalem."

Joe presents the faith programme on BBC Radio Lancashire from 6am each Sunday.

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