IT’S hardly surprising that someone who likes entertaining TV audiences, singing in the rain and doing Doris Day impersonations has spent a lifetime bringing joy to those around her, but that’s exactly what Greenock’s own Sister Placida McCann has done wherever she has been—be that in the US, Kenya or Rome.
Like many missionary priests and religious sisters, Sr Placida cultivated that ability to spread happiness as a result of a nurturing family unit and strong faith examples. The energy to be able to do so, however, might have originated in her sporting endeavours in her youth.
“I was really into sports,” Sr Placida said. “I used to play hockey and volleyball for the school team and I played in the youth club football team. I excelled at sports. The We Are The Champions TV programme came to our school and I was picked to be in it. I don’t tell many people about that!”
While she describes herself as a bit of a ‘social animal,’ Sr Placida would have had little choice to have been anything else being the oldest of five sisters and two brothers. Being part of that big family provided her with, as she says, ‘such an enjoyable young life’ and she felt so blessed that she wanted to give something back to God. Yet it wasn’t just her own family that brought out that feeling in her. The faith family, most notably the Legion of Mary, played an important role in her formative years too.
“I was active in my parish through the Legion of Mary,” she said. “My Auntie Bridie, God rest her, was in the Legion of Mary and when I was a wee girl, she used to talk to us about it and her work with it. I became really interested in it and it was because of her example that I joined. She was my Confirmation sponsor and played a big part in my religious formation. I liked being in the legion and visiting the sick. It gives you such a nice feeling. I think I got more enjoyment out of the legion than I did dancing around back then to the Bay City Rollers.”
Finding the Franciscans
Along with the touching example of her mum and dad saying nightly prayers and that of Sr Louise McGlone—her former schoolteacher and now the Mother General of the Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Conception congregation to which Sr Placida belongs—she began to discern her vocation more and more, listening to vocations talks and visiting the Franciscans convent on weekends.
When Sr Placida did eventually enter the convent, she felt like she was in the right place, was receiving a lot of joy from being there and just felt like it was something she was supposed to do. Looking back on that time, she was able to elucidate exactly what she feels the term vocation means.
“Vocation is God’s call to every single person,” she said. “Vocation means call, right? So that call is for everybody to come to know Him as a friend and to be able to put Him in their life so that their life becomes a meaningful existence. They, as believers, would be able to share the faith, the joy and the love that they have with others and spread that goodness to transform the selfishness of the world. My belief is that God comes into that selfishness and lets you see that you can help other people to be happy and at the same time it’s amazing how happy you’ll become by helping others. That’s what I learned early when I used to visit the sick and the old people with the legion. I found joy. I couldn’t explain it. It’s just something inside you that feels amazing.”
Having found that joy to an even greater extent through her vocation and imbued by a desire to help others, Sr Placida knew that she would have to draw strength from various people and places in order to fulfil her mission. While she credits ordinary people, Holy Communion and going to Mass every day is key to giving her the strength and energy she needed. She also pointed to a very special saint and scripture passage, both of which are close to her heart to this day.
“St Francis’ life story really touched me,” she said. “I didn’t know much about him before, but I learned about him when I joined, and I was so touched by the fact that he was a bit of a wild boy. I’m not saying that I was a wild girl by the way, but perhaps I wasn’t your typical candidate for the sisterhood. So, he gave me a lot of encouragement in that sense and also the way he really made true friends with the poor, he got right down there and got his hands dirty, helping them. He really did inspire me, and I’d like to be like that one day.
“I also love the scripture passage, Luke 5:31, that says it’s not the healthy that need a doctor, it’s the sick. That really touched me a lot because when you become a sister you are filled with so many doubts, like I’m not good enough or holy enough to become a sister, but in fact, it’s the ones who are weak in the eyes of the world that God uses to confound the strong.”
Made in Africa After making her profession, Sr Placida’s vocation has taken her to the US, Kenya and now Rome, but it is the African country that has played the biggest part in her missionary journey to date. She spent 10 years in the bush in Kenya, which she described as having ‘loved so much,’ before spending a further 20 years in Kericho, in the west of the country. She would experience the joy she sought and indeed sought to share with others during her time there more than anywhere else and that was despite two of her fellow sisters from Scotland dying in a car crash, leaving her on her own, or so she thought.
“That was a challenge as I was left on my own,” she said. “But I wasn’t really on my own because the people rallied round me. They became like my family, and I never felt the loss as much, albeit I was sad that they had died. I felt like I had a support and that never changed.
“The Kenyan people made me feel at home. I’d go into their wee houses and they wouldn’t have a chair, just the bed and you’d just sit on that. Maybe a person would be sick in the bed, but you’d just sit there and wouldn’t feel awkward. You just felt that you were in someone's house that you had known for ages even if you’d only met them a couple of times or it was your first time meeting them. They just welcomed you right away and maybe sent to the next house to get a coca cola to give you because they maybe didn’t have anything in their house. It was a humbling experience for me anyway, I loved it.”
In between doing work in outstations, celebrating when rainfall eventually came, dealing with tribal warfare and corrupt politicians, Sr Placida and her fellow Franciscan Sisters set about setting up various projects and programmes that would have a long-lasting impact on those around them. One of them was the ‘Little Angels Support Groups,’ which was later renamed ‘Limited Ability, Special Gifts,’ which saw the sisters care for children with disabilities, so that they weren’t left by the wayside and to remove the stigma that exists around them in many African countries. This is a project—supported by Missio Scotland—that is especially close to Sr Placida’s heart, as her brother, Bernard, has cerebral palsy.
“We tried to raise awareness of disabled children, because before they were just ignored,” she explained. “There was a stigma around them. So, they were hidden and locked in the houses. The benefit of that project is that we’ve been able to bring them into the light and let people see that they are gifts from God, and they’ll bring their own blessings like Bernard—a blessing to us. I used to always give witness to that when I was telling them stuff. I’d show them pictures of him and how he was happy. So, we’ve had a bit of success with that and thanks to Missio Scotland for the funding that they gave to us, which has really helped.”
Support from Scotland has also come from individuals and groups for some of the sisters’ other projects in Kenya, including a shelter for street boys and a transitional care and training centre for those in the community living with HIV.
“The Family of God Street Boys Shelter is wonderful because it brings the boys off the street and gets them cleaned up, helps them to stop sniffing glue and gives them lessons each day to catch them up in school. They are also given them good food and nutrition, taken care of and given counselling. We try to find out why they ran away from home in the first place. Most of the time it’s poverty, which is easy enough to address because you get the parents an income generating activity and then they can go back and do their work for their family.
“We had a couple from Milngavie—Sheila and John—who gave us a donation to build the transitional care and training centre for kids in the community with HIV who had been neglected. They were more or less dying because they weren’t getting the right nutrition and medicine. So, that’s been a real big success because it’s the only one of its kind in the South Rift Valley. We have them for some months and we send them to the local school, so they don’t miss out on their education. However, we teach them about their status, taking their medicine on time and how important it is. We also give them good food and we make sure that they have counselling to deal with their status. They are also taught about being responsible with their sexual behaviour when they are older, because they could spread it. So, it’s a very good project that one.”
“Being in the company of these children is a beautiful memory,” Sr Placida continued. “The HIV positive kids know that they have a life-limiting disease, but with the antiretroviral drugs they can live a normal life. They often get visitors coming in and they give their witness. Tears just trip me because they are so grateful for their lives. They realise that, as young as they are. They tell these people thank you so much for your funding, because without it we would be dead. That sticks in mind because it happened so many times and no matter how many times that I heard kids talking like that it didn’t fail to move me. I was a wreck, crying my eyes out. That’s part of the joy of being able to help them.”
Mission matters As with many missionaries, Sr Placida explained that some of the positives of time on mission in Africa is living life in a simpler manner and also the vibrancy of the celebration of Mass in the continent. She has also developed a strong understanding of the characteristics needed to be a missionary and took time to share her thoughts on that and also what the term mission means to her.
“First of all, to be a missionary, I’d say you have to be flexible,” she said. “A missionary who is not flexible will not last long, because when you go to a different place, you will encounter a lot of different things, things that will frustrate you, things that you wouldn’t necessarily agree with but that you just have to put up with and figure a way to cope with them. You need a strong faith to know what you are doing is God’s will and for God’s glory because sometimes you can get dead discouraged. You must have a sense of humour too. Some of the things that have happened you just have to laugh. What else can you do? You would spend your life crying.
“Mission is what every single person is called to and that is just to let Jesus into their life and let Him do His work through us and be instruments if you excuse my Franciscan instruments of peace thing! But that is exactly, to me what we are called to do. We must spread the kindness of humanity to humanity. We must make people aware that we are responsible for each other no matter where we are. That is mission.”
“Lay people can live their mission starting with their own families,” she added. “If they love their own families and bring their kids up to be loving people, they will go out and they will influence their friends and then it becomes contagious where everybody is nice. Lay people can live out their mission by practising their love and their faith and their religious values. They can do a bit by thinking of others, such as volunteering in soup kitchens or giving to mission appeals so that we can share some of our good fortune with others.
“Supporting Missio Scotland is a way in which lay people can get involved too because it is an established, reputable Catholic organisation through which we know the money will be put to good use.”
Special talent So, what about those Doris Day impersonations? Well, having made joy a central focus in her life, Sr Placida doesn’t confine sharing joy with others to a religious setting and spoke to us about this very particular talent—albeit she wasn’t willing to commit it to tape!
“I do Doris Day impersonations with a blonde wig and a big hat,” she laughed. “I always did it in Kenya at parties. We’d always have a singsong. I taught the sisters Wee Annie Had A Yoyo. It was funny to hear Kenyans singing it, but they loved it and sang it repeatedly until I was fed up listening to it. Someone said to me you should have been on the stage... the one that left five minutes ago. Once I Had A Secret Love is my party piece, but the photos are classified!”
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