“I bought a big red Bible - a real beauty. Even on the train home, I was hugging it to my chest.” VOX editor Ruth Garvey-Williams met Roseann Woods in Donabate during this year’s Finding Faith Tour. Here, Ruth retells Roseann’s powerful story.
(From the July - September 2017 issue of VOX.)
Marred with hardship and heartbreak, Roseann’s childhood is a legacy from Ireland’s painful past. Brought up in Goldenbridge Orphanage, she experienced “normal” life when a family in Donabate fostered her when she was about four years old - she loved it! But then she was returned to the orphanage for another five years before the family officially adopted her at the age of nine.
All seemed well until the husband died. Unable to care for her, the family sent Roseann to the Magdalene Laundry in Drumcondra when she was just 14. For the next three years, her existence was bleak.
“Our education was only one hour in the morning and the rest of our day was spent in the laundries. You got 10 cigarettes a day as your pay. At night, I would lie in bed and listen to the screams of the other women. Out of the 20 or so who were there, very few of us actually made it. Most are now in homes or have died either by committing suicide or by taking an overdose.”
Desperate to escape, Roseann remembered a young boy she had met in Donabate who had asked her to marry him. “I told the sister I’d get pregnant if they didn’t let me out to get married when I was 17. She nearly fainted! Of course, back in those days, I thought you could get pregnant by holding hands! That was in 1975, so I left and got married and we’ve been together ever since.”
With no education, she worked for 15 years as a domestic in a hospital but she longed to do more. She devoured books, desperate to learn as much as she could and feeling embarrassed that she had never done her Leaving Cert.
She began to dream of training as a chef but when she told her boss, he laughed and said, “There’s no way you’ll get in.” At the college interview they asked, “Why should we give you a position out of the 320 people who have applied?” Roseann told them, “Because I’m keen as mustard.”
Miraculously, Roseann got onto the course, but almost turned and walked out again when the lecturer started speaking French on the first day. “I thought, ‘I don’t know what this fool is talking about,’ but this girl sitting beside me took me under her wing and, for the three years, she protected me and taught me all the French terms. I passed my exams with full credits.”
Back at the hospital, Roseann’s boss reluctantly gave her a job in the kitchen but refused to pay her the full cook’s salary. “I was a bit miffed because I was still being paid as a domestic in a cook’s uniform. I was angry because I had spent three years studying. Ten years later, they demanded that I take early retirement, so I ended up with a big pension plus a big lump sum.”
Suffering from osteoarthritis, Roseann was glad of the early retirement but she felt at a bit of a loss. “My two children had grown up and gone away. I knew that I had not been a great mother. I felt bad about that.”
She recalls walking along the road and wondering what she would like to be. “I thought, ‘I would like to be a saint but you have to be dead to be a saint.’ Then I thought ‘I want to be an angel but you have to be dead to be an angel.’”
Suddenly a voice out of nowhere said, “Go in and buy a Bible.” Nervously, Roseann walked into a bookshop and asked to see a Bible. The sales assistant showed her different types and she picked out a big red King James Bible - “a real beauty.”
“Even on the train home, I was hugging it to my chest,” she said. “Sitting on my bookshelf at home were all my books on spirituality - books about Islam, Buddhism, the Tibetan book of the dead, and so many more. I got all of them down and put them in the fire press! That night I went to bed with my new Bible, hugging it and grinning and hugging it some more.”
About three in the morning, Roseann woke up with her heart pounding and unable to breathe.
“I knew that there something in the room. It was pressing down on top of me, choking me. Eventually, I managed to say, ‘In the name of Jesus, get off me’ and, just like that, it was gone. I sat up, picked up the Bible, hugged it and that was it. I was home.”
She began devouring the Bible stories, and the words seemed to leap off the page. She found she had “aha” moments as she realised what the stories meant.
“I started to read the story about this man bringing his boy up to a mountain [Abraham and Isaac]. Immediately, I knew it was the same mountain that Jesus was crucified on. When I read the story about Joseph where it said, ‘What you meant for evil, God turned to good.’ It reminded me of what happened in my job. I knew straight away that I had always been blessed and that there had always been someone watching over me.”
Eager to find out more, Roseann visited a prayer group at the house of a friend. She had so many questions that eventually her friend told her. “Roseanne, you ask an awful lot of questions - you should go to the Presbyterian Church.”
Nervously, Roseann turned up at Donabate Presbyterian Church one Sunday morning, expecting them to turn her away because she was Catholic. Her fears seemed to be realised when the minister, Andy Carroll, walked towards her.
“Before he could say anything, I said, ‘I’m a Catholic. If you want me to leave, I will go.” But he laughed, ‘What are you talking about?’ and welcomed me.”
“They sang a beautiful hymn, “In Christ Alone,” and I wept. Luckily enough, I was up at the front so people couldn’t see. It just hit home. It captured me, and that was it. I’ve been going there ever since, and I love it.”
“My husband says, ‘Are you going to church again?’ I say. ‘Padraig, I wrestled with a demon; of course I’m going to church again.’ He sees a change in me these last years. I’m not so self-centred or stuck in my ego box. He sees that.”
The last five years have been a journey of discovery for Roseann, now age 60, who describes her newfound faith as “more precious than winning the lottery!”
Hungry to find out more, she is constantly studying the Bible and learning new things. “I didn’t like the word ‘repent’ until I realised what it means. It is not feeling sorry or feeling guilty but actually changing the way you think about everything. I thought ‘meditation’ was rocking to and fro and saying a mantra, but to meditate [as a Christian] is to think about God’s word and allow it to bring fruit into your life.”
“Five years ago, I would have put my head on a chopping block for the Pope. To come to the point of having a relationship with God was a big turn around.”
For years, Roseann was a massive fan of the series Game of Thrones. “I used to get the hardback books hot off the press. It was agony to wait 24 months for the next instalment. I knew everything about Game of Thrones. But when I got the Bible, I could not look at Game of Thrones any more. I gave all my books away. The Bible was so different because I was actually partaking in the story!”