DERRY, Northern Ireland — Sister Clare Crockett, who died during the recent earthquake in Ecuador, wasn’t exactly a martyr for the faith, but she did die steeped in the ministry she loved.
Shortly after her death on April 16, in the 7.8-magnitude quake, details of the young Irishwoman’s efforts to save others emerged.
The 33-year-old was killed, along with five Ecuadorian postulants, when the quake struck.
Her heartbroken family, from Derry in Northern Ireland, take some consolation from the fact that she died as she lived: witnessing to the Gospel imperative to love people as God loves them.
The family have been keeping a low profile, praying for the repatriation of her remains. Her cousin, Emmet Doyle, said: “She was the last sister found. She was trying to get them down the stairs, and the staircase collapsed. We knew she was trapped, but information has been slow to come out.
“She died as she lived, helping others.”
Doyle also said the family is immensely proud of her. “She was a superstar. Everybody loved her.”
Father Brendan Collins, who works as a curate in her native parish and is comforting her relatives and friends, told the Register, “Her family is very proud of her, for what she had achieved in her short life and the impact she has made.”
“People had been with her and saw how much she changed people lives, being very much filled with the Spirit of God,” Father Collins said.
He said the pride that her family feels is shared by the wider community.
“She loved the work that she did. She was just so happy as a nun. Anytime her family would have spoken to her [via the Internet], she was very content.”
“She died the way she lived her life,” Father Collins added.
Sister Clare was born in 1983 in the tight-knit Catholic community of the Bogside in Derry. It was a community that had known both deprivation and conflict. Just a short distance from her family home was the scene of the notorious 1972 “Bloody Sunday,” where British troops shot dead 14 unarmed Catholic civil-rights demonstrators who were advocating for fairer treatment for Northern Ireland’s Catholic minority.
She was born just after the tense “Hunger Strikes” period, when 10 Irish Republican prisoners, including a 23-year-old man from a neighboring street, starved themselves to death in protest at conditions in British prisons.
In the 1980s, Derry’s Catholic community had one of the highest levels of unemployment and social deprivation in Western Europe. Many young people fell into the trap of joining paramilitary organizations to violently oppose British rule in Ireland; others dulled the pain with drugs and alcohol.
While raised in a Catholic family, by her own admission, Sister Clare’s teenage years were marked by chaos rather than devotion.
“I liked to party a lot. My weekends, since I was 16-17, consisted of getting drunk with my friends,” she said, when speaking of her vocational journey towards the Servant Sisters of the Home of the Mother, based in Cantabria in Spain, as an 18-year-old in 2001.
“I wasted all my money on alcohol and cigarettes,” she confessed.
Sister Clare described what religion meant to her while growing up in Derry.
“Just because you grew up in a Catholic family, it did not necessarily mean that you attended Mass or had any formation about the Catholic faith — no. The Catholics who wanted a united Ireland killed the Protestants, and the Protestants who didn’t want a united Ireland killed the Catholics. That was what being Catholic meant to me.”
“God played no part in my life. In a society where hatred prevailed, there was no room for God,” she recalled in her poignant vocation testimony.
But, almost like an episode from the lives of the saints, God intervened in the young woman’s life.
She worked briefly as an actress, but the transformation came when she was offered what she believed to be a free vacation in Spain. Confessing she was expecting a 10-day party in the sun, she quickly learned it was a pilgrimage with mostly middle-aged women and rosary beads.
“I tried to get out of it, but my name was already on the ticket, so I had to go,” she said. Clare never looked back.
“I now see that it was Our Lady’s way of bringing me back home, back to her and her Son.” It wasn’t long before she joined the order and devoted her life to helping the most vulnerable.
A Powerful Example
Catholics in her native Derry have been heartbroken by her death, but, perhaps more importantly, moved by how she lived her life in service to God and his people.
The local bishop, Donal McKeown, believes that Sister Clare’s life is a powerful example.
“There is a lot of sadness in Derry at the tragic death of Sister Clare Crockett on Good Shepherd Sunday.
“The witness of her life not only points to the generosity of her own response to God’s call, but it also mirrors what generations of idealistic young men and women have done in giving their lives and their talents in the service of God’s people around the world.”
“Her death is a huge loss to her family, but it also touches many of her contemporaries who admired the generosity of this bright and gifted young woman,” Bishop McKeown told the Register.
Father Collins is convinced that the story of Sister Clare’s life and death will have a huge impact on people of all faiths.
“Locals have been talking about how courageous she was in the world that we live in today: to give up everything and leave it all behind.”
“She was part of a community where family values are so strong that it was difficult for her to be away, but she believed that this was what God had wanted her to do with her life,” he said.
‘Her Legacy Will Live On’
Father Collins said that young people, in particular, have been struck by her story. “People have been saying, ‘It’s an incredible witness today to see somebody like her.’”
“Her legacy will live on in the lives of the people that she changed in Ecuador. Her witness and example will, I think, be an inspiration for many young people today, not just for religious life, but to follow your heart to use the gifts that God has given you for the good of other people,” said Father Collins.
He said that her family is anxious to have her home. Sister Clare’s remains are expected to arrive back in Dublin on Friday evening, and her funeral is expected to take place in St. Columba’s Church, Long Tower, in the heart of the community that raised her.
Michael Kelly is the editor of The Irish Catholic newspaper. He writes from Dublin.