Sr Isabel Smyth is a Religious Sister of Notre Dame who has led the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland Committee for Inter-Religious Dialogue for many years. Soon to retire from the position, she reflects on her life of building ecumenical relations and religious understanding.
Growing up, we were all Catholic. I went to a Catholic primary school and then to Catholic secondary, going to church meant a lot – it was part of the fabric of growing up.
I think I always had some sense of a religious vocation. One of my earliest memories is of my grandmother reading me the lives of the saints, many of whom were religious.
Often at First Communion, family ask: “And what do you want to be when you grow up?” I remember saying, ‘I’m going to be a nun.’ It was there in the atmosphere.
The disappearance of the Scottish nun
When I went to school, there were nuns around. Religious life was always a pos- sibility for young people in my day. It’s not the case anymore.
We’re losing a lot because of that: strong intelligent women who are committed and give a service that is second to none.
They offer a commitment to the Church that is unique. Others might do the work, but for a religious it’s seen as ministry, not work. I do think the Church is going to miss us if we all die off.
For me, religious life has been a great adventure in my own inner journey as well as my own outer journey of ministry. I would say to young people to listen to their heart and respond to what God is calling them to, that religious life could be a legitimate way of life for them.
After high school I trained for primary teaching at Notre Dame College, where I met the Sisters of Notre Dame. I felt very at home with them, and I was eventually ready to join them. Not long after my final vows I went to Lancaster University and stayed at the campus on weekdays.
That was the first time I had lived in a secular environment, believe it or not. I studied other faiths and got to know people who practised them.
This was quite a challenge for me: I had never previously given any thought to any other faiths except for how to convert them. I knew that when I re- turned to Glasgow I wanted to retain that experience.
When I took up a post at the Notre Dame College of Education, the law had changed so that world religions had to be taught in the curriculum. It was a blessing: I had to visit other places of worship and introduce students to the writings of other faiths.
A growing passion
I also met an amazing woman named Stella Reekie, a Church of Scotland dea- coness who worked with people from Asia who had just come to Scotland.
She believed that people would be accepted in society and understood if people un- derstood their religion. And so she set up the very first interfaith group in Scot- land: The Glasgow Sharing of Faiths Group.
When I first went to meet her, she pulled me into the flat by the hand and said, ‘you’ll be on my committee, won’t you?’ And I’ve been on this committee ever since.
Faith in relation to others
Sometimes, you only understand yourself in relationship to others, and it can be the same with faith. One of the many things that I value was that I was invited to do a week of interfaith dialogue at Samye Ling Monastery with a Buddhist nun.
For about 10 years, we would set up things on Buddhist-Christian dialogue. She too was a nun, and I think it was quite a surprise to me, in the beginning, just how much we had in common. I got to know her very well. We became good friends.
We now have the Committee for Inter- Religious Dialogue. Before Covid, every year Archbishop Mario Conti – who was the president of that committee – would have receptions for faith communities.
We would give talks in parishes and work with young people to put on a school conference. As I give up the office, I look forward to the being sustained after me: I can’t go on until I die!
But I will still continue to work, particularly with the Council of Christians and Jews and work on interfaith at a local level with my parish, St Aloysius’. It’s in my blood.