A recent Dublin exhibition on Ireland’s LGBTQ diaspora is featuring the story of Bridget Coll and Chris Morrissey who were Catholic nuns, partnered lesbians, and political trailblazers of the 20th century.
The exhibit, entitled “Out in the World: Ireland’s LGBTQ+ Diaspora,” was curated by Dr. Maurice Casey. It celebrates LGBTQ people who emigrated from Ireland, many of whom were looking for a place where they would be allowed to love whom they loved. While researching, Casey found a sequence of tapes that the two nuns had recorded in order to tell their stories. BBC reported:
“In the tapes, [Coll] talks about how she was born in Donegal in 1934, one of 12 children from a Catholic family who grew up near Fanad lighthouse. She never questioned her sexuality. ‘I didn’t even know that queer existed,’ she said.”
At age 16, Coll left her family to join a religious order and become a Catholic nun. Soon after, she joined the Franciscan Missionaries of St. Joseph and ended up in the United States. Reflecting on this time, she said:
“There was an encyclical on birth control from the Pope. The priest gave a whole sermon from the pulpit about how it was a real bad thing to do. I had a lot of contact with mothers of kids that I taught. They would come and tell me their stories about birth control. I listened to the women’s stories and their hardships.”
“For the first time in my life, I began to doubt the teachings of the Church.”
Coll was then drawn to learn more about liberation theology, a movement developing in Latin America that argued, according to the article, that “the Church should act to bring about social change and should ally itself with the working class.”
BBC reported that it is during this time that Coll became closer with Morrissey. Coll said:
“[Morrissey] said she was a lesbian and asked: ‘Do you know what that is?’ I said: ‘No’.” She said: ‘I think you’re a lesbian’. I didn’t know the word – that was the first time I knew. It was 1977, I was 43, that’s the first time I ever heard it and the first time I fell in love with a woman.”
The two moved together to Chile to serve the poor and participate in the struggle of the liberation theologians. The interest in Catholic Social Teaching of the two women drew them closer together but further from their religious order’s less radical way of practicing Catholicism:
“They encouraged women to stand up for themselves in a strongly patriarchal society, and got the name of ‘home wreckers’ for it, Bridget joked.
“They joined an anti-torture movement. They never knew the second names of the other members – if they were tortured then they could not reveal names.
“One day, a letter came from their religious superior. The order was celebrating an anniversary with a garden party. How would they celebrate in Chile? There was a big protest against Pinochet that day; Bridget and Chris joined it. . .
Eventually in 1989, the two women emigrated to Canada after leaving their religious community to live together as a couple.
However, because they were a lesbian couple, Morrissey’s Canadian citizenship was not sufficient to enable Coll’s immigration to Canada. Morrissey mounted a constitutional challenge to Canadian immigration law, successfully paving the way for same-gender couples to receive equal protection under the law in Canada.
The couple continued to work on behalf of the oppressed and marginalized in Canada, staying together through Coll’s dementia. Morrissey said:
“‘Even when she was not quite sure who I was, I could tell by the way she looked at me that she loved me. She had always loved and stood by me, no matter what. She pushed me from behind and pulled me along. At the end of her life, she was content. She died as she lived, simply and courageously.'”
These two women were drawn together within a shared Catholic tradition, both called to be nuns and then called to love each other. Their stories of serving the poor in Chile, fighting on behalf of the oppressed in Canada, and working to advance legal protections for LGBTQ persons are inspirational to us all as examples of God’s love in action.
The lives of these modern holy women twist and turn alongside the often surprising path of God’s mysterious and wild plans. In the end, their steadfast love for each other as well as their love for marginalized people shows us the eternal power of God’s strength and grace. Bridget Coll and Chris Morrissey help show us that God’s love shines and has shined through the lives of LGBTQ Catholics throughout history and today.
—Madeline Foley, New Ways Ministry, August 24, 2021