Noelle spent six years working in a Liverpool convent before being released. “I know there were some of people who felt, maybe fearful of me in ways, I’ve a fairly strong personality. I suppose it wasn’t my permanent vocation and they had the inspiration to see this.”
“After I came home I felt it was written on my forehead that I had been away for six years and was a bit of an oddity. It took me a while to settle back into ordinary life. I didn’t feel any great relationship to the north of Ireland, at the same time I felt I should do something.”
Noelle decided to take some children from Northern Ireland on a short holiday. It was upon travelling north that she realised that she could relate to and contribute her services to the people of Belfast. “I wrote to the bishop at the time and asked if there would be any opening or role for me. He consulted with the Little Sisters of the Assumption who worked among the people and they suggested St. John’s Parish.”
After an unsuccessful interview, Noelle was invited to spend a month in the Corpus Christi parish where she was to meet Father Desmond Wilson. “I found his enthusiasm was inspiring and infectious. I felt – This is it, this really seems to strike a chord with me.”
Noelle articulates on her relationship with Father Wilson as, “It might be true to say that he was wonderful with ideas, some of which he inspired himself and carried out and there were those that I took up and ran with”.
Noelle’s developing relationship with the Corpus Christi parish led to her involvement with the Springhill Community House. “We started with a discussion group, the people chose the subject week by week; history, social subjects, yoga, make up and things like that. But a lot of them were political and historical.”
After receiving funding by Belfast Metropolitan College the community centre blossomed and so did the members of the community. “Little by little people said to Father Des they’d like to be able to read and write better. He started an English class with them and he would have great fun. By the mid 1980’s in a small four-bedroom house, we were the largest academic outreach centre of Rupert Stanley (Belfast Metropolitan College) in west Belfast. I was amazed to be told this. So then some of our tutors started to direct our students towards university, and after that the sky was the limit.”
Such was the success of the Springhill Community House Noelle’s work moved to a new base in Conway Mill to form the Conway Education Centre in West Belfast, which was in a poor state of repair. “The mill was offered rent free by the committee who ran it because they wanted work, education and culture all there in that one complex.” After making much needed renovations and gaining a strong membership from the community, “they started with English and then sociology. We had psychology; child development, accounts, mathematics and we had art and French. Once there was a demand from we did our best.”
“There might have been people in the class maybe from 16 up to 70 years of age. One lady in her late 70s enrolled because her grandchildren were complaining of the difficulty with GCSEs and she got an A in her English language. I think that motivated her children.”
Noelle’s work at the Corpus Christi Parish was at a time when the violence of the Troubles meant many residents were confined to their homes out of fear. “Sometimes within an area you can feel very safe because people knew each other so well. You got on as much as possible with a normal life. We were never interested in the religion or the background of tutors or of our students.”
On her continued involvement with community work, Noelle says, “I’m happy now with the work I’m doing, complementary alternative therapy. I have to laugh at myself that that’s the work that I’m doing at my age. But, I think it’s a pity a lot more older people haven’t got a role in life that they’re happy with.”
And what does community development mean to Noelle? “It would be a satisfaction in seeing students of ours getting involved in work within the community and having the confidence to do it”.
On the future of Ballymurphy and Belfast, Noelle wishes for “a continuation and a growth of some of the good things that are there. More evidence that the present Assembly is open and working and responding to the needs of the community.”