Irish-born but a proud Canadian, the late Bridget Coll was Catholic nun, a lesbian, an activist, and a history-maker.
PHOTO BY CHRIS MORRISSEY: Bridget Coll and Chris Morrissey are pictured here as Grand Marshalls of Vancouver Pride in 1999.
The story of Bridget Coll is an inspirational journey. She travelled thousands of miles in just one lifetime and her story now features in an exhibition at EPIC, The Irish Emigration Museum in Dublin, telling the stories of Ireland's LGBTQ+ diaspora.
In Canada, Bridget and her partner, Chris Morrissey, made history in 1992 when they challenged an outdated immigration law which had only recognised heterosexual married partners.
As nuns in the 1980s, the two women stood with the oppressed in Chile against dictator Augusto Pinochet's regime. They lived in a shack in a shanty town joining whatever struggles people were experiencing in that country.
Several years ago, the couple spoke to BBC Northern Ireland and explained how they encouraged women to stand up for themselves in a strongly patriarchal society. They also joined an anti-torture movement where members never knew the second names of the other members – if they were tortured then they could not reveal names.
Historian Dr. Maurice Casey, who curated the exhibition, came upon their story by chance. He had set out to celebrate an LGBTQ+ history of the Irish emigration story.
He was researching the Canadian LGBTQ+ community and was inspired by a series of tapes held by Simon Fraser University in Vancouver recorded in 2009, through which the women tell their story.
There is wit and wisdom, a generosity and a humility about Bridget Coll that shines through on the tape recordings.
She 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 14, she wanted to be a nun and at 16, joined an order in England. From there, she went to America to work for the Franciscan Missionaries of St Joseph. That was where the first seeds of dissent were sown.
“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,” she said in the recording.
“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.”
She was drawn to read more about social justice and liberation theology – a radical movement that grew up in South America as a response to the poverty and ill-treatment of ordinary people.
The Liberationists said the Church should act to bring about social change and should ally itself with the working class.
It was at that time that Bridget became close to Chris, a Canadian nun in the same order. Bridget knew she wanted to work in Chile and in 1981 she asked her superior to go there. “Remember you're going to preach the gospel, not to meddle in politics,” she was told.
Chris Morrissey went with her to Chile and after much soul searching, the women left their congregation in 1989 and headed for Vancouver to live openly as a couple. But Chris could not sponsor Bridget as a Canadian immigrant because they were lesbians. In 1992, they initiated a constitutional challenge, and won.
Chris recalls that the decision to leave their order was huge. “Our whole understanding of faith and spirituality had changed after the years in Chile. There was no way we could go back and listen to a priest preaching,” she says. “I have no regrets I still value our history and how we learned to be in the world.”
Then Bridget got dementia. “Even when she was not quite sure who I was, I could tell by the way she looked at me that she loved me,” says Chris. “She had always loved and stood by me, no matter what. She pushed me from behind and pulled me along.”
Bridget died in 2016. “At the end of her life, she was content,” said Chris. “She died as she lived, simply and courageously.”
We are delighted to present both Chris Morissey and Dr. Maurice Casey, the current Historian-in-Residence with the Department of Foreign Affairs Ireland and the former curator of the Out in the World: Ireland's LGBTQ+ Diaspora at EPIC, The Irish Emigration Museum. They will be speaking at the Brigid Festival Vancouver at 5 PM on Monday, January 31, 2022. This will be a hybrid event with a limited number of in-person seats available. Registrations for both the online and in-person event are free and will open soon.
To read more about the life and work of Bridget Coll and Chris Morrissey see:
PHOTO: CHRIS MORRISSEY
Bridget Coll and Chris Morrissey are pictured here as Grand Marshalls of Vancouver Pride in 1999.