By Leona O’Neill
The sister of a Londonderry-born nun who died a year ago in Ecuador when the four-storey school she was teaching in collapsed during an earthquake say she is missed every day. Sister Clare Crockett, 33, was a missionary worker with the Home of the Mother Order at Playa Prieta and was trying to evacuate children from the building when it collapsed on top of her.
A year on from the tragedy her younger sister Shauna Gill, 32, remembers the bubbly Brandywell girl who loved life, acting and surprised the family by becoming a nun.
“Clare was just full of life,” says Shauna. “She was really bubbly and took everything in her stride. We were so close, us sisters. There was me, our younger sister Megan and Clare and we were just like best friends growing up. We played together, we went everywhere together and were just inseparable.
“We were genuinely shocked when she said she wanted to become a nun. She had such a big personality. She had always wanted to be an actress and had been in a few things for TV, like the Bloody Sunday film, and was planning more work.
“The word nun never came into it at all. Everyone loved her and she was just out there and full of confidence. Then she came back from a trip to Spain and told us she wanted to become a nun and we were in total shock.
“She went to Spain for a week when she was 17. Someone had pulled out of a trip and she thought it was just a holiday and said she would go. When she went to catch the bus to go it was full of old people and she discovered it was actually a pilgrimage. But she went anyway – that was just her. When she was there she kissed the cross on Good Friday and she said she got a calling and that was it.
“She wasn’t very religious when she was growing up. She didn’t like Mass much. My mum and dad would have taken us as children, but when we got a bit older we would be sent up by ourselves and given money for the basket. We’d go into the church, check who was saying Mass so we could report back to mum, pick up a parish bulletin and head off to the shop to spend the money on sweets.”
Shauna said her sister believed that she had found her calling. But it was a difficult decision for her family to accept particularly given that Clare was not permitted by the Order she joined to come home regularly and never by herself.
“Clare never got to come home,” she says. “When she did come home there was always someone with her, another nun. The last time she was home there were 40 people with her.
“I don’t know if that was part of her Order’s rules. I wish now that I had taken more of an interest in the Order, because that was her life. We know what her life was really like now, hearing the stories and seeing videos, because she is dead. It is very sad and it was heartbreaking for my mother, because essentially she lost Clare twice”.
After the earthquake in Ecuador, the family were devastated to find out Clare was missing via her religious Order’s Facebook page.
“We saw on the news that there had been floods in the area where Clare was on the Thursday before the earthquake. I had a feeling something was wrong, I don’t know what it was. My mother was the same, she phoned my sister and told her she was very concerned, she had a gut feeling something was wrong.
“We were very worried and we phoned the house where she was. They told us that there had been massive flooding where Clare was but that it had been cleared up and Clare was okay.
“A nun gave us a phone number to call Clare on and I must have called it hundreds of times morning, noon and night and no one picked up. Then on Saturday the earthquake hit. On Sunday morning I woke up and I got a message from one of Clare’s friends saying she hoped that she was okay, that she had seen the Order’s Facebook post saying that one of the nuns was missing. I logged on and read that it was my sister who was missing. I couldn’t take it in, I was totally distraught.”
Clare’s family gathered in their Brandywell home to await news.
At midnight a nun rang to say that Clare’s body had been found.
“Clare had been singing and teaching the children guitar on one of the upper floors when they felt the first tremors,” says Shauna. “She had led the five young people to the exit and the earthquake hit just as they were all running down the stairs to get out. The stairwell collapsed and the entire building just came down on top of them.
“I had a gut feeling that she was gone. In the last photo she had sent to mum, she was really thin and tired looking. A four-storey building had fallen on top of her. Then flooding happen and the rest of the building had collapsed. I knew she wasn’t going to be found alive.”
The family then began the heartbreaking and costly process of bringing Clare home for burial. Shauna says she will be eternally grateful to ‘angel’ Colin Bell from the Kevin Bell Repatriation Trust and the Irish Consulate, as well as local representatives for their help in their hour of darkness. But there was more heartbreak to follow.
“It was two weeks before we got Clare home,” she says. “We had to have a closed coffin. We had to make a decision whether to open the coffin and see whatever sight was in there after all that had happened to her or never see her again. By not seeing her lying in her coffin there will never be closure. In my mum’s mind she could be still living. It is so hard. But at least we have her home and we have a grave to visit.”
Clare touched the lives of many. Carol, a retired Downpatrick school teacher, is now embarking on a walk along the Camino Way to raise £10,000 to help rebuild the school in Playa Prieta where Clare died. Shauna and her family will join Carol on the last days of her walk. Clare’s former primary school have also donated money to the cause.
Shauna says that her family miss Clare every day, but it gives them great comfort to know people remember her and speak of her often.
“What Carol is doing is amazing,” she says. “She was greatly inspired by Clare’s story and has decided to raise money to rebuild the school in Playa Prieta. They have a temporary structure there now, which could fall down, so it’s not secure. Carol is trying to get them a proper school rebuilt. Clare’s primary school had a charity day and raised £900. It’s lovely that people would do that in her name.
“There’s a man who travels down from Toomebridge every day to visit Clare’s grave and there are people who have pictures of Clare up in their homes. It’s lovely for people to remember her and it’s such a comfort to us that she was so very well thought of.”
Shauna says the family just take each day as it comes as they try to cope without Clare.
“In the last conversation with my mum, Clare said ‘I love you, mammy’ as she hung up. Those are the final words she said to her. My mum just takes life day by day and I think the support she has had this last year has kept her going. The thought of burying her child, of losing her in such an awful situation is horrible. It is hard for me to think about it as a sister, but it must be 10 times more painful for her as a mother.
“Our Clare touched so many people’s lives and left a beautiful legacy,” says Shauna. “We miss her every day.”
You can donate to Carol’s Just Giving Page to raise money to rebuild the school on www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/carol-toner
Credit: The Belfast Telegraph, www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk