WHEN Belfast-born former headmistress Marie McCordick retired from a lengthy spell in the teaching profession in 1988, she decided that she wanted to apply the skills which had helped her forge out a successful career to something else.
And as an avid church goer and eloquent orator, it seemed a given that she would become more involved in ecclesiastical life.
Today, she is both a diocesan lay reader and diocesan pastoral assistant for the Clogher diocese.
Marie, who is 80, explains: “As a lay reader, I may take services throughout the diocese of Clogher but I may not take communion or baptism, I may only assist.”
And as a pastoral assistant, she is trained in offering pastoral support to people from churches where there is no rector.
“I’m originally from Belfast,” says Marie, who now lives outside Kesh, Co Fermanagh, and attends St Michael’s Church of Ireland, Trory.
Before moving west, she had been an attendee and treasurer of St Donard’s Church of Ireland in east Belfast.
“I found it very difficult to retire and not do as much as I had been used to doing - in other words not working 18 hours of out of 24,” says Marie.
“I had a caravan in Castle Archdale in Co Fermanagh and I enjoyed going to it, so I thought, ‘why not move to Fermanagh?’.
Before this, Marie had obviously been attending church in the local area at weekends when she came down to her caravan. In 1991, she made the move permanently to Fermanagh and joined St Michael’s.
She discovered that there was an appeal for people to offer their services as parish readers, and decided she would like to try this.
“In my profession, one had to have a certain ability to communicate and be articulate,” she says.
“Not only had I been head of the schools in Belfast, but I also had been chairman in the schools’ examination committee. And I always had an interest in doing more than my actual job.”
The training involved studying the Bible and the various structures of the church, as well as learning how to actually conduct a service.
She then went on to train as diocesan reader.
I ask Marie if she felt nervous when she had to take her first service, and she says: “As a head of a school, you speak quite a bit, and if one prepares well and prays God gives one strength. All through my professional life I’ve had to be involved in teaching, addressing groups of people, and as a head obviously I had to control and direct a large school. In addition to that, in the wider field of education, I had to get up and speak to a group of teachers quite often.
“I’m a good communicator and I’m blessed with a very good voice.”
The other dimension to Marie’s work involves that of pastoral care, and she reveals how she fell into this.
“Some years ago I had a friend who was very ill, and she has since died.
“I had discovered that because there was no rector in her parish at the time, she hadn’t had any spiritual support from a clergyman, and she was quite distressed about it.
“Knowing that I was a diocesan reader she asked me to pray with her, which of course I did - but I began to think about it, and one day our then Bishop came to take a service in Trory Church and I was assisting him. After the service he sat and chatted with me, and I was bold enough to tell him of my friend’s experience.
“And some time later - whether it was triggered by me or not, I couldn’t say - a letter was sent to all the churches inviting people to offer themselves for a new ministry that was going to be set up; to become diocesan pastoral assistants.”
Marie was keen to volunteer her services, and was “trained in various aspects of counselling and supporting people pastorally” in churches where there was no rector.
She says that the role was obviously a sensitive one: “We have to be very careful, we can’t ‘thrust’ anything at them, our role is to support them in any way we can. We have to be very wise about it, obviously it’s highly confidential.”
But she adds: “I find it - how can I put it - very rewarding. It’s a very varied role - apart from going into people’s homes I would also visit people in hospital and various nursing homes. I am with them in the heights of their joy and the depths of their despair.
“It has made me realise a different spiritual dimension to my belief; people in rural areas, they have a very strong faith and it is a faith that carries them through all kinds of difficulties and family circumstances and illnesses, and it’s a wonderful privilege to be able to go in to listen to them, to hear their difficulties, to pray with them, and to read from Scripture with them.”