Sister Moira Meeghan is talking about the effect of long-remembered hymns on people living with dementia. "As soon as we start singing they join in, they know all the words, and it's all about enabling them to enjoy things," says Sister Moira, who has witnessed this positive impact at first hand since the Irenaeus Project, of which she is part, helped set up a choir for people affected by dementia at Saint Thomas of Canterbury parish in Waterloo earlier this year.
"The choir is for anyone who enjoys singing, for anyone living with a form of dementia and for carers," she adds. "When you are living with dementia, the facts are often lost but the emotions remain as they are the last thing to go really. The more people enjoy things and the more those emotions can be stimulated, the better for the person. Singing is good for the brain, the more they can keep the brain stimulated, the better for the person. We're just creating a situation where people are going to enjoy themselves, where they can feel confident, where their carers can relax and be comfortable as well and where stress is reduced."
The choir – numbering between 30 and 40 people and open to anybody in Liverpool Archdiocese – is an initiative begun in response to the Archdiocesan plan for people in parishes to be more aware of the effects of dementia on a person and the community. They meet on alternate Wednesdays at St Thomas of Canterbury church hall, and will be singing at the dementia-friendly carol service in the Metropolitan Cathedral on 14 December, starting at 2pm. It is an admirable undertaking – and is just one piece of the impressive portfolio of work that the Irenaeus Project has been compiling in our Archdiocese.
It was in June 2002 that Father Chris Thomas was released from his parish work to embark on a project which draws its inspiration from Saint Irenaeus, a fourth-century French bishop whose words "Gloria Dei est vivens homo" are an inspiration to many still today: "The glory of God is a person fully alive."
Today the Irenaeus team includes Father Chris and Sister Moira, who arrived in September 2015 to replace the newly retired Father Brendan Rice, as well as a committed group of lay people led by Jenny Linker. The Waterloo-based team focus much of their efforts on providing retreats and times of reflection, with demand for their spirituality programmes particularly high during the Lent and Advent seasons.
As an illustration of their work, Sister Moira notes that their recent activities have included: 'Life in the Spirit' seminars in Orrell; a 'Living Christ' retreat in Skelmersdale; a parish mission in Ainsdale; a course on the Word; and a variety of scripture weekends and mornings.
The Irenaeus team give time to individuals too. "The project also works with individuals in the field of spiritual direction," explains Sister Moira, "offering time to any individual who wants to reflect on their life and where God is leading them." The Irenaeus house in Waterloo is a place where people meet for spiritual accompaniment and is also available for residential stays as well as for group meetings.
'Come and See'
One of the main events run by the Irenaeus team is 'Come and See'. This is a national weekend conference which takes place every two years. In alternate years, a 'Come and See Day' is held instead, featuring keynote speakers, workshops and times of prayer. This year's day event was staged on 29 October at Faith Primary School in Liverpool and had as its principal speakers Lord David Alton and Steve Atherton, Justice and Peace coordinator for the Archdiocese. "The aim of these days," says Sister Moira, "is to promote prayer and reflection as keys to our Christian and Catholic life both at parish and community levels. Spirituality is vital in the process by which people become fully alive."
While the Irenaeus team have long been involved in parishes and pastoral areas, both within the Archdiocese and nationally, this year they have sought to extend their work by visiting each parish priest and looking at new ways of working. Hence the choir at St Thomas of Canterbury is just one of a number of recent initiatives, which include an 'Oasis Drop-in' session at the same church on the first Thursday of each month (2–4pm) for anybody wanting a cup of tea and some conversation.
Sister Moira, meanwhile, led the first annual women's weekend retreat at Irenaeus in September, titled 'Women at the well', which provided the chance for those present to share their faith and prayer experiences. A men's equivalent will follow in February, running from the evening of Friday 10th to Sunday 12th, headed by Father Chris. "The women's retreat was very positively received – people enjoyed it so much that they booked for up the next event immediately," adds Sister Moira, who will also be leading a 'Quiet retreat' in the run-up to Easter, on 24–26 March.
Another date for the 2017 diary is a course organised by CaFE (Catholic Faith Exploration), who will be coming to the Archdiocese at the invitation of Archbishop Malcolm McMahon. The director of CaFE is David Payne, a well-known speaker, who is ably assisted by Tim Stevens and several others in a charitable venture to create DVD resources for parishes. On 4 and 26 February, they will be explaining how their new DVD – 'The Gift' – can be used to help Catholics explore their faith at Christ the King parish club in Childwall.
Elaborating on this event, Sister Moira says: "This is a response to the Pope's request that all parishes have 'Life in the Spirit' seminars – a series of talks to enable people to recognise the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives. What they are going to do is come to Liverpool to demonstrate how this resource can be used in the parish. Those people who attend the course will go through the process of 'The Gift' and that then enables them to go back to their own parishes to deliver that resource. We hope that many parishes will be represented."
Sister Moira hopes that parishes will make contact with the Irenaeus Project too. She adds: "We are here to support the Archdiocese and in particular the parishes. Why not contact us and discuss where we can help?"
• The monthly Irenaeus newsletter goes out to over 1,000 individuals as well as each parish, school and religious house in the diocese. To receive a copy please contact email@example.com.
• For more information about 'The Gift' course at Christ The King parish club on 4 and 26 February, email Sister Moira at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 0151 949 1199.