St Therese: Challenge to my faith

Brenda Rankin-Sands spoke at the Dromantine Novena in honour of St Therese about the personal tragedy of the murder of her mother and how she coped and the challenge it was to her faith. The following is an edited version of Maria’s sharing.

I would like to thank Fr Paddy for inviting me here to Dromantine to share my story. I want to talk about how I coped when my faith was challenged. Christmas Day 2008 is where I want to begin, the day when my mother Máire Rankin was murdered. The people of Newry and beyond shared with our family in the grief and shock after the murder. There was fear and disbelief as the news circulated and we struggled to try and understand who would do such a thing to a gentle old lady in her own home at Christmas. We were just an ordinary family thrown into chaos by the impact of murder. It is almost 7 years since the murder and we have learned to cope with the many challenges that confronted us. At times the obsession with the trial and the whole legal process consumed us. In the midst of the courtroom rhetoric the sadness of what happened was lost and Máire Rankin’s name was rarely mentioned. We survived the trial and the more recent attempts to have the murder conviction quashed in the Court of Appeal.

Now that the Appeal is over I genuinely believe that I am starting to grieve in a more normal way. It’s almost as if I am coming out of a cloud and can see more clearly and breathe more deeply than I have done since the murder. I coped over the past 7 years by rationing my thoughts when things became too distressing, but there are times when I cannot avoid flashbacks to the murder scene and the darkness of the weeks that followed. I have spoken openly before about how my faith carried me through the despair but I have never spoken about the day Mummy’s body was returned to us on 6th January 2009. This was, without doubt, my darkest moment and it is only very recently that I have allowed myself to reflect on what happened that day. I don’t want to make any of you sad this evening or cause distress but I would like to share with you what it was like in those early days after the murder and the things that helped me through my worst moments.

The scene that Christmas morning was hard to take in; we found Mummy’s naked body laid out on her bedroom floor, partially covered with the bedspread, her face was bruised and badly marked, there were signs of a violent struggle, large clumps of her white hair were strewn around the carpet, the large crucifix that hung above the bed was lying alongside her body. While my Uncle knelt beside Mummy and stroked her face and called her name, I stood frozen to the spot and did not touch her. I knew she was dead and I knelt down and said a prayer for the repose of her soul but I still didn’t touch her. I don’t know why, maybe because I realised instantly that it was a crime scene and I shouldn’t touch anything or maybe it was just pure terror. The paramedics and police arrived soon after and we were ushered outside. We were in deep shock and struggled to make sense of what had happened. Within minutes our family home was a crime scene with police officers in forensic white suits everywhere. The next two weeks were a nightmare as events began to unfold, arrests were made and the sheer horror of the attack was revealed. One of the most horrific memories is when the Detective Inspector gathered the family together in Ardmore Police Station to tell us the full extent of mummy’s injuries, including the disturbing news that she had been sexually assaulted. Things went from bad to worse and on New Year’s Eve we attended Newry Court House and saw for the first time, the woman who had taken our mother’s life for no apparent reason.

During this time Mummy’s broken body lay in a morgue in Belfast and could not be returned to the family because the defence lawyers insisted on a second post mortem. We waited each day for news of when the body would be released; it was a tense and distressing time for us, we didn’t have the comfort or dignity of a wake and we couldn’t even organise the funeral. We were all in a state of extreme anxiety, panic and fear. We couldn’t sleep or eat. We couldn’t even pray. One of my sisters told me recently that although she couldn’t say a prayer, she went to bed every night during those few weeks in terror, clutching her rosary beads; I think the fact that she clutched those beads was an act of faith and genuine prayer in itself, she didn’t need to say anything. I was also haunted by images of Mummy’s rosary beads which were lying on the floor in a straight line at her feet; this troubled me so much that when the police were interviewing me I repeatedly dropped a pair of rosary beads on the ground to see if they fell in a straight line; they didn’t. I became obsessed with this image and wanted the police to understand that someone put them like that deliberately, the person who murdered Mummy. They weren’t placed there to bring comfort; if you want to comfort someone who is dying you place rosary beads in their hands, not stretched out at their feet. They were placed there in mockery, and it seemed to me that the murderer had surrounded Mummy’s dead body with symbols of her faith: the crucifix by her side, the beads at her feet, for some twisted reason. It was very disturbing and I felt completed surrounded by evil.

On reflection, we were all in deep shock, traumatised and barely functioning but I do remember finding comfort in the numerous cards and messages of support we received and the knowledge that everyone was praying for us.

Eventually, almost 2 weeks after the murder, Mummy’s body was finally released and we were told that we wouldn’t be able to see her; her face had been cut open twice to investigate the brain injuries during the two post mortem examinations. We begged the undertaker to allow us to see her; I was torturing myself because I didn’t touch her body that Christmas morning and I desperately wanted to touch her one more time and say goodbye. My brothers and sisters also felt that they really needed to see her. It was almost as if the whole thing was a terrible nightmare and they would not believe Mummy was dead until they saw her. We were fortunate to have a kind and compassionate undertaker who prepared Mummy’s body in such a way that we could experience that final moment of parting.

On the afternoon of 6th January our family gathered in the funeral parlour for a private prayer service. That was my lowest moment; I will never forget the raw grief and pain I felt as I approached the open coffin. It was such a sad and lonely sight. Poor Mummy, the only part of her that we were able to see was her hands; her head and upper body were covered. I will never forget the image of those hands, clear signs of a violent struggle were evident in her bruised and battered fingers. She had obviously fought back while under attack. It was just too much to take, I was so distressed, we all were; I could hardly breathe but I did place my hand on hers and said ‘I’m sorry, Mummy’. Looking back, I don’t know why I said sorry; sorry for not being there to help her that night? Sorry for what happened to her? Sorry for not hugging her on that Christmas morning even though I knew she was dead and beyond physical comfort?

Fr Boyle, our parish priest from Drumalane church, was there with us in the funeral parlour; he asked us to gather around the coffin to pray. I didn’t feel like praying, I was overwhelmed with grief and panic, I felt as if I was drowning. When Fr Boyle began to speak he was very direct, he told us that we were handing Mummy’s battered, bruised and broken body back to God, in the same way as Mary took the battered, broken body of her son Jesus after he was taken down from the cross and handed him back to his Father in Heaven. This analogy with the crucifixion was extremely powerful, Fr Boyle’s words acknowledged the darkness and despair we all felt at that moment. It was almost as if we were at the foot of the cross, experiencing the grief and desolation that the mother of Christ felt. We began to say the rosary and I could not join in, at first; I was still too distressed to find a voice and struggled to get the words out. As we prayed together something happened that I cannot explain, but by the time the rosary was finished I was calm and experienced a real sense of peace. I don’t know if it was Mummy’s spirit among us, the power of prayer, the grace of God, the Holy Spirit – whatever came over us, we were given the strength to cope over the next few hours and days.

When I think back to that evening of 6th January 2009 there is a comforting and beautiful memory that shines out of the darkness. It was bitterly cold when we brought Mammy’s body to the Church of the Assumption, Drumalane. We entered a packed church to the sound of the choir singing the Taize chant: “Jesus Remember Me”. As we walked up the aisle after the coffin we all felt an overwhelming sense of peace and warmth. This is a very special memory for me. As we brought Mummy before the altar, there was no doubt that we were in the presence of goodness and in the presence of God. Evil could no longer touch us. For the first time since her death I felt safe and no longer afraid. We went to the church that night at 7 o’clock and stayed until after midnight while friends and neighbours expressed their sorrow, shook our hands, prayed with and supported us. It was truly amazing to be in the midst of such genuine goodness and faith. I believe that something powerful happened both in the funeral parlour and the church that evening, words cannot explain it but it was a true example of absolute faith; a triumph of good over evil.

It was a year and half after the murder before we got back into our family home on the Dublin Road, it had been sealed as a crime scene. When we were finally allowed access it was surreal. The presents were still under the tree, the crib sat untouched, the Christmas cards were on display, and all Mummy’s plants were dead; everything was exactly as it was on that Christmas morning, frozen in time. One of the first things I noticed was Mummy’s collection of prayer books on the dining room table. I lifted the book that sat on the top of the pile: the marker was on Christmas Day. I opened the book and read the last reflection she must have read that Christmas Eve – hours before her death.

Jesus for you I live; Jesus for you I die;  Jesus I want to be yours in life and in death

There was also a copy of another prayer inside the book, a prayer that she said every day. It was more poignant than ever in light of her fate that night:

            Every day I need thee Lord but this day especially,
            I need some extra strength to face whatever is to be.
            This day more than any day I need to feel thee near
            To fortify my courage and to overcome my fears.
            By myself I cannot meet the challenge of this hour,
            There are times when human creatures need a higher power
            To help them bear what must be borne
            And so dear Lord I pray,
            Hold onto my trembling hands and be with me today.

I know I was meant to find those prayer books, I was meant to read the last prayers that Mummy read before she died. I had been so afraid to go back into the house but when I opened Mummy’s prayer book I no longer felt afraid, I felt reassured and filled with her strength and faith. It was a genuine moment of clarity. I knew that what she prayed for that night was granted and that God was holding her trembling hands as she faced her violent and traumatic death with courage.

The image of those bruised hands in the coffin is still heart-breaking for me and it will always be a painful memory. That’s the thing about traumatic memories, they don’t ever really go away but you learn to cope with them. I also find the image of the crucified Christ too distressing to look at. I have not attended the Good Friday ceremonies since the murder for this reason. You won’t find a crucifix hanging anywhere in my home; the crucifixes that once hung on the wall are now under beds or tucked away, out of sight, in the back of drawers. I know my mother would probably not approve of this but I hope she would understand. You see, she was beaten to death with a crucifix in such a brutal attack that the mark from the crown of thorns was embedded on her chin and the figure of Christ was snapped in two. I know this is a very disturbing image for us all but it reinforces the severity and brutality of the way in which she died. This image haunts me. But if I put it in context, of course the image of the crucified Christ is disturbing – it should be disturbing. But the darkness of Holy Thursday and Good Friday is followed by the hope and joy of Easter Sunday.

We can’t avoid the darkness or suffering that comes into our lives, we must confront it. Maybe what my mother experienced that night was her Gethsemane. I am sure she was terrified as she was attacked but I know what she would have done in the midst of that fear. She would have prayed and trusted in God. 

I am not angry at God and never have been because I don’t believe that he would have forsaken her. People often say to me “Where was God on that night?” I know where God was, I believe He was at her side, holding her trembling hands, doing all he could to help her through her suffering and help her to die.

I have been helped throughout this difficult journey by the love of my family, the goodness of friends, the prayers and support of my community and the constant presence of my mother and father’s faith – nourished in me since childhood.

I would like to finish with a prayer to the Holy Spirit; this prayer has given me strength in the moments of panic when my faith is challenged:

O Holy Spirit
Replace the tension within me with Holy relaxation;
Replace the turbulence within me with a sacred calm;
Replace the anxiety within me with a quiet confidence;
Replace the fear within me with a strong faith;
Replace the bitterness within me with the sweetness of your grace;
Replace the darkness within me with a gentle light;
Replace the coldness within me with a gentle warmth.
Amen.

24 September 2015