16 November 2006


The Rt Revd Tom Stanage and Dr Donald Watson write:
MOTHER MARY RUTH (Mary Brewster), who died recently, aged 101, played a significant part in the history of the Order of St Michael and All Angels, and its witness and work in the Anglican Church in South Africa.

The order, established in 1874, was the first Anglican religious community founded in South Africa, and, through the efforts of Sister Henrietta (Stockdale), the state registration of nurses in South Africa was achieved as early as 1891, indeed before that of any other country. During the Anglo-Boer War, the sisters remained steadfastly neutral, to enable their hospital work to continue for both sides.

The community served the Bloemfontein cathedral parish for 120 years, and worked in parishes and missions in the Western Cape, Kimberley, and Lesotho. From the start, the sisters devoted themselves not only to nursing, but to developing schools for white, as well as for coloured and black, children. In the Eastern Free State at Modderpoort, they ran a hospital and school for a large community of Africans on the diocesan farm.

Mary Ruth, a native of Southend-on-Sea, was awarded an external London degree from Reading in 1926. She went to Palestine, and taught Arabic-speaking girls at the English High School in Haifa. On one occasion, her car was hijacked, and a dozen wildly armed Palestinian guerrillas attempted to seize control. Mary Ruth kept her cool, and drove calmly to the nearest British control post, whereupon her passengers immediately fled. After four years’ service, she went to South Africa to teach at St Michael’s School in Bloemfontein.

She was professed in 1936, and became the Superior in 1964. Under her leadership, St Michael’s maintained its tradition of high academic standards, and she left her mark on thousands of girls. Because of the dwindling number of sisters, the Order felt obliged to withdraw from the school in 1974, but still offered pastoral and counselling support.

Mary Ruth produced several books on the work of the Order — from the poverty of Kimberley before the First World War to the trials and successes of working in Lesotho. On her 100th birthday, she was rewarded with a helicopter flight over territory covered by the Order, and by a generous and gracious letter of congratulations and thanks from President Thabo Mbeki.

There is but one remaining sister, Joan CSM&AA, who keeps the St Michael’s House alive with prayer and study, with hospitality and love. She is now 88 years of age, but filled with vitality and ministry.

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