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Interview: Mary Barrow RSCJ

10 August 2012

'My biggest regret? Not having enough compassion'

I'm a Catholic nun, a member of the Society of the Sacred Heart. I live in a terraced house with two other Sisters in Forest Gate, East London, side by side with people of different religions and cultures.

I have learnt so much since I came here in 1996: about God, about different faiths, and about people. It is a most enriching place to live.

I think the future of religious life will be in places like this. I was of retirement age when I came to live here, but, as we don't retire, I went to the Renewal Programme to volunteer in one of the projects. I've been a volunteer with the Refugee and Migrant Project (RAMP) for the past 16 years.

The order was founded by Madeleine Sophie Barat, in 1800, in France, at the time of the Revolution. There was so much violence and unrest in France at that time that she and her companions wanted to educate young women so that they would influence their husbands in that turbulent world.

These women weren't the poorest of the poor - and they would eventually marry well and influence the decisions their husbands made. She wanted people to experience God's love, and believed that that would influence their actions and work. In the aftermath of the Revolution, the order spread throughout the world.

Many different congregations started at that time, because they saw the need. Several went into nursing and education. Five of our Sisters sailed to the United States in 1818. It took three months, in terrible conditions, and they were promised all kinds of things when they got there, but didn't necessarily receive them. They educated white children there, and then gradually began to work with the black children.

We came to England in 1842, and had several schools and colleges in Newcastle, Tonbridge Wells, and Hammersmith.

More Sisters wished to work with the poor rather than in the boarding schools; so, in the 1880s, the order moved from being rather enclosed to working more in the East End of London. We're in about 30 countries now.

We're smaller than we were, but there are some young women coming to begin a novitiate here in September, which gives us a lot of encouragement, as most of us are over 60 now. It's given us a sense of new hope for the future, because, if you believe in something, you want to share it with other people

In this country, we've seen that education is possible for everybody; but we want to walk with people who are not well off - needy in many kinds of ways - to spread God's love with them.

I work with refugees and migrant people who are not wanted in their own country; so I want to help them feel wanted, to be settled. Now some of them are coming back to help and support others, because they know how hard it is to be an asylum-seeker in this country.

We work to the best of our means - we've reached rock bottom now - and we're helped by other people who donate food or money, clothes, or time to listen to someone in distress.

Sometimes they say: "Thank you so much," and you say: "I haven't done anything." But they say: "You have - you've listened."

I was born in Ilford, Essex, to a loving Catholic family. I went to college and trained to be a teacher at Digby Stuart College, Roehampton, and met someone in the Society of the Sacred Heart.

I was attracted by their prayer, I think, the whole spirit of prayer, and wanted to see if that's where God was calling me. I've never regretted it. It's always felt right for me.

I started as an infant teacher, but was also studying mathematics, and taught for a year before I joined the congregation. I went on to teach mathematics in their boarding school, and then a degree. I taught in our secondary modern and grammar schools after my final vows.

I went to Malta, and then Korea. That was an international school, and I was learning and receiving a lot from the people of Korea.

In the '80s, I came back to England, to Newcastle, working informally with students. I worked for 12 years in administration and formation, till I came to Forest Gate in the '90s. RAMP opened me to a totally different aspect of life: I have learnt so much here. The people who come to our centre are often very poor: many are not allowed to work and have no recourse to public funds.

We're able to provide a bag of food each week to more than 70 families, through the generosity of other people - mostly churches and schools - and second-hand clothes, and a good solicitor, but, above all, a listening ear and, hopefully, a compassionate heart.

Not being able to help people with the strict immigration laws of this country is so difficult. They have to wait for such a long time. It's hard sitting with people in that position. You want to help people: you want to make it right; but you can never say it's going to be all right. Maybe the only way is to listen.

They are such people of God. They often say: "Only God can help us." They have a great faith in God - the Muslims often say "inshallah" - not wanting what they want, but wanting what God wants. You can't take away their pain, but it's a great learning experience of how God works in people's lives. We can't promise anything, but we can try to encourage them and to support them.

This work fits in very well with my vocation as a Sister. It's a means of allowing the compassionate heart of God to touch these poor people.

The most important choice I have made was to become a nun, and coming to live in this part of London and working with RAMP.

Yes, I would at times love to be in a quiet place in the country, or by the sea, and have a holiday there. But my heart is here, and I learn so much from the people around and those in RAMP about God and myself and others.

I had a choice at one time, in '95 or '96, to join the community at Brecon, and thought about it seriously. But somehow it was here . . . while I have energy, while I have energy to reach out to people . . . this is an important place, and I want to be here.

I'm 80 now. I do tire, so, on the other days, I'm in the house or with people, and I have more time for prayer and reading. While I can go on doing that, I will.

I get up at six and pray for an hour, and go to mass and have breakfast, and then I go to RAMP two days a week. We come together in the evening, share a meal and prayer and what happened during the day.

Biggest regret? Possibly not having enough compassion.

So many people have influenced me in my life it is not easy to choose one; but my mother taught me by her life something of compassion for others. The artist Monet has been a great influence on my prayer, and contemplation.

So many people are full of compassion. Many reach out to those in need, and that gives me hope for the future. The team churches in Beaconsfield have recently invited a coachload of our people for the day to their green field, for example. RAMP has no finance coming in; so we rely on the generosity of the Renewal Programme, and of volunteers.

My favourite Bible passages are St John's Gospel, especially John 8 and the last discourse, and the Psalms.

Prayer for me is sitting before God holding all these friends and poor people in my heart. I don't usually pray for things, but just hold them in my heart before God.

I'd choose to be with a friend, one of our sisters, if I was locked in a church. She and I often make our retreat together in the summer, and always share something of where God is leading us. Or I'd like to spend the time with Madeleine Sophie Barat, to ask her more questions: how she saw the beginning, how we're doing today - to have time with her on my own.

Sister Mary Barrow was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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