AS I mentioned (Diary, 30 January), the
community to which I belong has a long history, and, until
comparatively recently, was fairly large. I was reminded of this a
few weeks ago, when we celebrated the Diamond Jubilee of two of our
Sisters, one of whom is 90, and the other not far behind. Both of
them are far from retired, and active within the convent and
outside; they made them tough in those days.
The next day, we held the funeral of another Sister, professed
about 57 years ago. She was laid to rest in our burial plot in a
local churchyard. We began to use this space when we moved to Derby
25 years ago, and already it holds more of our Sisters than are
still alive in this world. Another Sister is soon to join her
there; she was our oldest Sister in Profession; so another segment
of our history has been lost to living memory.
Above and below stairs
AT THE time I entered the community, more years ago than I can
quite believe, living memory went back much further, and included
some fascinating glimpses of a vanished world. More than one Sister
had been in service in her early life, and would reminisce about
the society of Upstairs, Downstairs, where cooking pots
had to be laboriously cleaned - mostly using elbow grease - and
where broken china had to be paid for by deductions from wages.
Until the 1940s, the class distinctions of the world were
reflected in the convent, where choir Sisters (who were "ladies")
occupied leadership positions, and spent more of their time
reciting the Office, while lay Sisters did the majority of
practical tasks. This had originally reflected the difference in
educational standards, but when there was an improvement in basic
education in the middle of the 20th century, this could no longer
be claimed as a reason for making such a distinction, and all the
Sisters were - as it was expressed - "raised to choir status".
Thomas Merton, in whose community the choir/lay distinction
still applied, remarked that several choir novices had asked to be
transferred to be lay Brothers, because they felt that the
practical activities of farm and workshop were more congenial, and
felt more useful, than long hours spent reciting psalms.
Admittedly, our Office was not as long, and was not in Latin,
but I have sometimes wondered whether some of the lay Sisters might
have felt that their new status did not compensate for time they
might have enjoyed spending cooking, sewing, or feeding the
Right place, right time
ONE of the Sisters I helped to look after in her old age had had
a distinguished history, before she entered the community, as
matron of a hospital in India. While she was there, she had gained
not only expertise in her profession, and management skills - that
must have proved valuable when she occupied leadership positions
among the Sisters, but also fluency in the local languages.
While on furlough in this country, she felt called to join our
community. Her friends were horrified: not only did she appear to
be wasting her professional qualifications and experience - an
objection that many among us have encountered - but, if she was
determined to enter a religious community, she seemed to have
chosen the wrong one. There were others who worked in India; why on
earth should she enter one that had overseas houses only in
But she felt that this was what she must do, and she duly came
to us and acquired the varied experience that Sisters did in those
days, in our numerous and busy branch houses. Then there came an
appeal from our Sisters working in Coventry: "There are people
pouring into the city from India and Pakistan, and women in
particular are feeling isolated and unsupported. The church and
community here desperately need someone who speaks Hindi and
There followed years of amazing work helping the new immigrants
to find their feet in Coventry society. I can imagine a delighted
chuckle from on high: "See! I did know what I was doing!"
WHEN I was a postulant, I went to greet an elderly, bedridden
Sister who was celebrating her Diamond Jubilee. She expressed the
hope that I would live to see mine. That seemed a fairly faint
hope, considering the fallout rate of newcomers to communities, and
also my age at the time; if I do live to see it, I shall be 94,
which is the age of our oldest Sister at present.
She was reminiscing about her own time in the novitiate. All the
novices and postulants - a large group in those days - were sent
out for a picnic (somebody's idea of a novitiate treat, even in my
time). They split into two groups, and went off in different
"When we unpacked the food," she remembered sadly, "one group
had all the jam and cake, and the other had all the dry bread." I
did not need her to tell me which group she was in. The
disappointment was still vivid, more than 60 years later.
The Revd Sister Rosemary CHN is a nun at the Convent of the
Holy Name in Derby.