Diary: Sister Rosemary

by
20 March 2015

ISTOCK

Double celebration 

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 hens.

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 Africa?

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 Urdu."

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!"

Bitter memory

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 directions.

"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.

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