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Interview: Sister Dorothy Stella, OHP religious

21 August 2015

‘As we become older, we’ve become more spontaneous’


Waiting in silence for the bride to arrive at a wedding in a Roman Catholic church, I heard a voice clearly say: "I want you to join a religious community." I had no knowledge of the religious life, but I obeyed the call and have never regretted it. I joined the Order on the feast of the Epiphany 1965.


My baptismal name is Dorothy. I wanted to take the name Helen after my mother, but the prioress chose Stella because it was Epiphany. If somebody comes with a baptismal name and we’ve never had a sister with that name, then we keep our names. We never repeat them. When I joined the community there was a Sister Dorothy and two Sister Dorotheas; so that’s why I have a double-barrelled name.


We negotiate. With our new sisters, as we’d already had a Helen, Louisa, and Benedicta, we changed Helen to Helena, Louisa didn’t like Louise, so she’s Louisa Anne, which is her baptismal name, and Benedicta just added her middle name. Most of us are known by our initials for short; so I’m "DS" to most people within the family. Three more people are joining us soon.


The Order of the Holy Paraclete and St Hilda’s School began in January 1915, when five young women, led by Margaret Cope, leased Sneaton Castle in Whitby. Mother Margaret was the first prioress. She died in about 1962. From what I hear, she was very dynamic and forward-looking, very disciplined. Some people found her difficult, some people loved her. She was obviously a very determined young lady: she was 23 when she came to Whitby, and had come as a novice from another community. When they decided to close their school, she was very angry, because she thought girls should be well-educated, and she brought two of the religious and two of the secular staff of the school to Whitby, and this was while the East Coast was being bombarded.


Most of the work of the Order has been in education in its widest sense in Africa, Sweden, and many places in the United Kingdom. We’re recognised as a Benedictine community, but we’ve also been influenced by the northern saints of the Celtic Church, and St Hilda. We have a book called The Whitby Sisters with the history of it all, up until the Millennium. We’re still collecting the information to bring it up to the present.


We began the Order’s centenary celebration in January with a service of thanksgiving. At Pentecost, we had a large celebration for local people in chapel, with the Archbishop of York, who is our Visitor. We had a very successful flower festival, and a community outing to Hartlepool, where Hilda had her first monastery. We’ll end it with a service in York Minster in October, where we will be joined by about 600 friends, family, Old Girls, and tertiaries of the Order.


I was born into a Christian family, baptised when I was three weeks old. Going to church and Sunday school every week was never questioned.


I don’t remember my first experience of God. He has always been there and is everywhere, unchanging. My younger brothers haven’t followed me, but they come and stay at Whitby regularly, and they’re very supportive.


The most difficult thing has been not having children of my own. The most rewarding has been teaching and caring for children, especially in Ghana and Swaziland. I went to Bangor Teacher Training College, and taught primary schoolchildren. I specialised in geography, but I just loved teaching little ones — I just enjoyed it all, at Whitby and then in Ghana, and in a vocational school in the north of Ghana.


Then I taught catering, because I’d qualified as a City & Guilds caterer at night school. I did what I said I was never going to do: teach young women. I find teenagers . . . quite difficult! I did enjoy it in the end, and I think the girls were very enthusiastic. They came in from the villages, but had very little schooling; so this really started as a fun thing, to teach them cookery, hygiene, and how to use local foods in a creative way. Some of them were very bright, actually; so I got them to take the exams, and some even went on to train as teachers.


When I became an examiner in Ghana, we adapted the course to use local food: millet or rice. You couldn’t buy potatoes, except from Upper Volta, and there were very few vegetables. We could grow peanuts and buy plantain from south Ghana, but the north was a very poor area on the edge of the Sahara, with a very short growing season. It was a bit like being in England in the war: people became adept at acquiring and using different things. We used ground-nut oil or shea-nut butter from the local trees, guinea-fowl, chicken, goat, and a bit of beef. We had guinea-fowl and chicken eggs. Almost every recipe began with onion, tomatoes, a very hot red pepper, and salt.


Yes, I still cook for my community. There are quite a lot of us; so we have two cooks, but we have a rota for breakfast and supper, and I’m on the kitchen on Saturday night. I enjoy cooking, and like to keep my hand in. And, if the cook is ill, Sister Jocelyn or myself turn to. I usually try to do something a bit different, a surprise. Sometimes I don’t know what I’m going to cook until I start. I very rarely use a recipe. I think it’s important that people enjoy their food.


The most surprising thing was being elected Prioress, and staying in office for ten years. I’ve enjoyed most of my time as Prioress, and the opportunity it brings to guide the community along new paths. There have been some stressful times when the responsibility has weighed heavily on me. A new Prioress will be elected in September. We’re constantly changing within the community, evolving with the people and the work and what’s going on in the world.


The main thing over the past seven years has been the realisation that our priory here is falling apart, and in need of huge amount of repair work. There’s no insulation and it’s going to cost a fortune; so we made the decision to sell some land for development and build a new priory. It’s been a huge issue, but the work has started now.


The only developers who had money were supermarkets, and Whitby had said for years that it needed a supermarket. We had said we’d never sell to a supermarket, but gave in, provided there were also low-cost housing and retirement bungalows. The supermarket who took most interest was Tesco; so the balloon went up: we live on the more up-market side of Whitby. It made national news. Immediately, Sainsbury’s bought a plot on the poorer side of town, and planners gave them the go-ahead, instead.


We finally sold the land, and insisted that it was for a low-cost care home and housing; so it took a long time. People assume that low-cost housing is for low-cost people — "we don’t want riff-raff" — an assumption which made us very angry. Anyway, it’s all been passed, and we’re ready to start building, but it’s been all very sad.


As we become older we’ve become more spontaneous: life has become a bit easier. Changes happen as and when they’re needed. We’ve always tried to be open to the Holy Spirit, free to serve where we are invited to work, and we welcome those who visit us. We’ve had four "alongsiders", and we’d welcome others.


People find it difficult to make a life commitment under the vows of poverty, celibacy, and obedience. There are many other ways of serving God in overseas aid and voluntary work now. Women are now able to be ordained. When I joined, there were 17 in the no-vitiate, all well-educated, little opportunity to serve in other areas. Now many of us would have been ordained, or taught or done aid work abroad, and also had a husband and family.


Yet many people feel lonely and lost, and are searching for support and belonging. Others seek a spiritual dimension to their lives. Oblates, tertiaries, are growing, as are new communities that do not live in community as the traditional Orders do. We have lots of meetings with the new communities, who all turn to traditional ones for advice.


I’m happiest visiting family and friends, being outside in the mountains, on the moors, in the sunshine, or in Africa.


My parents, Peter and Helen, were the biggest influence on me, as well as my godmother, Clarice, Sister Janet OHP, Fr Ralph Martin SSM, and Fr Vincent Gillett, all of whom have contributed in making me the person I am, and encouraging me to use my God-given talents, and showing me the importance of being a servant.


I pray for peace of mind, strength, and energy so that I don’t fail my sisters — and for all victims of unfairness and violence.


I would like to be locked in a church with Ralph Martin SSM, to discuss his recent book. He is a holy man, full of wisdom, and he always makes me laugh.


Sister Dorothy Stella was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

Towards a New Day: A monk’s story by Ralph Martin SSM is edited by Vincent Strudwick and published by DLT (Books, 22 May).

The Whitby Sisters by Rosalind Barker is available from shop@sneatoncastle.co.uk.

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