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Diary: Sister Rosemary

08 May 2015

Sister Rosemary


Solar moment

LIFE in Community tends to follow fairly predictable patterns. For my first 20 years or so, the pattern for Chapter meetings was that we assembled and worked relentlessly through the agenda until the business was completed. Despite thirst, flagging energies, and other inconveniences, we never took a break. Then all that changed. What prompted this revolution? The moon.

On Chapter Day 1999, there was a total eclipse of the sun, and we daringly decided to take a break to witness this rare phenomenon. (It fell to me as Chapter Clerk to work out how to minute this.) We all realised that a break in the business had been beneficial, and, from then on, that became "what we always do".

Earlier this year, there was another eclipse - partial, this time. The weather forecast was gloomy, so the chance of seeing it seemed to be remote. The day began with dazzling brightness, which promised another problem: I had no equipment with which to look safely at the sun.

Resigned to missing the event, one way or another, but being vaguely aware of a dulling of the light, I happened to glance out of the window, and realised that I was looking directly at the sun, now covered with a thin grey veil and transformed into a rich golden crescent. For a minute or two, I watched in wonder, and then thicker cloud gathered, and the sun disappeared for the rest of the day. It was a moment to remember, and I nearly missed it. 

Sisters on call

THIS year's 150th anniversary has prompted me to reflect on the history of the Community. We were founded from the first to be Mission Sisters, but the mission was initially to the massively unchurched population of a poor district in south London.

Before long, though, we were touched by the Victorian enthusiasm for overseas mission, and made various attempts in different places. None of these really took off, however, and they were soon abandoned.

Our first overseas venture with staying power began in the 1930s in Liberia - an unlikely place, it seemed, since it was not British territory; but we arrived there at the invitation of the Holy Cross Fathers, who had realised that in this traditional society they were unable to do any effective work with women and girls. So a small group of Sisters was transported to the steamy heat of equatorial Africa, to a culture doubly foreign: among not only Africans of many different tribes and languages, but also the American Fathers. 

Fruitful memories

A GIRLS' school and a hospital became the responsibility of the Sisters. The latter was managed by the nearest the mission had to a nurse - a Sister who had been trained as a children's nanny.

The pupils paid their school fees in kind, in the produce of their family farms, which then became their food supply for the term. The Sisters became adept at measuring large quantities of commodities, including beans, peppers, and - messily and odorously - palm oil.

Vegetation of all kinds, cultivated and wild, grew in riotous profusion in a botanist's paradise. The Sisters' diet was enriched by the fruit they plucked in a state of perfect ripeness and fresh from the tree.

Not all of them were appreciative of this; years later, I heard two reminiscing, and one said: "We had to eat so many of those things that grew on the tree by the gate. What were they called?"


Wildlife was there in plenty, too, and not all of it welcome; it was tempting to shelter from the sun in the shade of a tree, but it was ill-advised to come within range of the snakes that lurked in the branches. 

Crying in the chapel

THE Sisters gamely continued to recite their office several times a day, but sometimes under difficulties. Rain on the metal roof of the chapel completely drowned their voices.

One day, when they were reciting a psalm antiphonally, in their usual restrained way, those on one side lost their place and found themselves on the wrong verse. "By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept," they offered.

A Sister on the other side, tried beyond endurance, roared across: "By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept."

Worship in these conditions could certainly have its moments. One evening, they assembled to recite the office for the dead, only to find that the chapel had been invaded by a swarm of cockroaches. These gentle - and, in many cases, genteel - English ladies embarked on mass slaughter. When the corpses had been tidied away, they began their long-postponed office: "May they rest in peace."

I have to admit, it all sounds horrific to me, but they survived, and some of them loved it passionately. "The oldest have borne most; we that are young will never see so much, nor live so long." 

The Revd Sister Rosemary CHN is a nun at the Convent of the Holy Name in Derby.


Fri 20 May @ 01:46
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