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