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Obituary: Sister Elizabeth CSF

22 December 2023

Sisters Joyce and Sue CSF write:

ELIZABETH was confirmed in Chippenham, her home town, in 1943. In her Christian family, faith had seemed natural; so, unsurprisingly, she later went through a temporary loss of faith, renewing in her late teens the Christian commitment which she then lived out for the rest of her long life.

Medical issues stemming from her lifelong disabilities prevented her graduating, but she studied physiology at degree level, and then general science while working at the Central Middlesex Hospital, and discerning God’s call.

Convinced that had she been a man she would have been a priest, in 1955, she entered the noviciate of the Community of St Francis. This was a courageous leap of faith, as she joined six long-established significantly older sisters in Dalston, east London, encouraged to bring with her some large handkerchiefs and a sense of humour — both no doubt essential.

She made her First Profession in vows in 1957, and was transferred to CSF’s branch house in Hackney Wick, where she worked as a parish Sister for three years and took part in various parish missions and work with students. In 1960, Elizabeth made her life profession, and returned to Dalston, where she was appointed Novice Guardian.

In 1962, when the Community moved from London to Compton Durville, Somerset, the number of sisters had almost doubled. In 1971, she was elected Reverend Mother. During her 19 years in office, in the course of which the title changed to Minister General, she guided the Community gradually through many historic improvements. She helped to negotiate the affiliation of CSF as autonomous members of the Society of St Francis, the Sisters of the First Order, seeing the wisdom of joining up constitutions, statutes, and Principles with the Brothers. She also initiated the move from Sisters’ dependence on the Brothers to a more “level playing field” of interdependence. She negotiated the opportunity for many Sisters to participate in community life and ministry within Brothers’ houses and some Brothers in Sisters’ houses.

During her leadership, the community’s habit was modernised, and the veil was discarded. Many women came to test their vocation, and some stayed.

From Compton Durville, she oversaw the opening of houses in Birmingham, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Dover, Paddington, Belfast, and the joint house with the Brothers in Stepney, alongside the establishment of the American Province of the CSF and a house in New Zealand.

Elizabeth generously offered her gifts to the Community and beyond. She led retreats and quiet days and offered spiritual direction. She was known for her wise counsel and discernment, witty humour, capacity for friendship, photographic memory and fine intellect, her memorable talks on spirituality and the religious life, her zeal and passion, and, above all, her faithfulness to her God. She loved singing, and was very practical and creative, even making a spacesuit out of an old vacuum cleaner for an Epiphany pageant at Compton Durville. She was very determined, and learned to live creatively with her physical limitations “not minding too much, and allowing herself to be really loved so that it didn’t matter”.

Elizabeth was ordained deacon in 1988 and priest in 1994. From the early 2000s, while living at the community house in Plaistow, she preached and presided regularly at St Paul’s, Bow Common, where her wisdom and sense of humour were treasured. Increasingly mentally frail, after a period in hospital in 2020, Elizabeth moved to Summerdale Court Home in Newham. Her requiem at St Paul’s on 16 October paid tribute to a “truly amazing person”, greatly respected and loved, a very remarkable CSF Sister who played a pivotal part in the Community’s story.

Sister Elizabeth CSF (the Revd Marjorie Valentine Webb) died on 9 September, aged 92.

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