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Saturday, December 3, 2016
Obituary: Sister Gregory (Phyllis) Kirkus
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¬†Sister Gregory Kirkus was a pioneering educator, but in a life spanning almost a century, principally made her name as an outstanding historian of English convent life and leading Catholic archivist, whose own biographical work has provided invaluable research tools for historians of the English recusant period. Recent moves to integrate the 'Catholic' and 'Protestant' histories of England and bring them out of their separate spheres rely on access to reliable and well-ordered archives. Sister Gregory presided over those of the Bar Convent in York, the oldest convent in England, and a girls' school from 1686-1985. Its magnificent collection of antique books, artefacts and manuscripts is a model of how archives should be kept, and well into her nineties Sister Gregory was giving erudite and entertaining talks on its hidden Georgian chapel, complete with priest's hiding hole, and its parlour full of early nuns' portraits. Whether professors of history, schoolchildren or television personalities like Robbie Coltrane, all comers were welcomed and none failed to be captivated. Painfully shy yet engaging, she did nothing to create a following, but at academic conferences dealing with women's religious history, it was noticeable that bulletins on her health were always sought by her worldwide admirers. Born in York on November 9th 1910, Phyllis Kirkus was sent to a Dames School which she found 'extremely backward', with morning lessons only, consisting of hours writing sums on a slate. Disliking church and declaring herself an agnostic, from the age of ten she was nevertheless greatly concerned with the purpose of life. It was at Sutton High School, which only admitted Oxbridge graduates onto its staff, that she discovered her passion and genius for history and her desire for a life of scholarship. She gained a place at Newnham College, Cambridge in 1929, eight years after the university voted against conferring its degrees on women. Phyllis found it a tough, irreligious place, but flourished in its challenging and competitive academic atmosphere, while chafing at rules aimed at ensuring modest conduct among women students, such as having to wear a hat in lectures. Never a feminist in the ideological sense, she was nevertheless moulded by the determination of Newnham's formidable senior members to gain women full and unrestricted access to education at all levels. Her wish to ponder the implications of history and to devote her life to a worthwhile purpose led her to attend lectures by the fiercely anti-Catholic controversialist GG Coulton, who promptly invited her to tea. These sessions were balanced by lectures in Catholic apologetics given by the Dominicans of Blackfriars. In conjunction with the Confessions of Saint Augustine, the Dominicans won, and with the support of Newnham's director of studies in Classics Jocelyn Toynbee, who became her godmother and lifelong friend, Phyllis was received into the Catholic church. This took place in the chapel of the Canonesses of Saint Augustine next to Newnham, since Fisher House, the Catholic chaplaincy under Monsignor Alfred Gilbey, was also closed to women. Gilbey died in 1998, the same year that the university celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of women's accession to degrees. Too shy and too frail to attend the ceremonies for the anniversary, she nevertheless took great satisfaction in knowing that two former pupils of hers, one also a Newnham graduate, had served as assistant Catholic chaplains in the university. Training in librarianship, Phyllis's application for a post at Southampton University was thwarted by a pilfering office boy who destroyed her letter. She later ascribed this disaster to divine providence, as it led to a job in the University of Hull, far enough away from her beloved but obsessively united family, to explore her growing sense of a vocation to religious life. With characteristic thoroughness she investigated the orders round about. The barrack-like look of one convent appalled her, while an encounter on a train with a sister who wore fur gloves, ate chocolate and read a glossy magazine filled her soul with priggish horror. A random meeting with Sister Philip Hardman, a scholar and historian, led her to the Bar Convent and the discovery of Mary Ward (1585-1645), a fellow Yorkshirewoman related to three of the Gunpowder plotters, who founded an unenclosed order of women modelled on the Jesuits, only to be imprisoned as a heretic and to have her order suppressed in 1631. Phyllis had found her spiritual home at last. Her family, already deeply distressed by her conversion to Catholicism, was so devastated at her decision to enter religious life that she could never bear to speak of it afterwards, only saying that to inflict suffering on those one loves is the worst suffering of all. Only her brother Cyril, later killed in action in North Africa, felt able to tease her. Catching sight of two particularly ill-favoured nuns in unattractive habits, he whispered, 'That's what you're going to look like'. When his sister bravely retorted that she didn't mind, Cyril urged, 'Have another look!' Entering the novitiate in Ascot in 1936, Phyllis took the religious name Sister Gregory, after the great Pope and Doctor of the church who instigated England's conversion to Christianity under Augustine of Canterbury. The outbreak of the war necessitated the evacuation of St. Mary's Convent, Hampstead, where she was teaching. Nuns and children set out together on a remarkable exodus which led them to the stately East Sussex mansion of Lady Catherine Ashburnham. Seeing the evacuees as intruders, the eccentric Lady Catherine refused them any comfort, loading logs into her quarters and the servants' hall, while the nuns and children froze in the bitter winter of 1940. Sister Gregory would take the younger children out to collect firewood covered in ice, which barely thawed enough for burning, and encouraged a rapport with the servants' hall in which girls and staff entertained one another with plays, hockey matches and concerts. In an era when pupils in convent schools rarely saw the domestic life of the nuns or thought of them as normal human beings, the unavoidable closeness of evacuation engendered a relaxed and humane spirit, though academic standards were not a high priority for nuns sleeping on sofas by night in improvised classrooms where they taught by day. After a further evacuation to Bratton under the kindly welcome of Sir Horace and Lady Seymour, the school in exile found a permanent new home at Coombe House, Shaftesbury, in 1945. A former hotel used as a convalescent home by the American military, it had been left overrun by rats and filth, and needed as much cleaning as the Augean stables. As the exhausted sisters were finishing the massive task a girl rode up on a horse, tethered it to the bushes and asked to be accepted as the school's first pupil. More pupils came, despite the school's desperate struggle with meagre resources. As headmistress of St. Mary's School Shaftesbury, Sister Gregory determined to run an exemplary school for women of the future. A successful inspection of the school by Lady Helen Asquith, granddaughter of the prime minister, laid the foundations of another lifelong friendship between the historian and the classicist, united by their passion for education and their quiet zeal for the faith to which both had converted. Sister Gregory's happy years in teaching came to an end when in 1972 she was appointed provincial superior of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, known since 2004 as the Congregation of Jesus. This was a period of sometimes bitter tension within a Catholic church trying to come to terms with the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). Despite its pioneering history, Mary Ward's Institute had not responded with enthusiasm to the proposed reforms of religious life and Sister Gregory was wary of the changes emerging in America and elsewhere, with numbers falling and religious in record numbers abandoning their traditional habits, ministries and styles of life, and even their vows. Her instincts were conservative, and this engendered frustration in some quarters, but she reacted with typical energy and far-sightedness in seeing the need for sisters to be properly educated in their own history. With the help of another remarkable Cambridge educationalist and Catholic convert, Dr. Margaret Wileman, she ran education programmes for her own province and two international summer schools where sisters from around the world, responsible for running schools from Canada to Korea, Ascot to Africa, learned what it meant to be part of a worldwide sisterhood dedicated to faith and education. Her influence as an educator encouraged improvements which enabled the Bar Convent Grammar School, and Saint Mary's Schools in Hampstead, Ascot, Shaftesbury and Cambridge to evolve into the successful lay-run establishments they are today. When relieved of this office after nine years Sister Gregory began her final career in York, setting up the Bar Convent Museum, archives and library. A brilliant story teller with a sharp sense for quirky and intriguing detail, she wrote numerous sketches of school and convent life in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries for the Catholic Record Society. As her public profile grew, so did that of Sister Wendy Beckett, the art historian, whom she resembled in both dress and feature. The first to agree that God had not blessed her with good looks, it appealed to Sister Gregory's impish sense of humour when strangers approached to ask if she were 'that sister on the telly', only to withdraw in embarrassment when they realised their mistake. Despite her shyness, she herself proved a natural on the television. A lifelong teetotaller who lived in considerable personal austerity, it was only when she appeared on a Channel Four documentary on the Bar Convent that her astonished sisters discovered her to be an avid buyer of lottery tickets, in the hope of winning the fortune that would secure the convent's future. Meticulous to the last, she only began to prepare for death when she had finished a biography of Mary Ward's first companions in anticipation of the four hundredth anniversary of the order's foundation in 2009. Having earlier sent a letter of resignation as province archivist to the provincial superior, an alumna of Newnham College whom she had herself admitted to the novitiate, she finished planning her funeral and retired to the convent infirmary. She died aged ninety six on the feast of another intrepid Yorkshirewoman, butcher's wife Saint Margaret Clitherow, who was pressed to death in 1586 for harbouring priests, and whose relics are kept in the Bar Convent chapel. Sister Gregory (Phyllis) Kirkus, historian and archivist, was born on November 9th 1910 and died on August 30th 2007 © Gemma Simmonds CJ
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