Sister Pia Buxton CJ died at St Joseph's, York on 3 October 2010, peacefully after a short illness, in the 78th year of her age and the 56th year of her religious life in the Congregation of Jesus. Her funeral took place at the Bar Convent, York on Tuesday 12 October attended by her family, members of the CJ, IBVM, and MWA communities, and many friends. The chief celebrant was Fr John Bane, Parish Priest of the nearby Parish of the English Martyrs'. Helping him were Canon Michael Ryan and The Rev Anthony Lester O.Carm.
Sister Jane Livesey CJ, Provincial, gave the following address.
Before I begin my words about Pia I would like to begin by reading only one of the innumerable cards, letters and e-mails that so many have written about her – this one will stand for all. It comes from His Eminence Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor and he says: 'I want to express my sincere sympathy to the Congregation of Jesus on the death of their much loved Sister Pia Buxton. She did much for the order in so many ways and taught my sister Geography when she was at St Mary’s, Ascot. But I know that she will be known for her lovely character, her profound spirituality and love of people. May the good Lord reward her with abundant life in the home she longed for in heaven.'
It is a great gift when someone remains very much themselves right to the end of their life. It is also a great grace to be given by God enough time to say farewells and put one’s house – or in our case, room – in order, but not to have to suffer for too long. Both that gift and that grace, Deo gratias, were Pia’s in her final days.
When I saw her for the last time, four days before she died, by which time it was clear that she did not have much longer to live, our time together was short and mostly silent but at one point she looked at me and said “Jane...”. I replied “Yes, Pia” and she said “You might like to begin your words at my requiem...” - brief pause - and I had the temerity to finish the sentence with “by saying that you would much rather have been doing it yourself?” We both laughed and she said, as I knew she would, “Yes”. And she would, of course, have done it with her particular brand of perspicacity, honesty, humour and, not least, ability to say the sometimes uncomfortable and challenging without losing the affection and respect of her listeners – probably one of her greatest gifts – and one that made her own life uncomfortable on occasion too. But Pia was never a woman for things being comfortable – the gospel imperative to go out and preach the good news, and its articulation in the mission-orientated spirituality of St Ignatius and Mary Ward were what motivated her all day and every day.
She had, in addition, taken the precaution of sending me the scripts of one or two of what she obviously considered to be her most significant talks to different groups and I shall be drawing on these before I finish – I wouldn’t dare not!
But with Pia, the question is where to start? She more than fulfilled Mary Ward’s prophecy about women in time to come doing much. We have already heard from John, her brother, about the things that her family loved in her and about the childhood that made her the woman that she was.
Her education at Rye St Anthony – allegedly she was sent to that lay-run school to ensure that no nuns got their hands on her, was followed by a year at the finishing school at Errollston where the nuns did indeed get their hands on her – or rather, Mary Ward did.
It is easy to forget, given the huge range of her apostolic activity over the past 50 plus years, that the first 20 years of her religious life were spent at Ascot, teaching geography and being immersed in the life of a boarding school. But her gifts were spotted early and only seven years after final profession she was appointed Novice Mistress, although continuing with a very full programme of teaching and boarding duties.
It was, perhaps, as Novice Mistress, that she first discovered the courage which was one of her defining characteristics. This courage enabled her to take a very different view of how the life of her novices should be conducted and in particular the extent of their exposure to Ignatian spirituality and the life and wisdom of Mary Ward. This involved taking a stand on the proportion of their time that novices should be given for reading and study - a proportion that ate into the some of the more traditionally accepted noviceship activities such as washing up and sock sorting. It was not always to the liking of others in the community but she stuck to her guns and all her former novices, whether still in the CJ or now living a lay life, were and are profoundly grateful to her for the way in which she enabled the foundations of their futures – human and spiritual - to be dug so deeply and in such rich soil. It was this same gift that would be seen in her spiritual direction and associated ministries in later years.
Breadth of vision was another of Pia’s defining characteristics, allied with an energy and enthusiasm which never left her. I doubt if any of us have ever met anyone more able to see the bigger picture – an ability that did, it has to be said, sometimes leave little room for the detail – but, as the prophet said, “Where there is no vision, the people perish” – well, on that basis, there was little chance of the people perishing in any sphere in which Pia operated.
That breadth of vision was rooted in her total immersion in, and love for, St Ignatius and the Spiritual Exercises and for Mary Ward. It was those two things that literally fuelled her sense of mission and her desire to spread the Kingdom of God. As she grew older she became ever more clear that that Kingdom was not a Kingdom confined to Church-goers (of any Church) or to followers of any of the great Abrahamic religions, but a Kingdom absolutely open to all those seeking meaning and purpose. And how many such people did she walk alongside, guide in the ways of the Spiritual Exercises, encourage in the knowledge and love of Mary Ward? The number must be simply uncountable – and those of us here today simply the very small tip of a very large iceberg. But we do represent the literally hundreds of people who would be here if they could be, to honour and give thanks to God for someone whose presence in their lives was transforming – her own family; her CJ and IBVM family both in this country and in every continent; members of other religious orders in this country who elected her President of their association, the Conference of Religious, during her time as Provincial Superior; those whom she trained in spiritual direction over many years, including those with whom she founded and ran the Cambridge spiritual direction course; the Mary Ward Association; those to whom she gave retreats – at Whitby, at Clare Priory, at St Beuno’s and elsewhere; those for whom she was an inspirational speaker; and, not least, those for whom she was a spiritual director without equal.
Courage and breadth of vision are two of the indispensable qualities of leadership and Pia was undoubtedly a leader. She led from the front and sometimes that leadership took people, as with St Peter, at the end of John’s gospel, where they would rather not go...but it was a leadership that called out gifts and qualities in others, and put them to much fuller use, than perhaps the owners of them wouldhave done if left to their own devices. As a leader, and a prophetic one, she was not afraid to challenge both individuals and institutions. I referred earlier to the talks she sent me. In one of them, given to a gathering of women contemplatives as long ago as 1986 she says – “To follow Christ as women today we may have to be prophetic in order to be loyal, and get hurt and sometimes disturbed”. She spoke of what she knew. Pia didn’t just challenge other people to be prophetic, she challenged herself to be so as well – and it cost her and on more than one occasion.
In another of the talks she refers to something that was ever closer to her heart – the role of women in the world and in the Church, and the continuation of the place of women as a second-class citizenry in the Church in particular. She describes herself, absolutely truthfully, as “a loyal and loving member of the Roman Catholic Church” and says that “it is because of my love and concern for the Church that I say what I say”. We would not be true to her today – I would not be true to her today - if I did not acknowledge her concern for the Church and for the effects of its overwhelmingly masculine, patriarchal and clerical organisation - as seen in its authority structure, in its liturgical expression and in its failure to value and harness the power of the feminine. All of these were the cause of sadness and pain to her – but, like Mary Ward, she remained within the tent, albeit taking any opportunity that presented itself, to address those issues, lovingly and loyally, but bravely and honestly. Finally, on this matter, I cannot resist what was obviously a favourite quotation of Pia’s as she used it quite a few times. It is from Emily Bronte, who was clearly a woman after both Pia and Mary Ward’s own hearts– she says “For women to be thought half as good, they have to do twice as well. Fortunately, this is not difficult” – end of quote!
Pia sat very lightly to the material things in life – she was not a nest-builder herself and was pretty clear that nest-building was not a characteristic of the true follower of Mary Ward. She also had absolutely no vanity, other than a lifelong appreciation of her own “neat ankles”! She took very seriously the words of Mary Ward in the Just Soul that “the felicity of this course was a singular freedom from all that could make one adhere to earthly things, with an entire application and apt disposition to all good works”. She was always ready to move on in response to the call of God, right to the end – and never more so than then.
But there was a very creative side to her nature (as anyone who ever saw her spelling can attest!) and she knew how to enjoy things and have fun. That side of her latterly found expression in the garden at Tufnell Park; in her creative approach to cooking – Pia and the recipe book were strangers to one another; in the wonderful booklets about the various places associated with Mary Ward that she researched and produced. It had also found expression earlier on in her life and in what she called “The slape” – at the time, the mid 1970s - a ground-breaking enterprise in which through the medium of slides, voice and music put on tape, she produced a wonderful life of Mary Ward which made her accessible to many people.
It was in that, that she used a piece of poetry that remained always close to her heart – written by Sir Walter Raleigh in 1603, just before his expected execution –
Give me my scallop shell of quiet
My staff of faith to walk upon
My scrip of joy, immortal diet,
My bottle of salvation,
My gown of glory, hope’s true gage
And thus I’ll take my pilgrimage.
Dear Pia – on Sunday the 3rd of October this year, the Lord furnished you with all of those things and thus you took your last pilgrimage with Him and to Him. We rejoice to envisage you meeting merrily in heaven with Him and with Mary Ward and with so many other family and friends and we are profoundly grateful for your legacy to us and to so many. And for ourselves we can truly say, to paraphrase a sentence from Hamlet – “She was a woman, take her for all in all, we shall not look upon her like again”. May she rest in peace.
See also: Sr Pia Buxton RIP www.indcatholicnews.com/news.php?viewStory=16843