Sr Margaret Magrath MSOLA celebrates 100th birthday

 Bishop Hopes, Sr Marion Carabott MSOLA, Mr Nelson Dela Merced, manager of Maryville Home Care Home with Sr Margaret

Bishop Hopes, Sr Marion Carabott MSOLA, Mr Nelson Dela Merced, manager of Maryville Home Care Home with Sr Margaret

Bishop Alan Hopes celebrated Sr Margaret's 100th birthday Mass on 20 November. Sr Maggie Kennedy writes about her life.

Sr Margaret was born in Bristol on the 20th November, 1909, the same year as our community was born in Mombasa, Kenya.  She has lived through two World Wars, seen women gain the right to vote, the beginning of free education, the growth of air flight, men and women in space, huge advances in medical technology and mass communication, and the end of communism.  She has also experienced the problem of climate change and the ecological revolution. She has seen the growth of independent states in Africa and of a multi-cultural society in Britain.  Vatican II changed the face of the Catholic Church, especially Religious Life bringing it into the modern world. It is mind blowing as we look back.

Sr Margaret is part of this revolution. Though born in Bristol, Margaret moved with the family to several nearby areas in her early years, as her father was a teacher and headmaster in the Catholic Diocese of Clifton. Her mother was an industrious, gentle and quiet woman with a great sense of humour and plenty of common sense.  Margaret had five Sisters, two of whom became Sisters - a Daughter of Charity and a La Retraite Sister. It was a very happy family and “Our faith,” said Sr Margaret, “was instilled into us. From a young age I wanted to be with God, whom I could not see, but who was there, and I knew he loved me.  It was a big puzzle for this small person, but laid a foundation for contemplation for me.”

Margaret had a passion for learning. She was a creative, intelligent child, born for leadership.  She attended a Catholic secondary school run initially by the St Joseph Sisters then handed over to the La Retraite Sisters. When Margaret finished school, the Headmistress suggested that she might become a La Retraite Sister and Margaret was horrified! She would have liked to become an artist or a ballet dancer but in those days these professions were not approved of. It was agreed she would become a teacher. After a year of teaching, she joined the La Sainte Union Training College in Southampton for two years.   “I discovered I loved teaching,” says Sr. Margaret.  “Once I was in the classroom, I was in my element.”

The early 1930s were busy years for Margaret, but despite the fact she was busy, she felt that something was missing in her life.   By this time two of her sisters were Religious Sisters.  “I was confused,” she said. “I realised that my father wouldn't be very happy for me to follow my sisters. I was his favourite.”  She continued to teach but in 1934 on a visit to Lisieux, while in the Basilica she saw some “olive coloured” seminarians dressed in white. She felt then that she was being called to leave the children she was teaching and go to Africa.

She made a retreat with Fr Clement Tiger a well-known Jesuit. He suggested she become a contemplative but Margaret said she wanted to tell people about Jesus. If that was the case, she should do it, Fr Tiger told her. “I knew I had made the right decision.   My parents were upset but knew I wouldn't change my mind. The hardest moment I remember was leaving my family.”

In January 1937 Margaret's new journey began.  First, as postulant in Heston, West London, then as novice in Belgium and Algiers in North Africa.  The Second World War had broken out in Europe in 1939 but news was sparse.  Despite the difficulties, Margaret was happy. She also finally discovered that missionaries must be “contemplatives in action”.  After her First Vows on the feast of Christ the King 1939, Sr. Margaret remained in Algeria because of the war and she used her teaching skills to the full wherever she went.   She also learnt Arabic in order to be able to speak to the people, especially the local women.  She saw already the need for better understanding between Christians and Muslims. It was during this time she contracted TB, typhoid and smallpox. This time of being so ill strengthened and developed her trust in the Holy Spirit.

The education of girls and women has always been a priority for the Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Africa (White Sisters). Sr Margaret spent most of her years in East Africa. She taught in Uganda in Trinity College, Villa Maria, Fort Portal and Nzoki to help to develop the secondary schools for the girls and the Teacher Training College. In Kenya she continued the development of Maryhill school, in Thika, just outside Nairobi. It was a transition period, before and just after Independence in East African countries, and Sr Margaret’s concern was to form women leaders who would be able to take responsibility for themselves and their countries.  As Headmistress, she demanded high standards both from staff and students.  When asked what she would have liked to do better, she said, “I would have liked to have had the opportunity to have had more education in order to have given more.”

Sr Margaret still had an underlying desire, which was answered with the establishment of a House of Prayer in Kisii, Western Kenya. Here she stayed for a number of years guiding people, especially African Sisters, in their deeper journey to God.  

In the 70s Sr Margaret returned to the UK  Though older, she had lost none of her enthusiasm, and took up various appointments in England including preparing articles for the “White Fathers White Sisters” magazine as well as visiting schools and parishes in Scotland to speak about the mission in Africa.

On “retiring”, Sr Margaret was a resident for 12 years at St Anne's Court, a care home in West Wickham, Kent run by the Daughters of Mary and Joseph and in 2003 she moved to “Maryville”, Brentford, which is run by the Servants of the Mother of God.   On 29 October, 2009, Sr Margaret marked her 70th year of Religious Life, and on 20 November, Bishop Alan Hopes celebrated Sr Margaret's 100th birthday Mass.  We can only praise the Lord for this life well lived in the service of the Kingdom and for all those whose lives Sr Margaret touched, especially her family, the many MSOLA she has encountered, and her students.

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