Tribute to Phyllis Smith

Phyllis Smith

Phyllis Smith

Phyllis, a member for 57 years of one of the families of Blessed Charles de Foucauld  and part of Justice and Peace networks, died on 29 November 2010 on the 30th anniversary of the death of one of her heroines, Dorothy Day of the Catholic Workers Movement.  Born in Hackney in 1920, her father died when she was ten, she grew up during the Depression  and was deeply marked by the importance of non-waste. She  could have advised any council on the virtues of recycling!  It has been remarkable that  over the last two weeks during the many conversations with people who have know her well there have been a constant themes  – her capacity for friendship, her  loyalty, her straightforwardness, her developing openness to challenge, to change and grow; and her hidden generosity.

Phyllis became a Catholic in her late teens and a member of the Jesus Caritas Fraternity in 1953. Her first posting abroad when working for the Foreign Office was to Poland in 1947 and it was probably her most loved.  Her time in France coincided with the struggle of the Worker Priest Movement and there too she became aware of the writings of Teilhard de Chardin- reading a manuscript of le Milieu Divin well before its publication. Positions in Sweden, Switzerland and Italy followed and where ever she went Phyllis made friends – helped of course, by her tremendous gift for languages, fluent in five and with a very good working knowledge of three others.

She rejoiced in the changes following Vatican II and found in Pope John XXIII’s  Pacem in Terris “it is irrational to argue that war can any longer be a fit instrument of justice” the institutional backing to support her evolving pacifism. She  was influenced by Thomas Merton and by now,  back in England,   began to become active in various organisations  among them CIIR (Catholic Institute  for International Relations) – now Progressio, which remained a favourite.

She moved with her mother from the south coast to Cockfosters and became an enthusiastic member of the parish for well more than 35 years, fulfilling roles as Reader, Eucharistic Minister, prison visitor (as part of the Justice and Peace group)  choir member among others; locally she helped found a branch of Amnesty which greatly benefited from her language and letter writing skills. She supported the early efforts of Churches Together as she did the Council for Christians and Jews.

An effective campaigner for the causes she believed in she was also a fearless demonstrator.  At the height of the anti-apartheid campaign there was nobody more deft than Phyllis politely holding things up at various supermarket checkouts when she “found” South African goods in her basket. She explained clearly to those in the queue why she had to exchange or remove the offending articles.  She lobbied her local MP on issues of social justice continually; he took notice and I was visiting her one Christmas Eve when he personally delivered a response to some question or other. On social occasions she was quite capable of defying convention and talking frankly about the stupidity of current policies on war, arms, immigration, refugees, poverty or whatever the concern then uppermost on her mind.  She had a way of getting herself heard and I’ve observed many a table conversation change tack after an intervention by Phyllis.

She had a healthy sense of self without being in any way arrogant. She knew she was worthwhile but not more so than anyone else. Her direct manner and her frugality sometimes led to her being seen as awkward; she occasionally gave advice unasked and, meaning only to help, was dismayed when it was not received gratefully! She enjoyed giving and receiving hospitality; she liked cooking and could make one chicken into more tasty and different meals than any celebrity chef. She was sad in this last year that her senses of taste and smell were dimming. She experimented with new tastes when she could - she loved caviar, preferably beluga. The guests which membership of Servas brought were often invited to share recipes so she had an extensive repertoire of homely international food at her fingertips.

She loved music and occasional concert going with friends was a special treat; she danced with verve – her foxtrot would astound Strictly fans- she swam whenever she could, often at the Hampstead Ponds, she cycled, she skied and was regular in her practice of yoga for almost 70 years.

Her holidays all over the world were always occasions for meeting old friends and making new ones where possible and for sending postcards.  Phyllis with her tiny handwriting could fit a mine of information on even the smallest card. She cared for her friends, she remembered their birthdays and as she got older cherished them the more. It was a delight for her that her greatly loved god-daughter Anna was able to visit her   from America this Autumn  as had Anna Caterina (Anna’s daughter)  from Brazil weeks earlier. The fraternity friends were with her also in the last weeks – Josianne from Avignon -  as too were the members of the north London J&P network. She was delighted  that her flat had been bought by friends, who were exceptionally supportive throughout the whole time she was in Nazareth House, and that the garden was being better cared for than ever she had been able to do.

Her fidelity for the vision of the fraternity was total; she made time for ‘adoration/meditation’ every day, she lived simply, the money she had she invested ethically and rejoiced that she was able to give to so many charities. Her enormous generosity to the needy was hidden.  Her faith sustained her and it grew and developed in new ways particularly in the last few years. She challenged injustice where she saw it,  rejected the use of exclusive language in the liturgy and was open to change .  She became softer, more flexible, more eager to learn – how she loved the annual J&P conference, the Adrian Smith weekends and the new paradigm described by Diarmuid O Murchu. She was glad to be a companion of empowerment as she prepared for her death.

Those of us who visited Phyllis would like to take this opportunity to thank the staff of Nazareth House, East Finchley for their friendly, kindly and professional care  and the staff of Barnet General Hospital CDU, as from our experience she received kind and compassionate there also.

Phyllis’ funeral Mass will be on Thursday, 16 December at the Church of Christ the King, Bramley Rd, Cockfosters N14 4HE - 10.45  for 11am followed by internment at Old Southgate Cemetery. Nearest tube for the Church: Oakwood, penultimate station on the Piccadilly line, then a short walk, or one stop on bus route 307 which stops outside the station entrance and the church.

Donations can be made in Phyllis’ memory in aid of one of her favourite charities: Medical Foundation For The Care of victims of Torture at  Also at Phyllis’ funeral there will be a basket at the back of the church, proceeds will be divided between two of her  other favourite causes Progressio and Pax Christi,  with part of the proceeds being used to donate some trees in her memory through the Woodland Trust so that she “can live on through nature” as she suggested a few weeks before she died.

Share this story