By: Jo Siedlecka
Parishioners from her last parish in London have been paying tribute to Janet Bronwen Alun Astor, Lady Astor, who died on 28 December 2017.
The most celebrated model of her generation, Bronwen was muse to the Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain, who said she was one of the most beautiful women in the world. She retired from modelling when she married Viscount Astor in 1960 and became chatelaine of Cliveden. Their world collapsed three years later with the Profumo affair, which brought down the Macmillan government. Both denied any involvement in the scandal, but the strain led to Viscount Astor's death from a heart attack in 1966. A widow and mother of two children, Bronwen withdrew from public life. She became a Catholic and trained to become a Christian psychotherapist. She went on to become chair of the Alistair Hardy Religious Experience Research Centre in Oxford, and the British Teilhard Association, as well as working as a much sought-after therapist until she was nearly 80.
Bronwen lived in London for many years, and was an active parishioner at Holy Apostles, Pimlico.
One good friend was actor Jane Lowe, who recalls: "I first met Bronwen after Mass in 2007 and I gradually became aware of her subtle observance of people and events with a mixture of kindness and perceptive concern. We became friends through our church and pilgrimages and found other shared interests in theatre and the arts. I visited Bronwen after she left Pimlico at her flat in Chichester during the summer of 2016. I remember with a smile the open book on her side table was The Rise of the Islamic State!
As well as a friend in the parish of Holy Apostles, she was also a loyal supporter the Apollo arts group which I ran at the Reform Club for several years under my professional name of Jane Spencer Prior. At dinners both large and small she had an engaging gift of enabling other people to speak openly about their life and work, which made the evenings a dynamic extra pleasure.
She had genuine modesty about her own achievements, and grace under pressure in her personal difficulties . Describing how she felt after her first health problems in Scotland with her family, she told me 'I was lying in bed unable to do anything at all. So I said to God - Here I am, in your hands. It's up to you now, you sort this out..'.
Recounting her conversion to Catholicism she quietly described her 'direct experience of God.' A profoundly spiritual lady whose company was an enriching experience. I shall miss her."
Among her parish activities, Bronwen served as a Eucharist Minister and facilitated a Faith Group in her London home. There, using texts sponsored by the Catholic Diocese of Westminster, she created a welcoming space for Londoners from all walks of life to explore their spirituality. Martha Sankey and Anne Dunhill now run the group together.
Martha Sankey commented: "Always greeting group members with a hot cup of tea, Bronwen had a special gift for allowing lively exchange in which participants felt free to express doubt and share faith experiences. She held a strong belief in the gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, understanding, counsel, courage, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. Her own spirituality and faith, along with her willingness to share these freely, provided a nurturing environment for others to reflect on the nature of their own lives and faith. When she moved to be closer to her family in Chichester, she graciously passed the baton on."
Anne Dunhill writes: Shortly after converting to Catholicism in 2003, I was told that our parish was introducing a new initiative - small groups meeting once a week in each other's homes in the six weeks before Lent and Advent to discuss our faith. I was allocated to the group led by Bronwen Astor. As a former model, I was fascinated to meet her. I introduced myself to her after Mass, and she couldn't have been more charming.
I wasn't sure about the group idea. I've never been particularly good at pontificating about my faith, but Bronwen made the meetings so enjoyable, starting with beautifully served pots of tea and exquisite biscuits in her airy open plan kitchen, that they soon became a highlight of my week. If she had to miss a session, she asked me to deputise for her at my flat. To try and keep up with her standards, I rushed out and bought a teapot and then, deciding it wasn't special enough, a second one. They stand in my kitchen to this day, largely unused, as a permanent tribute to Bronwen's qualities as a hostess.
As well as being a meticulous group leader, I admired Bronwen's social fearlessness. I once mentioned to her that I'd been shocked to see a young member of the congregation who I'd known for some years, with a prosthetic leg, and wondered what had happened to the original. 'Why didn't you ask her?' Bronwen said. 'I once sat next to a man with one arm at a lunch and asked him. He told me what a relief it was to meet someone who wasn't too afraid to talk about it.'
When my beloved daughter Anita died very suddenly of pancreatic cancer in 2009, she was mentioned by our priest Canon Pat Browne in his homily, the first time I ventured back to Mass. At the end, I felt awkward, as if eyes were following me pityingly. Bronwen solved the problem by stepping forward and enveloping me in a huge hug. One of the things I most admired was that she'd managed successfully to combine her warm spirituality and religious faith with her professional training as a psychotherapist. Perhaps the greatest compliment I can pay her is to say I would have loved to have her as my therapist."
Judy Anne Masters, former Pastoral Co-ordinator at Holy Apostles, writes: "Bronwen had a keen understanding of what it takes to more fully incorporate a spiritual path into your life - while maintaining joy and a natural way of being. She talked about her life with candour and without regrets. Bronwen had a rich tapestry of life experience that gave her unique insights into the true meaning of love and forgiveness. She remembered the past and still forgave those involved in discrediting her husband and home. We were good friends and I'll miss her."
Bronwen's funeral is taking place in Chichester today. Canon Pat Browne, parish priest at Holy Apostles will be singing at the service.
A public Memorial Service will be held at Farm Street church on 4th May at 2.30pm.
If you would like to make a donation in her memory, please visit Winston's Wish - a charity which supports bereaved children. See: www.winstonswish.org