Viewpoint - My debt to Religious Sisters

  • Ellen Teague
  • (Updated )

I am not sure I have ever paid a proper tribute due to the nuns who educated me.

This came home to me on the Feast of the Assumption this week when I was invited to join the Religious of the Assumption at Kensington for a celebratory Mass and lunch to mark 65 years of their English Province. It was held in a chapel where the stained glass windows focus almost entirely on the contribution of women to Church and society. The chapel was very familiar to me. In the four years before the closure in 1978 of Maria Assumpta Teacher Training College, I was in that chapel most Fridays for the weekly Mass. It was usually said by Fr Kevin Nichols, author and composer of the hymn 'In Bread We Bring You', and I was in a group that prepared the music. We were enthusiastic to use new material and enjoyed the rehearsals and the appreciative congregation in the Mass. Bill Tamblyn's four-part arrangement of 'Now the green blade riseth' was a particular favourite.

That venture into tertiary education by the Assumption Sisters provided several generations of Catholic teachers based on the understanding that education - in this case women's education - transforms individuals and contributes to society. Many of the students - such as Pat Gaffney, the Director of Pax Christi - have made substantial contributions to the Church and to building the common good. It was great to run into Mary Eaton, an outstanding lecturer, who went on to become Head of the Sociology Department at St Mary's in Twickenham, and whose work since that time on women and the justice system has been excellent. All of us feel the sense of community that at Maria Assumpta was a particular strength.

On Wednesday the first reading at Mass was delivered by Sr John Mary, my chief history lecturer back then. She must have done something right, helping me secure a teaching qualification, but more than that she was fired up with interest in specialised and diverse subjects such as misericords, and Teilhard de Chardin. I can date my first awareness of creation theology to that time. She also found me my first teaching job, meeting me outside an examination room at the University of London with a phone number of an East End Catholic school seeking a history teacher. (No mobile phones at that time!) At Wednesday's Mass we were thanked for being part of the Assumption family and it really does feel like that… even now.

I remember our History group going on a trip to Walsingham and to Hengrave Hall, which the sisters developed as a centre for Ecumenism and Reconciliation until it closed in 2005. Young people from around the world would say that their year volunteering there changed their lives. It gave young people space for learning new skills, trying things out, taking responsibility, living and working with others, and, hopefully, coming nearer to God. One wrote, "I remember the sisters in the church for the offices in the cold of winter huddled in their purple wraps…. This was a praying community open to drawing others into its life".

Despite the aging of their community in Britain, the Assumption Sisters continue to develop their mission full of hope and excitement. In liaison with lay staff they promote youth initiatives, particularly with disadvantaged young people, and run an Assumption Volunteer Programme at home and internationally. The sisters involved in Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation (JPIC) are well known to me - from Sr Mary Ann Tyler who volunteered with Pax Christi for a number of years to Sr Jessica Gatty who supports events of the National Justice and Peace Network and indeed hosts events at Kensington. A memorable one was a debate about the morality of nuclear weapons, involving Sir Malcolm Rifkind MP and Bruce Kent, a vice-chair of Pax Christi. Another more recently was a talk by a French sister involved in lobbying work on the issue of climate change and speaking about 'Alternatives to Business as usual'.

Before college I was educated at the Sacred Heart School in Hammersmith - primary and secondary. In the primary, Mother Wilson had a special charism as a music teacher and I was so keen I remember attending voluntary Saturday workshops. I learnt beautiful handwriting - a skill long lost - and a love of reading. In the secondary, headmistress Mother Bunbury occasionally had call to reprimand my three best friends and I for spending much of our Sixth Form free time loafing around. The day we left we went to her to say thank you for our education and gave her a photo of the 'four shadows'. She expressed appreciation for very few leavers had said farewell. Years later I visited her and discovered that she had kept that photo in her Bible and had a sharp memory of us. I was profoundly touched. And who could forget Mother Cardew, who, on a school trip to Rome, spoke to our Italian tour guide in Latin, expecting him to understand! Wonderful and kind characters - their memory touches my heart even today.

A highlight of the year in the 1960s and 70s was the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. We had no lessons but could bring in games. In the afternoon we were handed white lilies and processed around the cloisters to a service in the chapel. I still feel a warm glow at the memory of the chant 'Immaculata' echoing around those cloisters. But the piety was linked to developing values linked to compassion and concern for the vulnerable. So many of my old school friends today work on projects with the elderly and other marginalised groups. One is an MP with a special interest in poverty in Britain and improving housing for people on low income.

My experience of women religious provided me with the assurance that my life, my every action and thought, was important. I am one of many shaped by the work of women religious in some way, especially through education, and especially with the goal of serving God, neighbour and the whole Earth community. Over the years I have been inspired by the witness and outreach of Sisters of Mercy, Sisters of St Joseph of Peace, Sisters of the Congregation of Jesus, Sisters of our Lady of the Missions, Columban Sisters, Brigidine Sisters and many others.

At the heart of any healthy spirituality is gratitude. But "thank you" hardly seems adequate although they have never asked for that. To give, without counting the cost, is perhaps the most courageous example of faith I've known.

Tags: Assumption Sisters, Ellen Teague, Religious Sisters,

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