Sister Mary Clare Morris S.B.V.M.
Born: 29th November 1929
Professed in Life Vows: 11th January 1978
Died: 10th July 2015
Reverend Mother Winsome Durrant S.B.V.M.
It is fitting for us to reflect for a few minutes on Sister Mary Clare’s life. Beneath an ordinary exterior lay an extra ordinary person. The brief facts are that Doreen Mary Morris became a nurse, entered an Anglican convent taking the Religious name, Sister Mary Clare, was professed in life vows for 37 years and died as a Catholic nun aged 85. But there is so much more to her story.
Sister Mary Clare was born profoundly deaf but using powerful hearing aids, was brought up in the general hearing community. During her life, she used her nursing and other skills to serve others. In the Convent at Wantage, she was responsible for the care of the sick and elderly sisters. When based in a community house in Birmingham, she served as a part-time hospital Chaplain. She gave pastoral support for many years to the children at a school for the deaf. These give the barest facts of her life but when we sisters talk about her, we cherish other memories:
Sister Mary Clare had a gift for friendship. She was interested in people and within minutes had extracted from them their joys and troubles. She would introduce me to someone with a twinkle in her eye announcing, “and they say they are a lapsed Catholic” and I would immediately think, not “lapsed” for long – not with Sister Mary Clare now on their case! She would be astonished to be described as a great evangelist. She didn’t overtly talk about her faith but rather, she lived it and whenever you went to her bedroom, or cell as it is known, she would always have her Bible, holy books, Rule of St Benedict and her beloved rosary beside her.
For some years, she was a member of the group of sisters who lived with, and provided pastoral support for, elderly ladies at the retirement home that our former community ran. Staff and residents would turn to her, and she was quick to respond to their woes and anxieties. She was without guile. People came to her for honest advice even if it was not always what they wanted to hear.
A woman of deep faith and integrity she could not be persuaded to do anything which went against her own convictions. She was deeply devoted to Blessed John Henry Newman and spoke fondly of her time as a District Nurse in the West Midlands, when she prayed almost daily at his grave when she went to the college there, to give a daily injection to one of the Oratory fathers. Her elder brother was ordained in the Church of England, and she became an Anglican sister at Wantage. Who can tell when she first became drawn to enter the Roman Catholic Church? But it was Pope Benedict’s invitation for groups of Anglicans to come into full communion that proved decisive. She asked to be received as a Catholic with the other sisters who would form our community of the Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Once she made her mind up, she was determined.
Sister Mary Clare would never have described herself as a visionary or pioneer – but she was both! It is thanks to her that we, the Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary, are here today. When legal and ecclesiastical negotiations looked as if they would go on for years, she came to see me, as Mother.
She was already in her eighties, not in the best of health and she didn’t know how long she would go on. I vividly remember her animated cry, “I want to die a Catholic!” With that plea ringing in my ears, we set the date for our reception into the Catholic Church. So, leaving behind her security and the Convent which had been her home for thirty-five years, at the age of eighty-three years she stepped out in faith with courage and conviction.
Sister Mary Clare would always claim that she had nothing to offer the new community, but she brought a loving heart and a sense of humour amongst other gifts. Sister Mary Clare was self-effacing and never asked for anything for herself. “I don’t need this, give it to someone else”. Even to the occasional packet of sweets or chocolates she loved, “Ooh” she would say, eyes widening, “that’s too much for me!” She was deeply grateful for all she was given but was always thinking of others. She refused to pull the emergency cord in her cell which rang an alarm bell, insisting that if she fell in the night, she would simply stay on the floor and wait until one of us found her in the morning, “Because you younger ones can’t be up in the night with me and then do a full day’s work!”
In the nearly two years she lived in this monastery she never pulled her own alarm cord. The one occasion that she pulled an alarm, it was another sister’s and was in order to summon help for them! She thought she heard a sister fall in the cell next door. So despite her own frailty, she dragged herself off her bed, grabbed her Zimmer frame, and as quickly as she could, went next door. There she found a sister had fallen onto the floor but couldn’t reach the alarm for help. So Sister Mary Clare stretched herself across the bed and sounded the alarm for her and then hurriedly moved out of the way to allow us access to the fallen sister.
Who amongst us who were here, when we reaffirmed our vows as Catholic Benedictines on 1st January 2014 will ever forget Sister Mary Clare’s frail voice as she pronounced, “I will live for the rest of my life in this world in stability, conversion of life and obedience…”. She lived out that promise faithfully. Sister Mary Clare was always quick to praise the actions of others but never herself. She would verbally award them “A big gold star!”. When she lay dying in hospital, one of the sisters asked me to pass on a message that she was awarding her a big gold star!
Not long ago, Sister Mary Clare had reminded me, that when we were in our former community and based in a small community house the other side of Birmingham, on the rare occasion that she was out in the evening and back after Compline, she knew I would always be waiting for her to see that she had got safely home. I would stay up with my cell door ajar so I would hear the turn of her key in the outside front door, and I would be leaning over the balcony in the hall to welcome her home. Although all this had happened more than ten years ago, she said she had never forgotten my waiting up for her and it had meant the world to her.
As she lay dying, it seemed to me a singular grace and special privilege, on behalf of all the other sisters, that I was holding her hand, again watching and waiting for Sister Mary Clare to come “home”; this time to her real home in heaven.
The words of Blessed John Henry Newman describe Sister Mary Clare’s peaceful journey to her eternal home: “Oh, my Lord and Saviour, support me in that hour in the strong arms of Thy Sacraments, and by the fresh fragrance of Thy consolations. Let the absolving words be said over me, and the holy oil sign and seal me… and let my sweet Mother, Mary, breathe on me, and my Angel whisper peace to me, and my glorious saints…smile upon me; that in them all, and through them all, I may receive the gift of perseverance, and die, as I desire to live, in Thy faith, in Thy Church, in Thy service, and in Thy love.”
We award you our valiant, courageous, loving and dearest Sister Mary Clare, a big gold star! May you rest in peace.
Sister Rosemary Walker S.B.V.M.
Born: 4th April 1930
Professed in Life Vows: 7th February 1964
Died: 13th December 2017
Reverend Mother Winsome Durrant S.B.V.M.
Sister Rosemary was unique. She was a remarkable person but also a paradox; a collection of seeming contradictions.
She had an artistic temperament but also a very practical nature. She had considerable talent for writing poetry, drawing, painting, and general arts and crafts such as making stuffed toys. She learned to weave and weaved scarves and cane seats. Even in her last months here she knitted woollen hats for Seafarers’ missions.
Her considerable practical skills for cooking, sewing, general housekeeping meant that she was often sent by the main convent to other community branch houses as an invaluable addition to any house.
She was susceptible to psychological fragilities yet spiritually strong with an impenetrable shield of faith. She described herself as physically weak, yet she outlived all the other sisters she was professed with 53 years ago. She never went to University but qualified and worked as a radiographer before becoming an Anglican nun. Whilst an Anglican nun, she completed theological courses, was a Licenced Lay Reader in the Church of England and had a ministry helping lead parish missions, for example during Holy Week. Sermons she preached were memorable and accessible and she was a highly valued retreat giver and spiritual director.
She was a loving and generous sister both to us her sisters in community and to her blood brothers and their families. She had a marvellous sense of humour and a gift for friendship. She wanted to be as she put it, “where there is life” – always ready to greet new people and find something interesting in their lives – and yet she also had immense inner resources and found peace and tranquillity in her own company.
She was thoughtful and reflective – she had a gift for seeing the ‘other’ point of view which became important to us when, five years ago, a group of sisters set out like Abraham in faith, not knowing where we were going, in order to be received into the full communion of the Catholic Church through the newly formed Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham. There was no question of Sister Rosemary blindly following like a sheep. She reflected and prayed hard over a period of months before making the decision to join us. She found the transition a huge challenge but ultimately not an insurmountable one. As she wrote, “I am Ruth to the community’s Naomi, in entering the Catholic Church… My commitment is serious. I would never go back.”
She had a mind of her own and a heart that loved the Church of England but loved God more and believed entering into full communion with the Catholic Church was living out Jesus’ call to her to “follow me”. The move was no easy sinecure.
As she explained, “For me an awareness of all is well, this has to do with the evening of my life, it in no way negates what has gone before… it is perfectly reasonable that I am faithful to all the excellence that I have gained from my 82 years as an Anglican. It is a wonderful bonus to live in a Church that accepts and values the Religious Life. My journey has been a straight path, with this new commitment to the Catholic Church.”
More than half a century before, Sister Rosemary had committed herself to the Religious Life promising to follow Christ in a life of poverty, chastity and obedience. This is the one aspect of Sister Rosemary’s life that was not a paradox, where there was no contradiction: she never changed her fidelity to her Lord. Blessed John Henry Newman wrote, “God has created me to do Him some definite service; He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission – I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next.”
I venture to suggest that one part of Sister Rosemary’s mission was to inspire others; to show what is possible with complete trust and confidence in God. Sister Rosemary was incredibly courageous. It is a tribute to Sister Rosemary’s faith in God that at age 82, with a history of cancers, emotional challenges, and uncertainty about the future, nevertheless she stepped out in faith, fearlessly trusting entirely in God for her future.
Sister Rosemary demonstrates that if you hand your life over to God in faith, God will sustain you through all the traumas life can bring; that you can live a fulfilled life, loving, serving others.
The sisters and I miss Sister Rosemary. There was something fragile and gentle about her. Maybe because she had suffered so much over the years both emotionally and physically; she was empathetic at a depth perhaps rarely experienced. She struggled, as we all do, with life’s challenges but there was an inherent purity of heart about her where she just wanted to find God and be found by Him.
One of her favourite sayings was “there is grace in the present moment”. She designed and produced her own cards and notelets with those words and gave them out to anyone in need, be they doctors, nurses and other patients she met in hospital waiting rooms. “There is grace in the present moment” – you don’t need to worry, struggle, fear; just trust God. She lived in the present moment providing us with an example in the living out of those words in her own life.
Let me end with a final paradox relating to Sister Rosemary’s last words, written and spoken. The paradox is that they were her words but not written for us and not heard by us from her own lips. The last entry she wrote in her notebook, found after her death, ended with these words which were strangely prophetic: “I will arise and go to my Father”.
Her last spoken words were relayed in a phone call by a nurse on her ward who told me that despite all their efforts, the nursing staff could not persuade Sister Rosemary to do a particular thing. So I asked them to pass on a message to Sister Rosemary that, “Mother Winsome asks that you do this so we can get you home as soon as possible.” The nurse rang back a few minutes later to say, when they told her they had a message from Mother Winsome she replied, “MY Mother Winsome?” and when they said yes, she immediately did what they had been asking and told them, “Tell Mother Winsome, All is well.” Those were the last words I received from her; all is well.
It is now our turn to say to our beloved Sister Rosemary: All is well. We miss you but we give God great thanks for the privilege of having known you, and for all you have inspired in us. You have fallen asleep here on earth. May you now rest in peace and in your own words, arise and go to your Father in Heaven.
Sister Deirdre Michael Clark S.B.V.M.
Born: 6th April 1930
Professed in Life Vows: 18th January 1958
Died: 6th January 2023
Reverend Mother Winsome Durrant S.B.V.M.
Sister Deirdre Michael was an exceptional sister. She loved God and gave herself unstintingly to His service, serving others in whatever God asked of her. How many people did she mentor, guide, encourage and walk alongside? Those of us present represent only a fraction of the lives she touched and in some cases, through God’s grace, transformed.
Deirdre Elizabeth Clark entered the Anglican Community of St Mary the Virgin to test her vocation in 1954. As “Sister Deirdre Michael” she taught in our community schools, was Headmistress, Superior of the sisters in various community branch houses, was Assistant General (that is the Deputy) to two different Reverend Mother Superiors (including myself).
She was Superior of the care home we ran for the elderly, she was Oblates’ Sister, Novice Guardian, a trustee of the Community and for many years served on the Community’s Council (which advises the Reverend Mother and Community).
Sister Deirdre Michael was a sought after spiritual director, retreat giver and preacher and she had courage. In her eighties, she intrepidly set out to be a founding member of this new Catholic community, the Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This wasn’t the first time that she had bravely stepped out in faith, quietly without fanfare.
In 1993, in an unusual step, the then Reverend Mother Superior wanted to send a couple of sisters to assist at a children’s hospice in Romania where virtually all the children were dying from AIDS or were infected by HIV. It was still early days of AIDS knowledge and in view of the exceptional risks involved the Mother did not feel she could simply choose sisters to undertake this risky mission. Instead, she asked for a couple of volunteers. Sister Deirdre Michael quietly volunteered and went to Romania where she provided pastoral care for staff and dying children in St Laurence’s Hospice, Cernavoda, Romania for the next few years.
Let’s hear from Sister Deirdre Michael herself in words she wrote about her early life,
“I was born in 1930 in India, in the Himalayas near Darjeeling, and I lived there until I was fifteen. My parents were both on the staff of a Government school for boys… my only sister is eight years younger than myself, and is now married with two sons. Until I went to school at the age of nine, I had a nanny/governess who was a devout Roman Catholic, and made religion a natural part of my life. I cannot recall a time when God was not real to me.
The Second World War broke out when I was nine. When the War ended in 1945, I was sent to boarding school in England while my family remained in India.
I had three very good years at London University, where I read for History Honours. My vocation became clear to me during my second year at University. Both as a Novice and after my Profession in 1958 I worked in Community schools for a total of twenty years. Of these, I had fourteen years in South Africa, where for the last nine years I was Headmistress of the Diocesan School for Girls in Pretoria. I was very happy there, although the political situation made for particular strains.”
This is how one of her former pupils described Sister Deirdre Michael’s time at the school, “…she was an amazing person… a phenomenal head and a true mentor for both children and staff.”
Here are just a few of the messages which her former pupils sent her in the past year or so which gives us a further window into their enduring admiration for their Headmistress:
“Just to let you know what a positive impact you had on so many who passed through your hands. With fond love.”
“When my mother died, you wrote a letter to my father which he always kept under the glass on her dressing table. He drew the most enormous comfort from it and always spoke of you in hushed and revered tones. When he died, I read the letter as part of my eulogy. This comes with my love and thanks for creating a wonderful environment in which to be educated. I am ever grateful.”
“I have so many fond memories – and that’s really all thanks to you. Your kindness and understanding shone from your smile to your frown and I felt good at this school under your guidance and care, whether I excelled or rebelled. Those three years gave me the balance I’ve needed in my life, love and work.
And finally, “I felt the need to write to let you know the strong influence you made on my life as a young girl. You were extremely kind to me and I will never forget that. God bless Sister – you are a beautiful person.”
Sister Deirdre Michael continues her story in her own words, “Of all I might relate, I will limit myself to one episode. When I was fifteen, I was involved in a car accident in Calcutta, and in 1970 began suffering from spinal trouble, as a result of the injury received at the time. By 1972 the trouble was acute, and I found myself flat on my back, and in severe pain. I was warned that an operation and a spinal brace would be necessary. It was at this stage that I heard of a healer who was performing miracles of healing near Johannesburg. After a good deal of doubt and hesitation, I finally decided to ask him to pray for my healing and lay hands on me. This he did, with the other sisters praying around me, and complete healing took place. I was back in school next morning, and I have had no further trouble since. It took some time to adjust to the sheer fact of a miracle: after all, miracles are things that happen to other people, not to oneself! I have related this because it was a significant moment in my history, because it was an unmistakeable experience of the Holy Spirit. It also led me to the daily practice of thanksgiving…”.
The very last words Sister Deirdre Michael spoke to me a few days before she died were, “Thank you for coming”. It is our turn now for thanksgiving. To say thank you to God for the gifts and graces He bestowed on Sister Deirdre Michael and for the blessing she has been in our lives. Thank you, dearest Sister Deirdre Michael, for the lives you have touched and transformed by your kindness, compassion, wisdom and love. Thank you for your wonderful example of faithful Christian discipleship.
The last time I saw her, when she was asked if there was anything she wanted she replied, “The only thing I want is to go to God.” She went to God on 6th January 2023, the feast of the Epiphany, when the wise men traditionally bring presents to the infant Jesus; she went to God offering Him the present of herself – a life so beautifully lived wholly for God.
When we spoke of her funeral last year she told me, “I will leave everything up to you but would like the hymn, ‘Soul of my Saviour’.” We have fulfilled her wish today. The last two lines read,
“Call me and bid me come to thee on high
where I may praise thee with thy saints for ay.”
May our dearest Sister Deirdre Michael, in fulfilment of those words, now praise God with His saints for all eternity. May she rest in peace.