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franciscan - September 1998

© Copyright, The Society of Saint Francis, 1998

Sister Angela Mary CSF, RIP

Sister Angela Mary died peacefully on 16 May 1998 in Birmingham after a long illness. She was aged ninety-one and in the thirty-ninth year of her religious profession. May she rest in peace and rise in glory.

The text of a sermon preached by Sister Elizabeth CSF at Compton Durville, at the interment of ashes.

We celebrate here the life of Sister Angela Mary, and it seems fortuitous that we have so recently kept the feast of the Ascension, which was for her of great significance because of her association with the College of the Ascension, now part of the Selly Oak Colleges. The introit hymn, Rejoice the Lord is King, was not just a favourite hymn but an axiom of her life. The Lord Jesus Christ was, and is, sovereign in her life. Her religion was part of her from her youth and soon became part of the willed, conscious living-out of her faith in the risen Lord, the inspiration of her vocation as nurse, as missionary and, finally, as a Religious.

All of us here would consider more the spiritual significance of the Ascension than its physical aspect. Either way, we have allusions to ‘lifting up’, raising our hearts and minds and spirits to the Spirit of God. Such allusions are part of our regular worship: week by week and day by day we say ‘Glory to God in the highest . . .’ and ‘Lift up your hearts: we lift them to the Lord’; while last week’s collect prayed that we might ‘in heart and mind’ ascend to the risen, ascended Lord in the Godhead.

Our best selves rise above our weaker and darker patches. Someone, Browning I think, once wrote: ‘Man’s reach must exceed his grasp / else what’s a heaven for.’ Our reach must exceed our grasp – and Angela Mary knew something about that.
She was not reckoned particularly bright, so left school young and started her working life in a rather dreary office, doing clerking. She did use a typewriter but, back in the twenties, there was no sophisticated machinery. However, she had always wanted to be a nurse and eventually, at the age of twenty-one, she gained entry and subsequently qualified at Guy’s Hospital in London, a not inconsiderable achievement.

Then she was sure that she had to be a missionary and India drew her like a magnet. After two years at the College of the Ascension (then the women missionaries’ training establishment for the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, in Selly Oak, Birmingham), she went to South India, which was a difficult time to begin with, where she adjusted to cultural change and to learning a local language. For someone who learnt slowly, she did well to master one language and have an understanding of a second. As we know, she tackled a different one entirely when she went to Zambia as a CSF Sister.

She spent a total of twenty-two years in India, and she was greatly loved and respected, especially at St Stephen’s Hospital, Delhi, where she was a nurse tutor and eventually became Matron, a position she held for some years. Her time in India was broken by two and a half years’ war service, when she nursed in tents in Palestine and North Africa, accompanying the Allied Armies north through Italy until VE Day.

That was the woman who, at about fifty years of age, came home to the UK to test a religious vocation. It took courage, determination, faith and humility. Perhaps when someone comes older to a community, where most of the others had joined considerably younger, there are mixed expectations on either side. As a novice, she once confided to me that, in view of her experience, she ought to be in charge of our home for old people, not doing the donkey work; but when I pointed out that, in our situation, those in charge worked equally hard, she took the point and went bravely on, even working under me (half her age and with no nursing qualification, but such was the old-fashioned hierarchy) when we together held the fort during the sisters’ retreat.
She believed deeply in her own vocation to serve, and knew she served Christ in others. Her faith was Christ centred – God was revealed to her in the gospel stories of the human Jesus; and hers was very much a literal following. In CSF, she used her nursing to the full, not least when she and Sister Veronica spent seven years in Zambia, both then in their sixties. She was responsible at Fiwila for the Leprosarium: for those still suffering from the ‘live’ disease and for ‘burnt-out’ cases, those whose illness had been treated and was no longer active, but whose injuries or disfigurement caused them to live in a separate situation.

Angela Mary was one who always took great care over detail, and she had a strong artistic bent. She was always sticking and painting, and made her own cards for anniversaries or birthdays, as a mark of extra thoughtfulness, but even sometimes to the point of fussiness.

However, her talents blossomed in old age when she took up wood-carving with considerable success, creating some beautiful things – mainly animals, another of her passions in life.

Perhaps one of her most endearing characteristics was a quirky sense of humour, indicated often by a twitch of one side of her mouth, or by what we might nowadays call a ‘lateral’ remark. Sometimes she would reduce others to laughter at a seemingly inappropriate moment.

Many of us will remember her as a kind and thoughtful guest sister. She considered hospitality pre-eminent among Franciscan ministries and loved giving people treats. She was unfailingly courteous (a word St Francis himself often used) and always a good conversationalist.

Angela Mary was blessed with a sense of proportion and a quick recovery which rose above the more painful moments, and she never bore grudges. Her apparent vagueness at times was, I’m sure, not only a genuine part of her temperament but a subconscious cover for feelings and for occasionally getting her own way – as when she and Veronica continued to feed the stray cats at Compton, regardless of what was said to them!

What has touched me most, and has been a humbling experience over this last year, was the way in which, at the end of her life, she could seek comfort, re-assurance and ministry from her one-time fellow novice whom previously she had found difficult.
Angela Mary was sure where she was going, where she wanted to be: with her Lord and Saviour; though there were times when she could not believe that she might be acceptable. Faith had to be sprinkled with doubt or it would not be faith; our reach must exceed our grasp or God would not be God: and we, with Angela Mary, will come in our redeemed humanity to share in the eternal realm of God in Christ. May she rest in peace and rise in glory. Amen
. f

 

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