Peter CSWG remembers the life of a remarkable woman
Sr Mary Michael CHC died in hospital in Nottingham during the early hours of the morning of the Feast of St Thomas, following four years of managing the side effects of recurring cancer, for which she had first received treatment in 2005. She was 81 years old.
Sister had grown up in Liverpool during the Blitz years and was raised as a Christian within the Evangelical tradition. She first encountered the influence of Anglo-Catholic tradition through the parish of St Stephen’s, Grove Street, in relation to her exploring a call to the religious life, which led to her joining the Community of the Holy Cross at Haywards Heath in Sussex in 1961.
In 1979, the Community moved from Sussex to what was to be a temporary home at Rempstone Hall in Leicestershire, and in 2011 to their present new convent at Costock some two miles away, During the years at Rempstone, Sister became a gifted and prolific writer, sponsoring a series of pamphlets entitled That They May Be One that included biographies of many popular and some lesser-known saints, and also touched on various ecumenical themes. The French ecumenist Abbé Paul Couturier, who had done so much to further unity in the early part of the twentieth century, became a significant and influential figure in her own ecumenical thinking. She also penned two further series called Loneliness to Solitude and Faith on Earth.
It was the momentous events of 1992 in the Church of England that became the impetus for a number of religious to come together in 1995, later to take the name of RooT (‘Religious of orthodox Tradition’). It was in this group that Sr Mary Michael played such a significant part during the following years. RooT sought to give support and encouragement particularly to isolated religious, usually sisters, who found themselves misunderstood within their communities and rather isolated by the new changes. Its purpose remained always an eirenic and pastoral one, rather than one motivated by political aims. It was prompted primarily by a concern for the unity of the Church, a concern which, as we have seen, had been with Sister throughout her life, and lay at the heart of her faith and conviction.
Sister attended the RooT annual conferences organized by Mother Mary Teresa SSM and Fr Gregory CSWG in the mid and late nineties at St Stephen’s House and Mirfield, which were oriented towards supporting a traditional understanding and practice of religious life and the vows. This eventually led to her representing RooT on the Forward in Faith Council for a period of several years. She kept the council well informed about the position of religious, and on matters of vital concern for religious life and communities, both in this country and abroad.
Within her own community, Sister had been appointed novice mistress in 1972, which meant relating to and instructing new enquirers and seekers, a task to which she brought her considerable experience and wealth of insight. Yet she remained always very open to those from a younger generation who might be seeking to acclimatize to the well-established customs and traditions of religious life. She kept herself detached in such matters through a lively but wry sense of humour, occasionally referring to herself self-effacingly as an ‘old timer.’
Caring for novices also brought with it a concern for religious vocations generally within the Church of England, and there seems little doubt that it was an impromptu speech Sister made at the Forward in Faith Assembly in 2013 that became a turning point for RooT, as it was for the traditionalist Catholic movement as a whole. Its immediate impact was to generate the first of the Vocation Taster Days, which took place at Wellingborough in 2014, for encouraging enquirers to think seriously about a possible vocation to this life.
Unhappily, it was at that point that Sister became unwell and unable to attend the Wellingborough Day, or indeed any of the later taster days at York and Kennington. This illness was later shown to be the re-emergence of cancer for which she had been first treated in 2005. During these final four years, Sister was not able to travel or attend meetings but lived the rhythm of a more solitary life of prayer at Costock. Nevertheless, she continued to take an active interest in RooT affairs, attending committee meetings right up to her last few weeks, including our preparations for our next (the fourth) taster day in October. Ironically, this event will take place within Sister’s home city and diocese of Liverpool (at St Columba’s, Anfield).
In 2014 in the new chapel at Costock, Sister passed a significant milestone in her own life, when with great joy and surrounded by a host of friends she celebrated the Golden Jubilee of her Profession.
Others will speak of Sister’s particular gifts, but my own experience was always one of warm and encouraging friendship, and an unwavering concern, not just for the survival, but for the flourishing of monastic and religious life. She was a lively and regular correspondent which she shared her thoughts and deliberations on a variety of matters with ordered precision.
Fr Richard Meux Benson SSJE remained always for Sister a profound influence for her thinking, particularly about religious formation and vocation. Almost invariably, she would quote passages from him in articles on or about religious life, finding inspiration there for her own thinking and approach to living its Benedictine form. Indeed in a final ‘postscript’ on religious life, written only two weeks before she died, Sister comments that ‘any genuine invitation from God’ means that we must ‘give all to him, cost what it may, and for life,’ words that reflect something of the character of her own disposition.
Fr Peter CSWG is a member of a community of monks living in Crawley.