Nazareth House Southern African Region
I grew up in a small village in the West Country of England where for several years we were the only Catholics in the village. We had no Catholic Church locally, but a small wooden hut in the next village used by the British Legion for their meetings became our Church on most Sundays, when the priest from the neighbouring town came out to say Mass for the few Catholic families living around the area. There was no Blessed Sacrament and the altar was an old piano. While Mass was going on (in Latin), we younger children used to play with the beer bottle tops that were scattered around the floor after the Saturday night social! Later on we had Mass in the local Anglican Church of All Saints (which had been Catholic of course before the Reformation).
I attended the village primary school with my brother and sisters, but we were not allowed into the morning assembly due to the fact that we were “papists”! I only discovered years afterwards what that meant, and it was actually the Catholic Church which did not allow us to attend Anglican services, rather than the other way around. Thank God for the age of Christian Unity and Ecumenism! I loved being at the village school which only had 3 classes and no more than 15 children in each class. We went for nature walks up in the woods, learnt to grow vegetables and pull up the weeds in the school garden, and once a week we went to the village churchyard to tidy up all the graves. There wasn’t too much time for serious study and school work, so it was quite a “culture shock” when at the age of 11 years I suddenly found myself to be one of 800 learners in a large Catholic comprehensive school on the outskirts of Bristol, 12 miles away and two bus journeys from the village. I left home at 7am each day and often only arrived back home around 6pm. I tried doing my homework on the bus, but that didn’t work for long as the teachers soon noticed how unusually shaky my handwriting had become. City people always think there is no social life in a village. I made the most of what there was, and joined the Young Farmers Club where (apart from having a good time) we learnt to make butter & cheese, shear & dip sheep, deliver calves, pluck & draw turkeys and chickens (I always let someone else do the killing) and many other skills which unfortunately are not really of much use in Nazareth House. I also joined the local judo club up at the mushroom farm twice a week, and progressed well enough to teach the little ones at their Saturday classes. We attended many competitions with other clubs around Somerset and usually ended up in the local pub to celebrate our victories (only the senior club of course)! You would be forgiven for wondering how on earth I met the Sisters of Nazareth. The providence of God is truly amazing. While in my last years at the comprehensive school, we were encouraged to take part in the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award. As part of this entailed doing some form of community service, two of my friends and I were encouraged to visit Nazareth House in Bristol to help with the care of the babies and toddlers at the Home. Our tasks included feeding, changing and bathing the small babies, most of whom were to be placed for adoption. I really loved to be there and even after leaving school I continued to visit and help out where I could. I then went to teacher training college for a year in London, but after a serious accident which put me in hospital for several weeks (was this my Damascus experience?) I was sent home to recuperate for 6 months. Gradually as I recovered I realised that teaching was not for me. When I was strong enough I returned to Nazareth House and filled a vacancy in the nursery for 5 pounds a week! The Bristol House closed in 1970 and the children were transferred to the Swansea and Cardiff Houses. I was asked to go with the babies to Nazareth House, Plymouth and continue caring for them there (when I agreed, they even put my wages up to 6 pounds per week!). My grandparents were living near Plymouth and I was happy to go.
I always admired the Sisters and their way of life as far as I could see and experience it while working at Nazareth House, but nothing was further from my mind than thinking or wishing that I would ever join them. I always thought I would marry (hopefully a farmer) in my own village and have many children of my own. But it was obviously not to be and gradually I became more aware that God was calling me to something else. The more I tried to ignore this feeling, this “call”, the stronger it became until eventually I could fight it off no longer. I applied to Hammersmith to enter the Congregation, but all the while I was hoping that I would not be accepted or that I would only last a few weeks or months, and then I could leave and get on with my life as I had always planned it to be, (but “My Ways are not your ways”, says the Lord. How true is that indeed)! At the end of all this, you can guess what happened – I was accepted as a postulant in Finchley, received as a novice in Hendon, made my first profession in Hammersmith and my final profession in Johannesburg. So much water has goneunder the bridge since then, but that is another story.