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Good News?

There were many different types of work that a newcomer might be given on joining the Community. However, Sr Winifred has entered Community annals by having one of the most unusual: laying out of a Sister who has just died. In fairness, I must point out that Sr Winifred was a trained nurse, and would not otherwise have been asked to do this. The Sister concerned, Sr Catherine, had been ill since Christmas, was anointed on the morning of 27th September 1952, and died at 7.45pm that evening, aged 75, and had been in the Community for 36 years. In 1939, she was working in St Michael’s Home for Girls; I don’t know how long she spent there, but she may have been one of those who saw it through the Second World War, and onto its’ change of purpose, as it started taking girls in the care of social services in the later 1940s.

However, it is her early life, and her family background, that interest me most. It first intrigued me as I had been told that Sr Catherine’s father had been a Canon of Norwich Cathedral. When? I thought, and how? Intrigue followed further when I discovered Sr Catherine’s birthplace: Norfolk Island in the South Pacific. The story starts further back with Catherine’s maternal grandparents, whose names I knew from a window dedicated to their daughter, Catherine’s mother: they were Anna Matilda and William Nihill. Their daughter, Anna Elizabeth, was born in Auckland, New Zealand, presenting another link with that side of the world; especially when I discovered that Anna Matilda was born in Australia.

It appears William died quite young, as I have both Annas living in England in 1861, by which time Anna Matilda was a widow. William was a priest who was working as a missionary in the South Pacific, when he died (through illness) on an island called Nengone, aged 30 in 1855, leaving his wife and daughter, who would only have been a toddler at the time. By 1871, Anna Matilda and Anna Elizabeth are living with the Bishop of Lichfield, George Selwyn, and his wife Sarah, a link which can only have come from the South Pacific as George Selwyn has been a bishop there before coming to Lichfield.

It must have been at Lichfield that Anna Elizabeth meet a young curate, John Still, whom she married in 1876 in New Zealand. John had also gone to the South Pacific as a missionary; it was on Norfolk Island, in Melanesia, that their daughter Catherine was born, although better long the family had returned to England, where their son John was born in Wiltshire. By 1881, John Still was Vicar off Poynton in Cheshire, although during that census Anna Elizabeth and her two children were staying with John’s stepmother, and two of his sisters, in Kent. But apparently John had not left the South Pacific for good: between 1885 and 1891, he was the incumbent at St Paul’s, Thornden, in New Zealand. Whether both children went with him, I do not know. John the younger was a pupil with another priest, and 6 other boys, in England in 1891, so it is possible that he stayed in England, or returned earlier than his family. But I am assuming that Catherine would have spent at least part of this time in New Zealand.

Returning to England in 1891, John Still became at some point Rector of Halstock, in Dorset, where Anna Elizabeth died aged 41 in 1894, and where she is buried. Where Anna Matilda was during these moves, I do not know, but by 1891 she was living in Wiltshire, where she died in 1901. Probate was given to the Rev John Still and Ernest Robert Still, Esquire, so it seems that the Stills continued to treat Anna Matilda as part of the family after the death of her daughter. But how, in all this, did John Still become a Canon of Norwich Cathedral? Or was that snippet of information wrong? Well, no, it was totally correct. In 1902, John Still moved to become Rector of Hethersett; from the 1911 census, it appears that his unmarried daughter Catherine moved with him. Sadly, John Still died suddenly in August 1914, while preaching a sermon in front of the pulpit at St Remigius Church, Hethersett. But at some point in the 12 years he was there, he had been made an Honorary Canon of Norwich Cathedral.

I’m not sure where Catherine went next. I assume that at some point during her time in Norfolk she had been introduced to our Community, but she didn’t take her vows until 1918, which gives us about a couple of years to cover. It’s possible she spent some of that time as a visitor with us, or she’s may have gone to relatives; or, possibly, she had enough money to live independently. Be that as it may, it appears that she spent some of that time possibly considering her vocation before moving to Ditchingham in about 1916, following her own call from God, as her parents and grandparents had followed theirs, wherever in the globe it took them. Missionary work in the nineteenth century brings its own issues nowadays, as so many of them brought Western European culture along with Christianity (including their attitudes to different races) - although I think I can also accept the motives of missionaries to introduce more people to the love of God.

But it makes me ponder our own motives, and our own ways of spreading the Gospel. How far can we distinguish the essence of the Good News from the culture which we are inevitably a part of, but which may not be essential to spreading the word of God? How far can we see beyond our own cultural ways of worshipping God to accepting and encouraging other, maybe alien, ways that others may relate to better? That is possibly particularly pertinent now that we are in a time off cultural change ourselves, with many in our churches being of the ‘pre-digital’ age: can we be certain that those who have grown up since won’t be put off by our attitudes and ways of worship? But it is a question that is worth asking in many different circumstances, and that relates to many of the vital issues of our day. How far does our worship, our theology, our way of living relate more to our culture than it does to our God? How many people feel cut off from Go due to the Church’s way of presenting our faith? Can we change that?

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