Emilie May Margaret Wood was a Londoner, born in Pimlico in 1873; her family seemed to have moved frequently, so by the age of 7 she was living in Camberwell. One of 10 siblings, the daughter of Alfred and Caroline Wood, at 17 she was (or was working for) a jeweller. Her brothers all seem to have moved out of London and further north, working either as electricians or as electrical engineers. At least two of her sisters married, one moving to Oxford, although another sister, Ethel, worked for the Post Office, I think for her entire career, and in the 1939 register is a supervisor general there. Tragically, their mother, Caroline, died in 1893, aged 46, when her youngest child would have been only 5. Alfred married again in 1899, to a younger woman, May. Interestingly, it was the same year that Emilie moved to rural Norfolk to join the Community of All Hallows as a lay Sister. I wonder if her father’s re-marriage set some of the older girls free from the need to take care of their younger siblings? In 1901, still a Novice, Sr Emilie was at the House of Mercy, but she seems to have spent most of her life in Norwich. A Sister who wrote her memories down says that she spent most of her life in mission work, and many years as the parish Sister at St Julian’s and St Peter Parmentergate in Norwich. This Sister says that Sr Emilie ‘loved her work and the love and respect in which she was held in the hearts of those whom she taught and cared for is proof of her influence and personality’. (Memories, CAH). Birthdays brought cards and flowers, and she enjoyed reminiscing over each one. She had many stories to tell of her time in Community, and her experiences in the city, including the bombing of St Julian’s in the second world war. Stories that are now lost in the mist of time, as most of those who knew her are no longer with us. She moved back to the Convent after a severe illness, but continued to keep up a correspondence with those she had worked with. In the last months of her life, this became difficult as her eyesight failed, and she died in 1969, aged 96 and after 70 years in religion.
Reading this about Sr Emilie in Memories, I was reminded of another Sister, who also spent most of her time in Community in one work, and kept up a correspondence with those she had worked with. Sr Winifred Mary joined the Community in her middle age, and was sent to Blundeston Prison to work with the chaplaincy there. She, too, would tell stories about her time, and these were recorded for posterity by a friend of the Community. Her time at the prison only came to an end when failing eyesight meant she could no longer drive there, but she, too, didn’t give up work at this stage, keeping in touch with those she had worked with, although her eyesight made this more complicated. But, with help, she continued to write, even as her handwriting deteriorated. It strikes me that both Sisters, as they became less active, continued to do what they could. They could no longer go out and work with the people and in the places they had served for years, but they could keep a connection with them, and no doubt encourage them in their lives. Although limited in what they could do physically, they continued to serve their God.
I am reminded as well of two more Sisters, both called Sr Jean. Obviously, it is highly complicated to have two Sisters of the same name at the same time in the Community, so this is never done. (It is quite complicated enough to have more than one Sister of the same name at different times!). The younger Sr Jean was called Sr Jean Margaret for much of her time, dropping the Margaret in later life. To distinguish the two if talking about both, they tended to be called ‘tall’ Sr Jean and ‘small’ Sr Jean, for hopefully obvious reasons. By the time I joined ‘tall’ Sr Jean [pictured, in the 1960s] was in our Nursing Home, where she remained for some years. I will always remember visiting her on her deathbed. Lying in bed, able to do little more than breathe, with a picture another Sister had done for her above her bed, with the word ‘glory’ central to it, I felt that the greatest work Sr Jean had done was happening there and then as she lay dying. This is not to say that she had done nothing in her life; she was in charge of Chapel for many years, and had run a Guest House for a time. But, nevertheless…there was still something happening in her dying that could happen in no other way; something that happened as this follower of God came to the end of her earthly journey. ‘Small’ Sr Jean also struggled with health issues, more arthritis and physical disability than actual illness. She attended our local day care centre, as a patient, but it struck me that she had a great ministry there, by just being there and being herself; by being one of them, rather than being there in any official capacity. She would regularly bring prayer requests back to the Convent, but I suspect her influence went far beyond that. (Her avid support of Norwich City football club no doubt contributed something essential to this).
All these Sisters had been devoted followers of God, had had very different, but equally essential, ministries within CAH; but those ministries didn’t stop when their active work stopped. Sisters of Mercy do not retire, and each of these Sisters continued as Sisters of Mercy, even when they could no longer do anything, even pray. Equally, followers and disciples of Jesus do not retire; whether we can be actively involved in our Church or not, we are still followers of God, and still held in God’s presence. Who knows what is happening in our pain and difficulty? Who knows how far our work for God spreads, in ways that we may not ever be aware of? I know this is easy for me to say, with good health and no personal experience of pain or infirmity (and certainly none of dying). I can see how difficult it must be to end active work, especially if you feel you have more to give, or there is no-one to take it on. In Memories, the Sister who wrote it says how difficult Sr Emilie found it when her eyesight failed, and how much it grieved her that she could no longer write or read her own letters. Yet still … I feel there is something of great value in that grief, in the struggle, in that mourning … in that laying down of an active ministry for one that may be inactive, but is no less a ministry, certainly no less a following. For, after all, our Lord’s greatest work happened as he hung, naked and helpless, nailed to a cross. So maybe it should come as no surprise that our own ‘crucifixion’ times may have something of great value for God, for the God who holds us close in these times as at any other, whether we can feel or believe it or not.