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Sister Helen - Beyond Imagining

‘Do you know that poor Sr Helen has 2 internal tumours & if able to bear it, has to be operated upon? Her mother is paralysed – one sister has tumours & consumption & things are poor. We let her go to nurse her mother last July – she was not then aware of her tumours.’ So writes M. Lavinia. We do not know the circumstances, nor the year it was written, but Sr Helen must have come through the operations, as M. Lavinia died in 1890, and Sr Helen not until 1904.

Helen Martha Noad was born in 1846, the daughter of Jane and George Frederic Noad; she was one of eleven children, seven daughters and four sons. George was ordained, but seems to have spent most of his life teaching, being headmaster of institutions in Hull, Holybourn, Reading and Wye. In the mid-1860s, he became bankrupt, which must have affected not only his life but that of his family and may have led to his leaving teaching to become Rector of Cold Norton, in Essex, in 1868. The following decade or so would be a sad one for the Noad family. The fourth daughter, Mary, died in 1872, aged only 19. She is presumably buried in Cold Norton, where she is remembered on the same gravestone as her father, who died in 1876, aged 64. This left Jane needing to move house, probably on a limited income, and with some of her children still at home – the two youngest boys would only have been in their mid-teens, and none of the girls were married except the oldest, Maria, although some may have left home to work and Sr Helen had been professed in CAH in 1870.

But there was more tragedy to come. In 1878 Florence, the sixth daughter, died in India, aged only 22. I do not know why she was in India, but she may have been there with her older brother, who worked there. Not long after, in December, the third son, Francis, died aged 18, suddenly. The following year, there may have been some joy when George, the oldest son, married; joy that turned to sorrow when he was killed while helping in a landslip in India the following year. He was personal assistant to the Inspector General of police there; the landslip killed 151 people. Just over a year later, in 1881, Edward, the youngest son, also died, aged 20. I do not know why, or whether he had been ill. This left Jane, with six of her eleven children still alive. Of these, one daughter, Fanny, also married; another daughter, Emily, worked as a school mistress, and her Mother later joined her household. Charles, the only remaining son, married, dying in 1903, while in his 50s.

Who the sister was who had tumours and consumption I do not know, nor when she died, unless it referred to Mary or Florence. Apart from Sr Helen, who was 58 when she died, the other sisters all lived to their 70s or 80s. But the picture is one of a family going through hard times. We do not know quite how paralysed Jane was, or whether this was due to old age, or whether she had been managing for some time with the help of servants and family. It must have been a horrible time, added to by the fact that, while we know the other siblings lived longer lives, the family themselves would not have done. Jane herself died in 1895, aged 70.

Sr Helen was part of the Community for 27 years, dating from her clothing; we know she worked at both the Orphanage and the House of Mercy, and at one point was Sister in Charge of the Orphanage. But we also know that was able to spend time with her family, to help support her mother (until she became ill herself), and possibly with her siblings. In the 1891 census, she is staying with her oldest sister, Maria, and her family. How the tragedies in her family life affected her faith, we cannot know. But finding her story, and the pain of all those deaths, many of people who had barely begun their lives, I cannot help feeling some of the anguish they must have gone through. I begin to wonder how much pain God must feel at the tragedies and sadness happening today. I cannot believe that a God of Love would be indifferent to it all, and I wonder whether the way of intercession may be less to ask for a list of requests, to sort this or that, but to immerse ourselves in the pain of God, as far as we can, and allow that to be the intercession. Whether just to sit with the impossible insolubility of it all would allow God to be active in ways which we cannot possibly imagine or ask for.

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