La Congrégation Notre-Dame en Grande-Bretagne.
France 1904 : The Felix Combes laws forbade religious from continuing teaching so instead of simply giving up Les Oiseaux school, Paris, migrated to Westgate on the south coast of England whilst at the same time our sisters in Orbec, Normandy, also migrated to St Leonards-on-Sea. The school at Versailles took the same course of action but went north to Hull. Thus independently of one another, each ‘migrant’ house continued the work of Pierre and Alix in the education of young girls. In 1950, Westgate and St Leonards united to form a group together (a vicariate) with Hull and Rise joining much later in 1971. In 1988 the English vicariate became the vicariate of Great Britain as a house was opened in Scotland. Having established a House of Studies at Cambridge and seen the seed bear fruit, we started More House which became a university hostel. Two years later at the request of parents who longed for a day school in London for their children, More House School was opened in the same premises.
In 1954 a different kind of project was launched that would involve our sisters teaching in a State school in North Wales. Two sisters left for Wales and lived with the Poor Clares until a Monastery was built quite close to the school.
Six years later we went beyond these shores to East Africa when the Archbishop of Rubaga in Uganda asked us to take over Trinity College, Nabbingo, from the White Sisters. Our brief was to continue the development of the country’s first Catholic Senior Secondary School. However, in 1971, Idi Amin made his coup; by 1972 most of the Asians had been forced to leave and Ugandans were at risk if they associated with Europeans. As contracts to teach were not being renewed by the government, the decision was taken to gradually withdraw the sisters. One by one they sadly left Uganda.
Another venture for our sisters was the formation of a fraternity in Harlow in 1973 where sisters worked with a religious congregation of priests in their parish. In that decade we closed our schools in Westgate and Hull but new life came with the Novitiate which had previously been in Westgate moving to London and a new community opening in Sheffield.
The 70s and 80s saw an outburst of small fraternities in London as well as the start of a community in Wishaw, Scotland. This period also saw the closure of long standing works and new apostolates beginning. Rise Hall School and Our Lady’s Convent at St Leonards closed but Alix Lodge and Filsham Lodge opened in St Leonards as did Leven and Bridlington in the north. There was, one, totally new development, during the second half of 20th century – a new creation: our associates. This movement outwards which began almost accidentally in Sheffield, has been embraced by the whole congregation.
Where we are
So no more grand celebrations—small groups at the parishes’ masses. The parents and children had to get to know the other parishioners. It has worked, we now have some families that continue to come to Mass and be involved in parish life.
One of my great joys is taking Communion to the housebound. Sometimes they are housebound because they are recovering from an operation but more often than not they are elderly and housebound and I will go to their funeral.
Another programme I have been involved with is the RCIA*. This has been a great opportunity to share one’s faith with others. Watching people grow in their faith and contribute to the life of the parish, I have found a wonderful experience. Where I am, Bethnal Green, is in the East End of London, a place that has had constant waves of migrants for centuries. Today, thanks to the Clean Air Act, the make-up of the area is changing again. Instead of being an undesirable place for those who could afford better because it was so polluted, it is now seen as a very desirable area and in walking distance of the City and central London.
You may be wondering why I’m also known as ‘Scarlet’ . That’s because since childhood I have been a member of the Girl Guiding movement and I still run the Rainbows’ wing for five to seven year olds.
Something else I have always enjoyed is crafts. For example, I knit cribs which are so popular that I knit them all year round.
RCIA has been a great opportunity to share ones faith. Watching the people grow in their faith and contribute to the life of the parish is wonderful. The RCIA is the liturgical and catechetical process designed for adults attracted by Christ and his teaching. It supports them as they seek to respond more deeply and to enter into the Communion of the Church
I have, since a child, been involved in Girl Guiding and still run the Rainbows five to seven year olds.
**Rainbows is our section for girls aged five to seven (four to seven in Northern Ireland).
In April of this year I was invited along with other speakers from different faith communities to share something on the theme of ‘Love – The One Divine Principle in All’. It formed a small part of the Sathya Sai Organisation’s National Human Values Day.
I want to begin with the lyrics of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Anthem’:
You can add up the parts but you won’t have the sum
You can strike up the march, there is no drum
Every heart, every heart to love will come
but like a refugee.
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.’
I would like to share with you one of the major cracks of Chris, that’s me, and give you a few hints as to how the light got in: Love steps down into the mess ‘n’ the muck of humanity and became as we are that we might become as he is - and it’s through the cracks that he gets in.
I left school at 16 with an O' Level and not a lot else! What to do? I came up with an idea: I had developed a passion for all things Spanish at school through getting to know two sisters from Jerez who had come as foreign students to study English. And as happens when we're young, I fell in love with the sisters, the language, the guitars, the flamenco dancing of a country that was so different from the one I knew. So off I went to Madrid as au pair to a titled family with 4 boys and a baby girl. My job was to look after the boys. There was a nanny for the baby.
I'm the youngest in my family so I didn't have any younger brothers and sisters with whom I could have learnt my ‘looking after kids’ skills! Consequently, I found the 4 boys challenging, not least, because they never did what they were told which I seem to remember also included when their Mum told them. I was a very young, innocent and immature 17 year old and I knew that I wasn’t coping with the kids’ behaviour and didn't know where to turn.
Into this darkness of drowning came the two Spanish sisters from school who phoned me up and invited me over for a meal. What joy untold to see a friendly face and be able to share a little of my struggles. After what I thought had been a ‘fab time’ to use the in vogue vocabulary of that era, the late 60s, I said goodbye to my friends with a heart full of hope and friendship.
The following day, I think it was, I received a short letter from one of the sisters. The basic gist of her note was that they never wanted to see me again but without any indication as to what I had done to merit such a terrible sentence.
The sentence threw me into a dark place of rejection and torment. My calls to them went unanswered so I had no way of knowing what I had done or of seeking forgiveness. Nearly 50 years later I still don’t know what I did. I can only guess that I was simply being myself as they were in their reaction. Knowing me, I had probably spoken freely from my heart about my struggles. Perhaps I had been critical of Spain and they had felt insulted?
Child that I was and still am, the experience of rejection propelled me into a world that I hadn't ever visited before. No safety net here, no shelter from the turbulent sea and its depths into which I had been drawn. A crack had opened up and sometimes I felt that I would fall through it and lose all light.
'Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.'
You won't be surprised to learn that a few months or so later that the au pair job was brought to an end. Their mother told me that she and her husband felt that it wasn’t working and that I wasn’t coping with their children. She was very kind as she didn’t just throw me out but had found me somewhere to stay while I got things sorted out. And that’s what I did: I turned my face to the wind and got on with life. I offered English conversation classes in a Spanish newspaper and that’s how I earned my living.
I had fallen through the crack and one afternoon the light got in: I was sitting in my room and there was lots of light in the room or so it seemed. It was a moment of awakening when Love leapt in and brought me to a new way of seeing. It was a moment of clarity through the crack of pain, and the struggle to survive. It seemed to me then that another way of loving was being revealed to me. I saw that there were two ways of loving when before there had only been one, the more common way, of loving and being loved by one person. Another way, less common opened up before me which was to love by embracing all people through becoming a sister. As Alix Le Clerc, one of the founders of our congregation puts it: Let God be your one and only love. That afternoon I said ‘Yes’ to the Creator's invitation. And of course that's why I'm standing here today sharing a little about ‘The Divine Principle in All’.
Her 7 children died of AIDS.
She took on her 22 grandchildren.
Her only means of feeding them:
cultivating her piece of land.
Her small hut was falling down.
Bega kwa Bega built her a brick house,
put a water tank by her house
and paid for her grandchildren to attend school.
Since the late ‘90s I have been involved with this organisation, started by a Ugandan woman in response to the AIDS epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa.
From that time Bega kwq Bega (Shoulder to Shoulder in Swahili) has grown from working in one village to well over 200 mainly in the Wakiso district in Uganda which suffered greatly during the civil war. Bega kwa Bega responds to the needs of the villagers expressed by themselves, working towards the self-sufficiency of the villagers and the organisation.
Orphans remain the responsibility of the village, growing up among friends and relatives, holding on to their rights regarding property and land. We work with the villagers in providing clean available water, thereby reducing the numbers of those infected by water-borne diseases and the number of young girls at risk from being raped or abducted on their way to and from fetching water miles from home. A mobile Clinic treats an average of 17,000 a year and delivers health education to many more. Agriculture and Nutrition are areas of work being undertaken at the request of villagers who need to increase the variety of plants they grow and the health of their ever decreasing land. Business Management and Skills Training help villagers to earn and thereby better support their families; and lastly but most importantly Education. Schooling is free in Uganda, but the standard is scandalously low. Where possible orphans are sent to fee-paying schools where standards are better though only marginally. There are people in the UK and the US who sponsor a child, paying a certain amount every year either for the whole of the child’s education or a certain sum towards this. Year by year the number we sponsor lessens as the children grow older and their secondary or further education costs more. We urgently need more sponsors to come forward and help an orphan to later become fulfilled, self-sufficient and able to support their families.
I became as associate in December 2006, it was a strange journey for me, as it started at a time in my life when I was feeling very fragile and vulnerable. After many years of an addiction that almost destroyed me. I made the decision to turn my life around and to trust the Lord to show me the way, or at least, walk the journey with me.
I was going to Mass more often then I usually did, it felt at the time that I was been invited by the Creator to go, Mass fulfilled me, I never questioned my faith, if anything, it was my faith that kept me going when I doubted myself. For months, I was happy with this new routine in my life, but I slowly started to feel frustrated because as much as I enjoyed my relationship with the Creator, I wanted more! I knew there was something else missing, the final piece to my jigsaw that I knew I had to find and after much soul searching & turning to prayers, I asked the Creator to help me find what im looking for.
It was as if the Creator had said to me, “I have brought you this far, now you are ready to continue your journey”. So I did.
Through friends, I was aware of St Augustine but at that time, knew very little about him, and rather then ask them, I started my own research and was pleasantly surprised by what I was reading.
I found someone who I could really identify with, St Augustine. My journey didn’t seem as lonely, there was St Augustine, who had walked the same steps as me. In life he made some mistakes but the fact that he learnt from them, gave me the strength to believe I could, and I knew then, I wanted to know more about his work, his relationship with his mother Monica.
My favourite quote of St Augustine is:
“Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.”
It’s almost ten years since I became as associate, im still enjoying my journey, im forever learning new things, information that matters to me now, such as useful information about The Global Goals, Justice and Peace & my work with the homeless. As a mother myself, I often look towards Monica for inspiration when dealing with my own daughters and their journey in life. How would Monica react to a situation and how do I. It’s a journey that keeps on going, no road signs to follow, you just keep on believing and “Do whatever he asks” in a way that only you can.
I want to start by thanking some people, they are sisters Magdalene and Fabienne who were working in Sheffield and who were supported and befriended in prayer and companionship by two ladies called Esther and Margaret. Sister Geraldine in her wisdom met these ladies and through time heard their Vows as associates thus starting this fabulous organisation which is an integral part of the CND worldwide. My own story of becoming an associate is down to another Sister whose Humility, Inner peace and Prayerfulness was a shining light to everyone she met, she was a wonderful Listener and Gods Love shone out of her. She and my Mum and Dad had a great love for one and other, they were kindred spirits, I had the pleasure of taking her up to see them some Sunday evenings and through our conversations I discovered the Beauty and Charisma of the Congregation. The person I am talking about was Sr Agnes O’Shea. I started going to meetings in Sr Martina’s home in Wishaw, the group was quite large and made up of very different people with different life skills, this made lively for discussions and a great camaraderie, Sr Geraldine came to Wishaw and the whole group took their vows as associates. I can honestly say that I love being an associate and have made lovely friends at home and abroad and our diversity is our unity.
Hello I’m Margaret Freer.
I first came into contact with the Sisters when I attended some prayer groups at Bridlington and Leven. I soon picked up the fact that the Sisters had a very strong passion for education and justice, plus a very special spirituality which I never came across before in any other Order. I can only describe it as a huge cake with a secret ingredient thrown in!
It was at the Bridlington prayer group that I and Pauline Kerrigan, also an associate, were informed that the Congregation was celebrating The Fourth Centenary of the founding of their order in France.
These celebrations were taking place in Epinal and Mattaincourt with a grand Mass at the Basilica of St Peter Fourier. Pauline and I were invited to join the celebrations with the Sisters, if we wished and of course, I did wish!
It was such a fantastic meeting, with all the Sisters from all over the world. We were very fortunate that Sr Emma (one of the sisters who lived in Leven) very kindly gave us a tour of all the places connected with Peter Fourier. But the icing on the cake was that grand Mass at St Peter’s. The church was busting at the seams. The streets outside were full of people who could not get in and heard the Mass through the loud speakers that has been placed in the streets around the Basilica.
All I can say was the atmosphere and Epinal was electric. All this happened on 19th July 1988.
One of my main memories about being an associate is the date I was accepted. Sr Catherine invited Pauline and myself to think about becoming associates. Our first response was ‘what is an associate and what is expected of us?’ Her reply: “just be yourselves”. This happened on October 24th 2001 in the little chapel at Leven where Pauline, myself and five others made our commitments which were received by Sr Sandra during a lovely Mass, celebrated by Fr John Hart.
We received cards of welcome from other communities scattered around England and Scotland. Finally we ended up with a scrumptious buffet where wine flowed and endless cups of tea and coffee!
Since then I have been very privileged to take part in lots of meetings and assemblies of the sisters and truly welcomed as a member of one large family. Sr Jenny in one of her talks said the associates were members of their extended family. Being a member of this wonderful family means that you are allowed to be just yourself.