It is fitting for us to reflect for a few minutes on Sister Mary Clare’s life. Beneath an ordinary exterior lay an extraordinary person. The brief facts are that Doreen Mary Morris became a nurse, entered an Anglican convent taking the Religious name, Sister Mary Clare, was professed in life vows for 37 years and died as a Catholic nun aged 85. But there is so much more to her story.
Sister Mary Clare was born profoundly deaf but using powerful hearing aids, was brought up in the general hearing community. During her life, she used her nursing and other skills to serve others. In the Convent at Wantage, she was responsible for the care of the sick and elderly sisters. When based in a community house in Birmingham, she served as a part-time hospital Chaplain. She gave pastoral support for many years to the children at a school for the deaf. These give the barest facts of her life but when we sisters talk about her we cherish other memories:
Sister Mary Clare had a gift for friendship. She was interested in people and within minutes had extracted from them their joys and troubles. She would introduce me to someone with a twinkle in her eye announcing, “and they say they are a lapsed Catholic” and I would immediately think, not “lapsed” for long – not with Sister Mary Clare now on their case! She would be astonished to be described as a great evangelist. She didn’t overtly talk about her faith but rather, she lived it and whenever you went to her bedroom, or cell as it is known, she would always have her Bible, holy books, Rule of St Benedict and her beloved rosary beside her.
For some years, she was a member of the group of sisters who lived with, and provided pastoral support for, elderly ladies at the retirement home that our former community ran. Staff and residents would turn to her and she was quick to respond to their woes and anxieties. She was without guile. People came to her for honest advice even if it was not always what they wanted to hear.
A woman of deep faith and integrity she could not be persuaded to do anything which went against her own convictions. She was deeply devoted to Blessed John Henry Newman and spoke fondly of her time as a District Nurse in the West Midlands, when she prayed almost daily at his grave when she went to the college there, to give a daily injection to one of the Oratory fathers. Her elder brother was ordained in the Church of England and she became an Anglican sister at Wantage. Who can tell when she first became drawn to enter the Roman Catholic Church? But it was Pope Benedict’s invitation for groups of Anglicans to come into full communion that proved decisive. She asked to be received as a Catholic with the other sisters who would form our community of the Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Once she made her mind up, she was determined.
Sister Mary Clare would never have described herself as a visionary or pioneer – but she was both! It is thanks to her that we, the Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary, are here today. When legal and ecclesiastical negotiations looked as if they would go on for years, she came to see me, as Mother.
She was already in her eighties, not in the best of health and she didn’t know how long she would go on. I vividly remember her animated cry, “I want to die a Catholic!” With that plea ringing in my ears, we set the date for our reception into the Catholic Church. So, leaving behind her security and the Convent which had been her home for thirty-five years, at the age of eighty-three years she stepped out in faith with courage and conviction.
Sister Mary Clare would always claim that she had nothing to offer the new community but she brought a loving heart and a sense of humour amongst other gifts. Sister Mary Clare was self-effacing and never asked for anything for herself. “I don’t need this, give it to someone else”. Even to the occasional packet of sweets or chocolates she loved, “Ooh” she would say, eyes widening, “that’s too much for me!” She was deeply grateful for all she was given but was always thinking of others. She refused to pull the emergency cord in her cell which rang an alarm bell, insisting that if she fell in the night, she would simply stay on the floor and wait until one of us found her in the morning, “Because you younger ones can’t be up in the night with me and then do a full day’s work!”
In the nearly two years she lived in this monastery she never pulled her own alarm cord. The one occasion that she pulled an alarm, it was another sister’s and was in order to summon help for them! She thought she heard a sister fall in the cell next door. So despite her own frailty, she dragged herself off her bed, grabbed her zimmer frame, and as quickly as she could, went next door. There she found a sister had fallen onto the floor but couldn’t reach the alarm for help. So Sister Mary Clare stretched herself across the bed and sounded the alarm for her and then hurriedly moved out of the way to allow us access to the fallen sister.
Those amongst us who were here when we reaffirmed our vows as Catholic Benedictines on 1st January 2014, will never forget Sister Mary Clare’s frail voice as she pronounced, “I will live for the rest of my life in this world in stability, conversion of life and obedience…”. She lived out that promise faithfully. Sister Mary Clare was always quick to praise the actions of others but never herself. She would verbally award them “A big gold star!”. When she lay dying in hospital, one of the sisters asked me to pass on a message that she was awarding her a big gold star!
Not long ago, Sister Mary Clare had reminded me, that when we were in our former community and based in a small community house the other side of Birmingham, on the rare occasion that she was out in the evening and back after Compline, she knew I would always be waiting for her to see that she had got safely home. I would stay up with my cell door ajar so I would hear the turn of her key in the outside front door and I would be leaning over the balcony in the hall to welcome her home. Although all this had happened more than ten years ago, she said she had never forgotten my waiting up for her and it had meant the world to her.
As she lay dying, it seemed to me a singular grace and special privilege, on behalf of all the other sisters, that I was holding her hand, again watching and waiting for Sister Mary Clare to come “home”; this time to her real home in heaven.
The words of Blessed John Henry Newman describe Sister Mary Clare’s peaceful journey to her eternal home: “Oh, my Lord and Saviour, support me in that hour in the strong arms of Thy Sacraments, and by the fresh fragrance of Thy consolations. Let the absolving words be said over me, and the holy oil sign and seal me… and let my sweet Mother, Mary, breathe on me, and my Angel whisper peace to me, and my glorious saints…smile upon me; that in them all, and through them all, I may receive the gift of perseverance, and die, as I desire to live, in Thy faith, in Thy Church, in Thy service, and in Thy love.”
We award you our valiant, courageous, loving and dearest Sister Mary Clare, a big gold star! May you rest in peace.