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Nazareth House, Plymouth, January 2016.
Dear Relatives and Friends of Syon,
THANK YOU very much for your letters and cards
with greetings for Christmas and New Year and your
good wishes to Sisters M. Julie & M. Bridget and
myself. Unfortunately I was unable to send greetings
to you, apart from my immediate family. I am sorry if
you thought that I had forgotten you or that I had
crossed your name off my list. With every card I have
received I have regretted my lack of communication.
When I explain the reason later in this letter I know
you will understand.
2015 was a year of special celebration for Syon Abbey
and the community. On 22nd February we kept the
600th anniversary of the laying of the foundation stone
of our first monastery by King Henry V, and on 3rd March
in the same year, the King signed the Charter for the 'Foundation of the Monastery of Our Saviour, Our Lady St Mary and St Bridget of Syon'. 600 years of unbroken community life is surely a time for joyful celebration and thanksgiving to God. But how could we three elderly Sisters mark this jubilee?
'SYON 600' EVENTS
Thanks to our many friends in the academic world, and especially to Dr Eddle Jones, Associate Professor of Medieval English Literature and Culture at Exeter University, and Director of the research project 'The English Monastic Experience 15th & to 21st centuries: Syon at 600' three main events had been organised. The first took place in November 2014 at Syon House, Brentford, the site of our second monastery to which the community had moved in 1431.
The second event was at Lisbon, Portugal, where a Conference was held in buildings which previously belonged to the Syon community during the years of exile. The third and largest celebration was held at Syon House on Sunday 19th July, to which I was invited. At first I was unsure whether to accept or not, but after much encouragement and offers of transport, I decided I should do so. I am so happy that I did.
I was taken to London by car on Saturday 18th July and stayed for two nights in a Premier Inn! (The last time I stayed in an hotel was in Lourdes in 1957!) After Mass in the parish church of Our Lady of Sorrows and St Bridget on Sunday morning we made our way to Syon Park. The Duke of Northumberland, now the owner of Syon House and Park, held a reception at 2.30 p.m. where I met several people who have spent many years studying Syon and some of whom I have corresponded with but not previously met. I also had the privilege of speaking with Cardinal Vincent Nichols. At 3 p.m. there was an outdoor Service of Thanksgiving for Syon's 600 years of community life at which the Cardinal preached.
There were over 700 people standing or sitting on the lawn, beside the River Thames, most of them from the local Catholic and Anglican parishes, who had walked in procession from their churches. The Lord blessed us with a wonderful sunny day, quite contrary to the weather forecast of earlier in the week. It was a most memorable and happy day, full of joy and thanksgiving, made even more so for me as Adrian Wardle, with whom I had travelled to London, and with whom I had worked sporadically over the past 15 years to publish our English edition of the Bridgettine Breviary, was able to offer copies of the Breviary for sale. If you have access to the internet please do look at our web site www.syonbreviary.co.uk where there are many photographs from the celebrations and information on the Breviary and other books on Syon published in 2015.
Adrian and I returned to Devon on Monday 20th and the next day we met again with many who had been at Syon House. We gathered now at Dartington Hall, near Totnes, for a four day international Conference on all things Bridgettine. It was an especial joy to meet with two Sisters from the community in Vadstena, Sweden. The first Bridgettine monastery was founded at Vadstena soon after St Bridget's death, which was in 1373. It was from this monastery that a group of Brothers and Sisters came to assist in the new foundation at Syon in 1415. In addition to the papers read and listened to attentively at Dartington, two external visits also took place. On Wednesday, late afternoon, we were kindly invited by the current residents of Marley House – the community's home from 1925 until we left it to move to the refurbished farm buildings – to see the outside of the building and to visit our former cemetery. I found this a very emotional experience.
ST BRIDGET'S FEAST DAY
The following morning, 23rd July and St Bridget's feast day, we travelled to Exeter for a ‘double visit’. The first was to the Church of the Blessed Sacrament, where we were warmly welcomed by Canon John Deeny and his parishioners for Mass to celebrate the feast followed by refreshments in the St Richard Reynolds Centre. When we left Syon in 2011 it was to this church that we donated the portion of stone gateway which had come from the monastery at Brentford. It is reliably dated from the late 15th century and had been taken from there when the Sisters were exiled at the Reformation, and carefully preserved throughout their wanderings on the continent. It is believed that a portion of St Richard Reynold's body had been placed on it after his martyrdom at Tyburn in 1535. Those of you who have received our newsletters over the years will remember that St Richard was probably born in Pinhoe, in what was then a village near Exeter. Pinhoe is now within the confines of the parish and therefore the church was a fitting place for the finial to be kept.
The second part of our visit to Exeter was to the University and specifically to the Department of Heritage and Culture where our archives are so well cared for by Dr Christine Faunch and her staff. Two rooms and a display cabinet were allotted to show a wide selection of manuscripts, books, documents and photographs from the past as well as up until we left Syon. We were also treated to a very tasty buffet lunch, much enjoyed by all. Everyone was most grateful to have had the opportunity to see all these items, and I thank Dr Christine and her staff for the wonderful display they assembled.
In the early afternoon we returned to Dartington for more papers, and in the evening a concert was given in the Great Hall. Vox Silentii singers from Finland – established in 1992, who have recorded CDs of medieval
Sister Anne with Cardinal Nichols at Syon House in July.
(click for larger image)
plainchant from the Bridgettine monasteries in Sweden
and Finland –sang 11 Responsories taken from the
Office of Matins. As this was not a 'concert' in the
usual sense of the word, we were requested not to
applaud at the conclusion but to remain in silence for a
while. This was a prayerful conclusion to a very happy
feast of St Bridget. After further papers on Friday
morning the Conference drew to a close with many
congratulations and thanks to Dr Eddie Jones and his
committee for all the work they had done to make the
‘Syon 600’ celebrations such a success.
By the time I returned to Plymouth and my room here
at Nazareth House I was very tired. It had been a
great joy for me to have met so many old friends and
to have made many new ones – and to have sold copies
of the Breviary as well. My mind was full of memories
from the various places I had visited in the week, as
well as of new thoughts and ideas arising from the papers which I had listened to. Of course, Sister M. Julie was eager to hear about all that had happened and I wanted to share it with her. Over the following days we talked much about each part of the celebrations and, as I received e mails, comments and photographs, I was able to share even more. At the same time I began an attempt to write a diary of each day's events as an aid to my memory in the future. I hope this account will also give you an idea of the celebrations marking these events in Syon’s 600 year history.
But now I come to the most important part of this letter. After the joy and celebration came sorrow and a different kind of celebration. During 2015 Sr M. Julie's health began to deteriorate. She had less energy, often felt faint or dizzy, especially in the mornings, and so spent more time in her room. However, she continued to keep her mind active by doing crosswords and Sudoku. Sr M. Bridget was noticeably losing weight and she too was much less active than she had been. She was also sleeping more frequently, when I and others visited her. Any verbal communication was extremely limited. For both Sisters, the month of September showed how frail they had become.
Sr. M. Julie was admitted to hospital on 20th September with severe breathing problems and two days later in a telephone conversation with Sr. M. Bridget's doctor, I was told that Sister's life was nearing its end. Sr M. Julie returned from hospital on Sunday 27th, having kept her 88th birthday the previous day. She was a little better and it was hoped that with rest she would continue to improve. The following morning, Monday 28th, Sr M. Bridget passed away while I was at Mass here, R.I.P. She would have been 77 on 7th October. Sister's Funeral Mass was held at the Church of St Paul, St Budeaux, Plymouth, on 20th October, offered by Fr Tim Lewis, in whose parish Sister had lived since moving to Waypoints Home from St Peter's Nursing Home in 2012. Two of Sister's cousins and their wives attended as well as many friends and her nurses and carers from Waypoints. In the early afternoon Sister was buried in the cemetery at St Mary's Abbey, Buckfast, through the kindness of Fr Abbot and the monks, in whose parish we lived when we were at Marley. Some friends who were unable to be at the Mass were with us at her burial.
Sadly Sr. M. Julie did not improve as had been hoped, and any ‘fight’ left in her to recover gradually seemed to disappear over the next few weeks. Sister died peacefully in the late afternoon of 11th November with Gerard, her nephew, Carol, a dear friend, and myself praying with and for her, R.I.P. Her Funeral Mass here at Nazareth House, on 20th November, was very well attended. Her sister, nephews, nieces, cousins and many friends, including some from her school days, were able to be here, some travelling long distances. The Sisters of Nazareth, many residents and a few carers were also present.
TASKS & SKILLS
Sister was laid to rest in a grave beside Sr M. Bridget's at Buckfast Abbey. It was five weeks exactly since Sr. M Bridget's burial. May they both rest in peace. I am sure you will remember them in your prayers. Sr. M. Julie would have celebrated 70 years of religious life in September 2016; and Sr M. Bridget 54 years next month. It was fitting that copies of our newly published Breviary rested on their coffins as symbols of their lives of praise, adoration and of supplication for all who had sought their prayerful intercession.
Both Sisters had fulfilled many tasks while at Syon. Early in her religious life Sr. M. Julie worked for the Crusade of Prayer for the Holy Souls which involved writing many letters. Some of her correspondents continued to write to her until her death. One person, out of so many examples, had been writing to Sister a few times a year since she was 11 years old. She is now 67. This lady's grandmother and mother had also written to Syon over the years. At various times Sister had also held other offices in the community including novice mistress, bursar, portress, sacristan and cantor in the Choir. Sr. M. Bridget had been prioress, novice mistress, cook and community gardener. For over 40 years she had been the shepherd of our small flock of sheep. Both Sisters were artistic. They collected wild flowers, pressed them and made very attractive cards. Sr. M. Julie enjoyed knitting and crochet: there are many toys and blankets treasured by their recipients. Sr. M. Bridget enjoyed wood carving and illuminating until her hands became arthritic.
THANKS & PRAYERS
Organising both funerals for my Sisters in such a short space of time, with all the necessary letters which had to be written over the space of six weeks, I felt that I could not begin to write greeting cards for Christmas and include in them all details of their deaths. In addition I was physically and emotionally drained. I am sure, as I said at the beginning of this letter, you will understand the lack of a letter from me over the Christmas period. So now I thank you most sincerely for your cards, greetings, love and prayer. I send you my greetings for 2016 and wish you a healthy, happy and richly blessed year. Be assured that I remember each one in my prayer, day by day.
With love in the Lord,
10 Thornbury Road,
PL6 7PP (UK)
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