Mother Margaret Mary

obituary by Fr Colin Stephenson On a foggy morning in April, 1947, Fr. Hope Patten arrived on the doorstep of St. Saviour’s Priory, Haggerston, and when he was shown into the Reverend Mother’s room he said at once "Mother, I want Sisters for Walsingham". Mother Cecily [Cicely] replied "It is quite impossible!" and then after a pause she added "but we must do it!" An unhappy sequence of events had led up to this request so that it was a mission of some delicacy. The Mother knew that she was giving the Sister-in-charge of the small group she intended to send an assignment which needed great tact and abundant charity. She chose as leader Sister Margaret Mary, who she rightly judged, could deal with the situation in which the Sisters must identify themselves completely with the Shrine and yet preserve a greater measure of independence than those who had worked there before. There was accommodation in the pilgrim hospice, but it was very cramped and there was little privacy. A tin hut served as a chapel. The Sisters immediately and without fuss took over the running of the temporal side of the pilgrimage work, the organisation of the Sacristy, and threw themselves whole-heartedly into the life of the village. For Sister Margaret leaving Haggerston where she had grown up in the religious life was a great wrench. She loved the unattractive and very unhygienic streets around the Priory but she had an overwhelming affection for the people who lived in them. She once confessed that very often at Walsingham when she had been at prayer she would blink her eyes and wonder where she was as she had in her prayer been transported back to the chapel of St Saviour’s Priory. The people in the various East End parishes served by the Community loved her in return and never forgot her. When she returned to end her days at St Saviour’s Priory, almost twenty-five years later, there was great rejoicing in many homes around Haggerston. At Walsingham she was the Superior and had the very difficult task of arranging the work of her small Community and jealously safeguarding their life of prayer. So often she would take on tasks herself in order that others should not miss their periods of quiet withdrawal from the heavy activity connected with the work of the Shrine. A mark of the Sisters of St Saviour’s has always been their readiness to take on difficult work, and Mother Margaret, as she became, not only had this characteristic but would even embrace it joyfully. It was no uncommon experience to approach her with what one felt was an unreasonable demand and be completely disarmed by a charming smile and the reply "that will be lovely!" and she meant it, for she had a charity which was able to find deep happiness in the service of others. This was the secret of her power over the pilgrims and during the years she was at Walsingham she made innumerable friends, and in her little office in the hospice people opened their hearts to her and she was able to exact a pastoral ministry which was invaluable in such a place. Particularly she was kind and sympathetic towards those who were not accustomed to the sort of religion found at the Shrine and so often it was her love and understanding which won them completely. From her first arrival at Walsingham her ideal had been to find accommodation away from the hospice where the Sisters could enjoy a degree of enclosure which she felt essential for the maintenance of the very active life they were forced to live. It was characteristic of her that she almost literally built an altar and then let the Convent develop around it. In 1955 it was made into an independent house with Sister Margaret Mary as its first Mother. The constitution places a great deal of responsibility in the hands of the Mother and Mother Margaret found that the office, for her, involved a great deal of suffering. When things began to change in the Church she, like many other religious, was torn between the traditions of her Community as she had received them, and growing relaxation of ancient disciplines which was taking place everywhere. She was forced to give way over some things. but it was a great agony for her, and to the end of her life far from desiring relaxation she was always afraid that she was not giving enough. It was indeed the love of Christ which constrained her. She always looked frail in health but was in fact enormously tough and could do without sleep and warmth to a remarkable degree. It was hard for her to realize that the new generation had less steel in their make-up than her own contemporaries, but she expected far more from herself than she did from any of her Sisters. When her health began to fail it presented certain difficulties for those who lived with her because although in pain and discomfort, she would never mention it and would make light of it if asked. As she approached her 80th year she felt convinced that she should resign her office as Mother which she did gladly and willingly. In such a small Community it was not easy for an Ex-Mother to obliterate her office completely, and so it was decided, at her own request, that she should return to St Saviour’s Priory in 1968. She did not live long but it was a happy time in her old home and there was great rejoicing at her return. The Guardians have decided to make the adaptation of the present shop into rooms for sick and disabled pilgrims a memorial to Mother Margaret*, and the Bursar will be glad to receive donations from those who would like to associate themselves with this. It is felt that this would be a fitting memorial to one who exercised particular charity towards unfortunate pilgrims and would be something very close to her heart. In the history of the restoration of the Walsingham Shrine Mother Margaret plays an important role and her great heart had room for the slums of East London and the beauty of a Norfolk village, because both held human beings who could be loved and cared for in Christ her Saviour. *These were to the left of the arch (now Brandie Gate), where the Milner Wing now is. St Joseph’s has been developed and extended as rooms for the sick and disabled pilgrims who visit the Shrine. top of page