RIP Sister Elspeth

14 January 2010

1 Corinthians 15 : vv 50 - end. John 11 : vv 21- 27 

Elspeth’s gift of friendship and her gregariousness were constant reccurring themes when I talked to various Sisters about their memories of her. People experienced Elspeth as a very real, genuine, no nonsense person. What you saw is what you got. She mixed very easily with people from all walks of life and they felt comfortable in her company and many sought her out when they needed help or advice.

Our Sister Elspeth was born Elsie Rennells in a pub, “The Royal Exchange” in Canterbury on May 27th 1919. It is one of life’s little ironies that our Sister Elsie’s baptismal name was Elspeth. Two of the things that Elspeth and I had in common were that we were both Maids of Kent and raised in pubs in that hop growing county.

Elspeth’s mother did not enjoy good health so she had a fair bit to do in helping to raise her younger sister Joyce and brother Bill. She helped her Dad in many of his various exploits. In 1941, she joined the Wrens and rose to the rank of Petty Officer, Steward. She thoroughly enjoyed this time and had many stories relating about it. Sadly, her time in the Wrens ended when she fell out of a train, I think as a result of the blackout and thinking they were at a Station when they weren’t. She was badly injured and these injuries were behind many of the bone difficulties, from which she suffered stoically, later in her life.

Before she joining the Community she trained and worked as a Visitor, with the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. She took a post with the them in Ipswich and shared a house with her great friend Marjory Mc Grath. Elspeth writes movingly in her “memoirs” of her work with the families and how, for many of them, it was not a case of cruelty but being unable to cope with impossible situations. She talks about how she managed to help a family, who were heavily in debt, to be able to arrange small and regular payments and they eventually blossomed and thrived when they became debt free. Many of the experiences she had had as a child helping her father had given her useful ideas. After she had become a Novice and was on a “Mission” in the Ipswich area, one of her former colleagues an NSPCC Inspector, brought her news of the families that they were still in touch with and their progress.

When she was exploring the possibility of Religious Life, Marjory did some recognisance work on the Community in Liverpool, checking out St. Gabriel’s, our Children’s Home there, and meeting Sisters Judith and Vida. Elspeth then wrote to arrange a visit here and when Mother Rosemary saw her she talked about a date for her coming. Elspeth remarked that she hadn’t said anything about coming to the Community in her letter, to which Mother Rosemary retorted, “Ah, but I can read between the lines”. She knew after her first visit, that despite also being interested in Holy Name, CSC was the one for her.

The Community she joined at the beginning of the sixties was very different from today and there were times when she found her time in the novitiate rather galling, coming as she did from having years of responsibility, experience and using her initiative. Vivien was a Novice at the same time and Elspeth talks about how she took her under her wing. There were various little niceties and customs that had hung on from a precious age. I remember her story of when in the weekly ‘sort out’ of who was doing what, it was the custom to volunteer saying; “Please may I, Sister?”

There were rules about not eating or drinking with people, outside the Community and she wrote that her mother never really forgave the Community for sending them home from her “Clothing”, without even a cup of tea. Elspeth was a very hospitable person and once the custom changed she was able to flourish. She thoroughly enjoyed both the giving and receiving of hospitality. She writes that when on “mission” despite the Community custom she would accept a cup of tea or coffee if offered, particularly from non church people.

Doubtless her time in the Services helped her in those early years, as well as her ever available sense of humour and ability to see the lighter side. It wasn’t long before her experience and talents were put to use. She was professed in 1963 and the next year she went to Perth College. Elspeth loved Australia. At Perth College, she had responsibility for the Boarders and also the House Staff. She was the one who engaged Aphrodite, who so came to love the school and the girls, that she still volunteers in the Cafe there, that bears her name, despite the fact that she is retired. Aphrodite carries on that same care and concern for the girls that Elspeth and the Sisters had.

The Staff and girls loved Elspeth and found her easy to relate to and talk with. At this point in time, Marg and Elspeth were the youngest Sisters there and so were very much thrown together and got up to various exploits. Marg, can regale you with them, such as the time they were managing a move, in the Caretakers “ute” and the keys, the entire ones for the school as well as the ute fell out at the traffic lights. At Perth College today you can see Elspeth’s name, together with other Sisters who were there in a special memorial in the grounds.

Gillian was another Sister, whom Elspeth got on with really well. They had been together on two missions, and their time together at Perth College, during one of the “Decennial Chapters” cemented their friendship. They had a similar sense of humour and after Elspeth returned to the UK, we had a couple of Christmas entertainments that included Gert and Dais.

Elspeth returned to the UK in 1968 and together with Jennifer made her Solemn Profession. It was good that we were able to celebrate their 40th Anniversary a few years ago. Elspeth and Jenny had a special companionable relationship. Elspeth was returning to the UK to be “Sister in Charge” at St. Mary’s, and was there until ’72. After her mother’s death her relationship with her father grew. It was a time of healing as in her childhood years she had not had an easy relationship with him. The time came though when he could no longer really live on his own so he moved to St. Mary’s and into the Staff Cottage. Lydia’s mother was also living there at the time and at one point Vivien and I wondered if there might be wedding bells, between Pop as we called him and Ma Corby.

Elspeth went to St. Edith’s and was there until it closed. After that she had some time here at Ham and was then asked to be in Charge at St. Raphael’s. Sheila Julian, who was there with her remembered a not untypical experience, except for the venue. She and Elspeth were out shopping and Elspeth wanted to go to the loo. Sheila was outside waiting and she waited and waited and she was thinking Elspeth must have collapsed or something. She went in and found she had met up with someone she knew and they were talking “nineteen to the dozen” and had lost all sense of time and Sheila waiting outside.

After St. Raphael’s closed, she returned to have another part of her Australian adventure. She had some time in Melbourne and then in Sydney, which became another of her great loves. Frances was relating how she knew so many people there and had connections with so many different churches, which particularly in the Sydney Diocese is important but unusual. Frances keeps on thinking of different people she needs to tell of her death. Her great loves, were Christ Church and St. James, but she also attended St. Luke’s on a regular basis. She had a particular involvement with the weekly Healing Service at Christ Church. The group met for lunch afterwards and Elspeth always enjoyed this.

Elspeth had a great Australian friend, Ruth Mc Carthy, with whom she used to go and spend her holiday time. Ruth introduced her to her bone specialist and that led to Elspeth being able to have surgery to help her various problems. All through her life since she had the fall in the Wrens she had suffered with different conditions, but she was not a quitter and had a high pain tolerance. Elisa Helen relates how she came home one day in a taxi, paid for by a down and out fellow. The fact that she always wore her habit, helped. She had had a fall and readily agreed for Elisa to call their Doctor, Louise, to see her, which was unusual in itself. She had broken one finger and badly bruised some others. Three days and an x-ray later it also was revealed that she had fractured three ribs.

Her decision to ask to return to the UK for her final years was one which was mostly influenced by her desire to be nearer her family. She was able to have a few holidays with Joyce and Bob at Bridge and to catch up with the expanding family. She was able to visit Bill and attend some of his fan club meetings, of which she was a fully paid up member. She was very proud of her little brother, who is still involved in radio broadcasting.

By 2006 she had got to the stage where she needed more physical help than we could provide and she was very pleased to be able to go to St. Mary’s, Chiswick, where she joined in everything going. Her health and memory failed, but not her strong will or sense of humour. She never complained and always thanked you for visiting her, though she could make it clear when she had had enough and wanted you to go.

So our Sister Elspeth’s life in this world is over. A life that she embraced and lived to the full. In the Gospel we have Martha, in many ways an Elspeth-like character, stating her belief in the Resurrection on the last day and Jesus replies: “I am the Resurrection and the Life. Those who believe in me will live, even though they die, and whoever believes in me will never die.” In answer to his question “Do you believe this?” Martha goes on to state her belief in Jesus, that he is the Christ. Elspeth believed that and gave her life to live out the gospel. She had preached and given talks etc. but the most powerful way she lived out the good news was through her gift of friendship, her ability to be alongside people and to be very human and approachable, to listen in a non judgemental way and to convey to people that God loved and cared for them. We give thanks for her life, all that she gave to each one of us and for her contribution to the Community in its outreach to bring in God’s realm.

May she rest in peace and rise with Christ in glory.

Sister Anita CSC