Saturday, 4 November 2017

My mother was a nun

Crossing the Line - Part 2

Irene was born in the slums of Sheffield in 1927.  The first home she knew was Dragon Yard, a courtyard tenement where everyone hung out their washing together in the middle, under the smoke and pollution of the industry which surrounded them.  Steel works and foundries were the backbone of Sheffield but her small family never benefitted from the jobs the industry brought.  She was an only child.

Her father didn’t have a skill.  He worked as a casual labourer when he could get work and when he wasn’t too drunk.  Money was almost non-existent.  On the days when he got work, he would drink most of his pay on the way home.  On the days he didn’t work, there was nothing.  Her mother was a slight woman, less than 5 feet tall, who suffered regular beatings from her husband when he came home drunk.  For Irene, this was normal life.

If it had not been for the kindness of others, I am sure she would not have survived to adulthood.  There was a prostitute who lived in Dragon Yard too.  She used to give my mum money for chips.  There were also richer relatives who did what they could from time to time.  Her mother was related to Sir Henry Coward who founded the Huddersfield Choral Society – a choir of world-wide renown. One day, out of the blue, Irene remembered a car drawing up outside their home.  This was unheard of.  Out of it stepped Sir Henry and she was dumb-struck as he came to their house and had tea with her mother. Before he left he put half a crown in Irene’s hand with a smile.  She had never seen so much money.

She also had an older cousin, Madge, who lived in Manchester.  She had married a successful businessman and she taught ballet.  They had no children at that time.  Before Mum went to secondary school Madge had her over to stay.  She bought Irene a uniform for school and took her to the ballet school.  Mum was in heaven.  The visit finished with a professional photograph of my mum as a ballerina.

But then Mum went back to the daily grind of home.  At some point she was diagnosed with malnutrition and sent to a sanatorium for children recovering from TB.  For a term she lived there Monday to Friday and went home at weekends. Slowly she grew in strength fuelled by proper meals and fresh air.

When she was 12 her father died which set her free from the fear which accompanied his late-night returns after a night at the pub.  Around the same time war broke out and she learned to live in the shelters as bombs rained down on the industrial targets around her.  With her father gone, money was just a scarce, with her mother getting whatever piece work that she could.  It was never enough.

But around this time her life began to change.

The slums she had grown up in were cleared and the two of them were given a home in the recently completed council estate of Parson Cross.  Over the years Parson Cross has had its share of social deprivation, but it must have been like paradise to my mother and when I was a child she took me to visit the home which signalled this new chapter in her life.

It was at Parson Cross that she first came into contact with the Church.  There was a Church of England mission church, St Bernard’s, on the estate which was staffed by Kelham Fathers and Wantage Sisters.  The Kelham Fathers were monks from the Society of the Sacred Mission at Kelham in Nottinghamshire; and the Wantage Sisters were nuns from the Community of St Mary the Virgin in Wantage, Oxfordshire.  Together they opened up a brave new world for my mother.  A world of caring, where the monks and nuns put the needs of others first.  A world of community, where people of faith gathered together, supported each other and celebrated life and faith.  Her faith grew, as did her determination to escape from the world in which she had grown up.

Florence & Irene
When she left school at 16 with her school certificate she enrolled at secretarial college and learned a skill.  This skill led to work and new horizons opened up.  She had made a close friend, Florence, through Guides at church.  Together they had wonderful adventures as they escaped from the smoke of Sheffield and travelled the length of England on cycling holidays, staying in Youth Hostels and finding themselves surrounded by hopeful young men on more than one occasion.  They became life-long friends. 

Then when the opportunity came to train as a teacher, her horizons grew again and my mother now had another ambition – to join the convent at Wantage and become a nun.  It was partly her faith which led here there; partly the desire to emulate the nuns who had been such a positive influence on her life; and partly the egalitarian life of the convent.  As a nun you could be sat next to someone in chapel who had been born into the aristocracy, but as sisters together you were equals.  For someone who had been looked down on for all her early life, either in disdain or in pity, this was deeply attractive.

In 1948 she left her home in Sheffield and made the journey to Wantage in Oxfordshire to teach at the local school.   She lodged with a lovely couple who worked in the convent and lived only a field away from its hallowed ground.  Two years later she became a Postulant of the Community of Saint Mary the Virgin.  After several months scrubbing dishes in the convent kitchen, she progressed to the Noviciate, receiving her habit and a new name, Sister Irene Bernard.  As a novice she was posted to a mother and baby home in North London, looking after single mothers and their children.  She was put in charge of cooking the communal meals which terrified her, but at the end of the first evening meal the sister in charge said, “I knew you could do it – you’re from Yorkshire.”

Three years passed and she came towards the completion of her time as a Novice.  Soon she would take her final vows which would commit her to the lifelong task of poverty, chastity and obedience.  She felt she had found her niche in life – her calling – and as a full sister she could expect a varied and demanding life including postings to Africa or India to work in the mission field.
But as she approached this landmark everything changed.

Back in Sheffield, her mother had never adjusted to life without Irene.  Her health had never been good and as Irene’s final vows came closer she became convinced that she was dying.  Reluctantly Irene found herself leaving the convent she loved to look after her until she died, intending then to return and take her vows.

As time went on however, her mother didn’t die.  Irene soon became trapped in the role of carer to a woman she increasingly resented and unable to go back to the convent she loved.  The sense of disappointment must have been unbearable.  She had almost escaped.  She had got so close, but then found herself dragged back to everything she had worked so hard to escape from.  I don’t know how she coped.

Caught in this prison, it was her faith and her friends that kept her sane.  She continued to be active in her local church, got a job and carried on as best she could.

Then a little miracle occurred – one of those coincidences behind which it is possible to discern a greater hand at work.  She was asked by her vicar to go to an Evangelical church to talk to them about Anglo-Catholic spirituality with a young man who was going to train for ordination.  Like her, he was a committed Anglo-Catholic and he had also considered a monastic life (with the Kelham Fathers who had ministered in Irene’s parish).

David was living in Sheffield for a year before going to start his ordination training at St Stephen’s House in Oxford.  He had come to Sheffield to work in a steel-works with the Industrial Mission after his university degree, but he was also from a working-class home.  Going to University had been his escape and now he was on the path to becoming a priest.   They had a lot in common and after David went to Oxford to start his training, they kept in touch.

I have never been quite sure if they actually had a courtship.  When they both met Irene didn’t think priests should marry and David thought he was called to a celibate vocation, but at some point David decided to ask Irene to marry him.  Apparently, his proposal was so inept that Irene thought he was asking her for advice about marrying someone else and when she finally realised that he meant her, she turned him down.

Their friendship continued to grow however and on 24th November 1956, they were married at St Cecelia’s Parson Cross at just 36 hours’ notice.  Irene was going into hospital for surgery and they desperately wanted to be each other’s next of kin when she went in.  After a one-night honeymoon at the Nag’s Head in Castleton, David returned to the cloister of his theological college and Irene returned home to look after her mother, but it was the beginning of a profound and unexpected chapter in their lives.

They became life-long Oblates of the Community of St Mary the Virgin at Wantage, thus continuing Irene’s relationship with the convent.  The years that followed saw Irene have a successful career in teaching, becoming head of department in a large comprehensive school.  She studied for a BA with the Open University, and trained as a Lay Reader in the Church.

Contrary to the rumours which circulated following their ‘quick marriage’ it was another seven years before they had a baby, and to this day I remain proud to say (with a wry smile) 
“My mother was a nun”.


  1. Dearest Benny , I so enjoy reading your story and family history. Is it going to be made into a book at some stage? I do hope so. Lots of love to you and Mel, Liz Perrott

    1. It really kind of you to suggest that. I haven't really thought seriously about a book. Just happy to write and see it connect with people. Lots of love from us both.