On Saturday 7th October, the school hall at St Bernard's, Westcliff, was full to celebrate a Memorial Mass for Sister Mary Stephen who died last January.
Below is S Elizabeth Mary's 'Welcome' .......we hope that photos of the day will follow!
As Bernardine Sisters, it is our privilege and great pleasure, having been welcomed so warmly ourselves, now to be ‘doing’ the welcome!
This Mass and Reunion were first suggested back in January, on the day of S Mary Stephen’s funeral. It was a recognition of the need to remember and to give thanks ‘back home’ for her life, ‘at the roots’ if you like! S Mary Stephen spent so many years here at Westcliff: first as a student herself, a timid 11 year old (well, perhaps not very timid!) in 1943 with her cloakroom peg next to Sister Mary Lucy’s. After her novitiate at Slough and in France, she returned here, as a young teacher of French and RE (and her A level students will no doubt still have fond memories of her love for and teaching of John’s Gospel), subjects she continued as Deputy Headteacher and, then, as Headteacher, until the Community left in 1983. In these latter years, her influence extended beyond the walls of St Bernard’s. She gave much to Catholic Education in the deanery and diocese. It is a pleasure to welcome her former colleagues from other Catholic schools in the deanery. Thank you for coming.
Thank you, too, to Bishop Thomas McMahon for accepting our invitation. It is lovely to have you with us. I am sure that you have many memories of the Westcliff Community and of Sister Mary Stephen from your days ‘next door’, as a young curate at St Helen’s in the 1960’s. Thank you, too, to Fr Joseph Whisstock, present Parish Priest ‘next door’ and brother of our Sister Maria.
And I would like to express, on behalf of us all, our immense gratitude to Headteacher, Mr Tony Sharpe, and the present staff of St Bernard’s for all the preparations, generosity and organisation for today. Their ‘open door’ welcome has been greatly appreciated as, together, we watched the numbers grow……and grow! Thank you to Carmel Allen for overseeing all the practical arrangements (no mean feat!) and for being so easy to work with – yes, I did promise that I would not mention you! Thank you, too, to Fiona Maltby and the ‘band’ for our liturgy, and to the catering staff, site managers and everyone at the school who has contributed so much to today’s celebration.
Finally, thank you to you all for coming……...and while we enjoy being together, we remember those unable to be with us today. In particular, John Ballard sends his apologies, and has asked me to pass on his greetings to all. He has recently had hip surgery and it is too soon to make the long journey up from Cornwall.
But it is so good to see so many here and each one of us has her (or his) share in the welcome today as we meet each other anew, perhaps after several decades……and please do not worry about not recognising classmates or not being recognised yourselves, as I did in an email to one of my own former 5J classmates whom I have not seen in (cough) 34 years(!) In her reply, she confidently assured me that we still look 16 !!!!!!! I am sure that applies to every year-group!
Welcome was a particular gift of Sister Mary Stephen, although perhaps not the immediate one we recognised on our first day at school here, most of us aged just 11, dressed no doubt in new stiff uniform which was just slightly too big for us. She had a certain ‘look’ that served as a reminder that she was the authority figure.
Some of you stayed in touch with her over many years, recognising that, however stern that ‘look’ might have appeared at first, it soon transformed into one of welcome…..….a loving welcome, a non-judgemental welcome, a sharing welcome, an interested welcome, a caring and concerned welcome…..all qualities with which S Mary Stephen was gifted in abundance. Many of you have testified to the influence S Mary Stephen has had in your lives, comforting you in moments of sorrow, sharing the joys and the goodness of God in your lives, journeying with you in times of uncertainty, challenging you in those moments when you perhaps needed a ‘gentle prod’, sharing your life and faith journey. Thank you for being faithful in your friendship with her for so many years. She really did appreciate it and loved sharing your news with the rest of us in Community. S Mary Stephen quite simply loved ‘Westcliff’…..and would be so pleased that our young Sisters in formation, S Florence, S Reina and Julia are here. The next generation of Bernardines will ‘know’ Westcliff. Please say Hello to them!
For others, she was perhaps the ‘public face’ of the Community of Bernardine Sisters, the Community whose presence reminded you of school and whose ongoing commitment to you, particularly in terms of prayer, has been a reassuring comfort at important moments in your lives. Those prayers continue and Mass is offered every month in both our Communities for our former students, staff, your families and intentions. Please do not lose touch.
Others of you have not been in contact, perhaps have not darkened these doors since the day you left school and, yet, are drawn back by wanting to be part of ‘today’, perhaps simply out of a certain curiosity, or a feeling of wanting to be back in a place where you once ‘belonged’, perhaps by the desire to re-ignite friendships. S Mary Stephen treasured friendship and would have delighted in today. She would have chatted non-stop in the car going home about everyone she had met…..until she fell fast asleep, or, in her own words, just closed her eyes for a moment!
Yes, her mind and her spirit were alert to her last conscious moment; it was her body that failed her in those last 18 months. Months first of denial then of growing frustration when she had no choice but to give in to the decreasing mobility and increasing dependence….not easy for her and, ‘old age’ really suit her, as you can well imagine ! It was a journey we lived with her, but could not live for her. She died peacefully, simply slipping into the Lord who awaits each of us in Love.
But, today, in faith, we celebrate her life with gratitude. We entrust her to the Lord’s unconditional and infinite Love……..He who, in the words from her beloved John’s Gospel, came ‘that we might have life, and have it to the full’, He whom she loved and served so faithfully throughout 61 years of monastic life. Death is part of the Paschal Mystery we are to celebrate now in this Eucharist: Christ’s Passion, His Death and His glorious Resurrection.