It was 8th September 1980, the day I arrived, a holy day in the Catholic calendar, but not a day with much meaning for me, other than that I had arrived at the school in Cranleigh in Surrey to work as a volunteer houseparent with boys suffering from what in those days was called ‘mental handicap’. A long driveway led up to a big Victorian house, to which had been added a range of other buildings suited to educational purposes. My accommodation was in the gate lodge with two professional houseparents, (who were to go off the following year to become Hindu monks!).
Religious sisters still dressed fairly traditionally, although the shift away from somber black veils and habits had begun. The order wore short blue veils and matching jackets and skirts. Being honest, without the veil, the neatly cut jacket and pleated skirt would have looked like the uniform of airline cabin staff.
Memories of them are still memories of people of love and laughter. The boys ranged in age from four to eighteen and for some the school became also their home. Sisters would provide 365 day care for fourteen years. Few could have competed with such devotion to duty.
Some of the old religious names persisted: Sister Thomas Aquinas had to be named in full in order to distinguish her from Sister Thomas More. Sister Maureen had been Sister John Leonardis, but had reverted to her original name, having only chosen the religious name because of its similarity to that of a pop singer from her home city of Liverpool
Sister Wilfrid was superior of the house, who won the Irish Sweepstakes through a ticket bought for her by her sister while Sister Wilfrid herself was on a pilgrimage in the Holy Land. Seeing the win as an answer to prayer for money to take the boys to Lourdes on pilgrimage, Sister Wilfrid gave the remainder of the win to the order.
Sister Maria Christina was the headmistress of the school. Kind, efficient, infinitely patient and positive, she was my supervisor and was always gracious in anything she said.
It is twenty-seven years since I saw the sisters. Their lasting influence on me was the inspiration to travel to Ireland which, for many of them, was home. Coming to live here in 1983, it has become a place few of them in those times would now recognize.
Friends were unable to attend an Advent Carol Service in Katharine’s church last night, they were going to a talk by a speaker who worked with women trafficked into Ireland as sex workers. The talk was part of a series, of which Katharine is speaking at the last evening.
Looking at the programme, the speaker said to our friends, “Poulton is not a very common name; Katharine would not be married to an Ian Poulton, would she?”
“I knew Ian at Cranleigh, a while ago. The name he would remember me by is Christina”.
Some people have old girlfriends who catch up with them – I have nuns!