Community of the Sisters of the Church

Marguerite's 60th Anniversary

Revelations 21:15-21 Matthew 13:44-46

The city lies foursquare. The twelve gates are twelve pearls, each of the gates is a single pearl.

I’m sure some of you have been to the National Gallery to see the exhibition called Renaissance Faces, Van Eyck to Titian. It may indeed be still on. Fr Colin and I went to see it – he invited me and I paid!

In room 2 is a painting by Giovanni Giralamo Savoldo,  made in Venice in 1525. The catalogue is quite certain of the name of the lady in the picture, for the camisole of her dress is decorated with daisies (marguerites), and she wears a collar of pearls. As you know, Pearl in Latin is ‘margarita’.

The portrait is painted with ‘lively realism’, as the catalogue says. The lady has an interesting face, no longer youthful, but handsome in its maturity, and crowned by beautifully kept hair. She has rosy cheeks which, again according to the catalogue, suggests both modesty and good health. Her very smart dress has fur trimmed brocade sleeves, and she is seated on a chair which seems to be placed higher than the viewer, so that her head is inclined slightly towards you. Her gloved right hand holds the other glove and rests on her waist thus, so that she looks very self-possessed.

You can see she is certainly a strong character because from her waist falls a chain, at the end of which is a dragon, and that reminds you of another Margarita - of Antioch. St Margaret, you remember, was swallowed by the devil in the form of a dragon, but the cross she carried so irritated the dragon’s stomach that he spewed her out and she escaped – only to be martyred a bit later, but that’s another story.

So the Marguerite in our picture is strong and self-assured, and she has the dragon under control, but she is not arrogant; for she holds in her left hand a prayer book, with her finger between two pages, as if you, the visitor, have just interrupted her devotions. Her confidence is God-centred, her overcoming of evil is from God. And she looks at you with openness and respect, as if to say ‘Can I help you?’

Through the window there is a pastoral scene of a smallish house in front of what appears to be a ruined church. 1525 was a time when sensitive souls could see that all was not well with the church There was the spread of the Lutheran heresy in northern Europe, which inspired the peasants’ revolt with its shifts of power and loss of revenue especially for the Catholic Church. The great powers kept changing allegiances: at the beginning of the year the Habsburg Emperor and the English King lined up against the French King, but by the end of the year the English, the French, the Venetians and the Pope had formed an alliance against the Emperor. 

The Church was involved in all this: Papal legates and nuncios hurried to and fro, the English ambassador to Venice was a clergyman, one of the English ambassadors to the Imperial court was the Bishop of London, and the person who framed English policy and practice at this stage was not Henry VIII, but his chancellor Cardinal Wolsey. 

The Church was very much involved in the politics of the day, and it was not very creditable. If you lived in Venice you could be forgiven for thinking the Church was a crumbling edifice. Not even the threat of Islam spreading across Northern Africa and through the Balkans was enough to unify it. But most individuals in the Church simply kept on praying.

60 years ago today, our Marguerite was professed - in those halcyon days when the practice of religion was on the up, and religious orders were on the increase in numbers and energy. But even then prophetic voices warned us that change was necessary if the Church was to meet the needs of the world which we are called to evangelize.  So 50 years ago Pope John XXIII announced the calling of the Second Vatican Council. This led to a tremendous amount of rethinking especially about the religious life. There was a renewed sense of the importance of community – not just inside the convent walls, but with other communities and religious groups outside. 

In Australia, as in this country, we began to have religious life conferences – and that is where I first met Sr Marguerite. The Sisters of the Church always made an impressive showing, especially when they appeared in their smart new teal green habits. All the CSC novices, as I remember, had red hair so teal green was the obvious colour of choice. They built a smart new house at East Burwood. Sr Alessandra’s directions on how to get there were clear and helpful: ‘It looks like a motel with a gasometer in the middle of it – you can’t miss it’. The garden was expansive and the gardener was a charming elderly gent whose other job was Abbot of Tarrawarra, the Cistercian monastery up the valley.  For us in SSM a visit to Melbourne entailed a visit to East Burwood. That’s how we got to know Marguerite and the other sisters, and that’s how SSM novices and junior professed were influenced by handsome ladies who knew how to handle dragons.

They were heady days. We had to deal with a bit of triumphalism and a little competition between the communities. Nonetheless great things happened. The Second Vatican Council, all religious life conferences, were for renewal, not for navel gazing, nor for any kind of self indulgence, but for strengthening the foundations, going back to the roots, examining what our founders were about, and developing those ideas in ways that were relevant to our time.  

Top of the priorities was worship. We worked hard at revising the office, with new translations of the scriptures and especially the psalms. We shared with each other ideas and good practice in private prayer. Marg and her sister Inez got involved in the charismatic movement and brought all that experience to the table. I remember a group discussion which got onto posture in prayer: a sister, from another community, was laying the law down about how important it was to kneel for prayer. A CSC sister said very quietly that she personally found that sitting for prayer was quite satisfactory. The oracle had spoken: that was good enough for me!

Things did change. CSC gradually gave up direct involvement in the schools they had founded in Australia. Sisters like Marguerite, now liberated from the tyranny of looking after schoolgirls, were able to explore other avenues of pastoral care. They took on spiritual direction, and developed a special ministry of friendship with the clergy, who were and are in great need of that kind of support. When some of those clergy became bishops they needed that ministry even more. I have never seen them, but I know that Marg’s address book and prayer lists illustrate what I am talking about.

If we look out the window today the Church may look a wreck. But we’ve been here before. It didn’t look too healthy at the time of the reformation. It often hasn’t looked any better since. The institution may collapse altogether. Religious orders may disappear. But they will be replaced by new forms of community which endeavour to live out the evangelical counsels. The Church will survive in one form or another because it is the embodiment of Christ in the world. That is grounds for confidence - though there is a price to be paid, martyrdom of one kind or another.

We give thanks for our Marguerite and her 60 years of paying the cost of the pearl of great value, for 60 years of struggling with prayer books, 60 years of taming dragons. May we, her friends, continue to share with her this joyful calling, and greet with confidence and respect all who come through the door looking for the gate of the heavenly city.

Jonathan Ewer SSM

Chaplain General