‘Will they remember & speak of Us?’: The Patron Saint, the trees and the sisters of the SHCJ

From the European Province Archives

The vial and wooden box for St Walburga’s Oil in the European Province Archives Object Collection.

Until the Holy Child school was finally closed in 1976, nuns and pupils of the Holy Child Convent and School of St Leonards-on-Sea could find shade under a large oak tree that had been planted beside a statue of Mary named by Cornelia as ‘Our Lady of Miracles’. This choice of devotional title can be traced to an event that took place on 27th April 165 years ago. Cornelia proposed to the community that a novena should be said for Sister Walburga (Alice Bradley) a young sister who had suffered with a severe illness for two years which caused her to vomit large amounts of blood and remain unable to take food.

Sister Walburga’s entrance into the SHCJ had itself been an act of endurance and determination. Alice struggled academically; the 1846 – 1876 Society Annals declare that ‘her education was defective & she had no aptitude for study’. Cornelia advised her that she was not ‘fitted for our life’ working in schools, but young Alice was so drawn to the SHCJ that she ‘was inconsolable’ and said she would prefer to be a lay sister in the SHCJ than a choir sister in another order. Her persistence eventually paid off and she was allowed to enter the SHCJ as a lay sister in 1855.

Mysteriously, on the day of Sr Walburga’s profession – despite her good health and active work in the kitchen and bakehouse at the time – Bishop Thomas Grant warned her to ‘be prepared for sickness; your body will be your cross’. Grant’s words proved prescient as within two years Sister Walburga was struck by a condition identified as Pylorus by the convent’s doctor. He added that her case was ‘hopeless’ and she would remain bedridden.

However, the doctor was to be proved wrong. The annals relate that, after the novena to Saint Walburga took place, Sister Walburga had a drop of the Saint’s oil placed upon her tongue.

She ‘felt a burning sensation in the part affected and called out that she was cured’. The next day, Sister Walburga went to Mass, ate breakfast ‘heartily’ and took up the offices of Portress. The healed nun ‘opened the door to the doctor whose astonishment may be imagined!’.

The statue of Our Lady of Miracles and the oak tree planted in the Holy Child Convent School gardens, St Leonards-on Sea, circa 1950.

Pope Pius IX granted the community a special feast to commemorate the event after Rome was notified of what had happened. An account of the miracle was also sent to Eichstadt where Saint Walburga’s breast bone is kept. The Saint was at this moment made a patron of the SHCJ. Tragically, Sister Walburga died on 21st March 1863, only five years after her cure. Nonetheless, as well as being the cause of Saint Walburga’s connection to the SHCJ, Sister Walburga served the Society she had been so determined to be a part of ‘faithfully and gratefully’.

Following the account of these extraordinary events in April 1858, a short passage describes the statue that had been donated to the SHCJ by Maria Dunn. This became ‘Our Lady of Miracles’ to the girls and nuns who walked and sat beside it in the gardens of the St Leonards Convent School. It goes on to explain the origins of an oak tree, which by the time Mother Theresa Laprimaudaye wrote up the early SHCJ annals shaded Our Lady of Miracles:

The oak tree which overshadows the statue was planted as a mere sapling by our Mother, who speaking to us at the time, said “When we are gone, those who come after us will be able to sit under its branches. Will they remember & speak of Us?”

This is an early example of a tradition of tree planting as a way to celebrate the past and give something to the future, which was of course renewed on a grand scale for the SHCJ’s 175th Anniversary in 2021. Besides the 175 celebrations and the oak tree of Saint Leonards, a photograph album celebrating a school jubilee in the SHCJ’s African Province also depicts a meaningful tree planting with a significance for both the people gathered there and the SHCJ as a whole.

In 1953, 70 years ago, the Holy Child Secondary School, Marian Hill, Calabar was founded with Sister Henry St Parker as its first headteacher. Sister St Henry was invited back to the school in 1978 to celebrate its silver Jubilee. As part of the celebrations, Sister St Henry, the Principal Mrs Inyang and the school prefect Stella Henry planted a tree on the school grounds in the presence of the current school, the old girls, Bishop Usanga and other well-wishers.

Marian Hill Holy Child Secondary School Principal, Mother St Henry, Head Girl Stella Henry and others during the 1978 tree planting ceremony.

These pictures could be said to take on a still more poignant joyousness when we consider that the people of Calabar had only ten years before faced the terrors of the Biafran War. Sister St Henry herself had made a narrow escape on the Cross River. She was helped by a calm and courageous boat driver while shots were fired at them both.

When Sister St Henry retired in 1975, the Catholic Community of Calabar made a moving address to the nun who had worked in South East Nigeria since 1936. The address speaks clearly of how a person’s dedication can become an ever-growing legacy:

The fruits of your labour are uncountable. We can see many of the women you trained discharging responsible functions in government circles and elsewhere today. The secondary schools established by you have today become the torch in the community […] you are the first example of a former Principal that later taught as a class teacher in the very school you headed, and under a former pupil. Your life example will remain unforgotten.

In these warm words of appreciation and affection, it could be said that Cornelia has a positive answer to the question she asked planting the oak tree at the St Leonards Holy Child Convent School in 1858. Whether the long career of Sister St Henry or the sadly short-lived yet faithful service of Sister Walburga, for whom it seems no other religious order would do, we see yet more examples of a determination to contribute to the SHCJ’s work, facing all adversity with humility, courage and love.

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