My great-aunt Eileen died in November 2009 at the respectable age of nearly 87. Last night, a memorial Mass was held for her at the La Retraite school in Clapham, one of the several schools in London and in Somerset where she’d been involved for many years: as a teacher, as a deputy head or head, as clerk to the governors and as a Sister at the neighbouring La Retraite community.
She was one of those many, many women and men whose lives are lived in cheerful and unnoticed service to many others. In her case, it was in the field of education; she worked in La Retraite schools in London and Somerset all her adult life. (And, indeed, was a pupil at them when younger). I only knew her as a relative; it was wonderful last night and in November at her funeral to meet many of the people who’d known her as a friend, a colleague, and a staunch support of the schools she was involved in.
In this internet age we’re used to finding important or influential people as links on the web, pages in Wikipedia and so on. Just for the sake of it, I stuck Auntie Eileen’s name into Google and found only a reference to her funeral in a parish newsletter. Yet she — and I’m sure many others whom I don’t know — have been so very important in their small communities. When not in Clapham, she lived, worked, and finally died in Burnham-on-Sea, an insignificant seaside town on the Bristol Channel eclipsed by its slightly more famous neighbour Weston-super-Mare, where she started her work as a teacher. Her congregation set up and ran a primary school in Burnham for local children and a boarding school for girls. The boarding school closed 25 years ago and became the residential care home for the elderly in which she spent her final years. She was head of the primary school for some years and many people there will have known her and will remember the crisp precision of her speech and the warmth of her welcome.
She suffered a condition for much of her later life which made walking difficult and finally impossible. But her mind was active right up until the double stroke from which she never recovered. Until the last few years of her life she was indefatigable in her habitual help of the educational communities she served. She would drive (atrociously!) enormous distances to attend governors and policy meetings, and had an acute awareness of modern employment and education legislation which often surprised people who imagined that an elderly nun would have a somewhat backwards viewpoint!
The passing of anyone is a grief to their friends and relatives. As a Catholic myself I believe, as she did, that we will meet again in the next life. But it’s arguably as important to recognise the good which so many people do in their quiet way while they’re still with us: the children they educate; the advice they give; the stand they make in defence of something they hold dear. It was wonderful to meet all Auntie Eileen’s former colleagues at the schools she helped for so long and to hear their stories of how she’d affected so many lives.
Eileen Hewlett 1922 - 2009 RIP