Sister Catherine Hughes RIP
Our Lady of the Annunciation Redemptorist Church, Bishop Eton
Thursday 30th March 2017
It is good to be here in this Redemptorist Church of Bishop Eton. It is especially fitting as generations of Mount Pleasant students made an annual pilgrimage here to pray before the Icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Succour and to ask Our Lady’s assistance for their exams. It is a place of many happy memories.
For most of us these days, keeping ourselves focussed in the present moment, in the ‘here and now’, isn’t always easy. We readily fall into living in the past with our memories or perhaps fearing the future with all its uncertainties. Eckhart Tolle, author of ‘The Power of Now’, once said: “The ultimate truth of ‘who you are’ is not ‘I am this’ or ‘I am that’, but ‘I AM’.
In her room at Woolton, Catherine had very few personal possessions. However, affixed to her wall, she had a simple handprinted caption of Chapter 3 v 14, of Exodus - where God (Yahweh) makes known his name to Moses: I AM WHO I AM.
Catherine had that hand-printed quotation affixed to her wall in 3 versions: I AM WHO I AM, then the same verse copied out in Hebrew and lastly, in its less-well known form that scholars translate as:
I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE. Obviously, it meant a great deal to Catherine. Born in Gillingham in Kent on April 27th 1922, Catherine was the middle child of George and Ellen Hughes and baptised Kathleen Margaret. Her elder brother Bernard was three and a half when she was born and Peter, the youngest child, was born eleven years later.
Catherine’s parents, both from Stockport, were living in Kent as her father, a Royal Marine, was stationed at Chatham. The family moved to London when Catherine was seven, following her father’s discharge from the Royal Marines after twenty one years of service. At first they lived in the Strand, near Charing Cross and above Barclay’s Bank where her father had got employment. By 1938 they had moved to the suburbs in Tulse Hill.
Catherine’s sense of God’s name: ‘I AM WHO I AM’ resonates, too, with her sense of ‘The Power of Now’ or as Pierre De Caussade described it in his book some centuries before, ‘The Sacrament of the Present Moment’. Before we look at the achievements of Catherine’s long and very full life, it may be helpful to situate all that Catherine was and all she did into a specific context. The key to how Catherine viewed life may very well be hidden in that beautiful Scripture text from the Book of Exodus. If you remember, Yahweh revealed His name to Moses after he stumbled across the Burning Bush on Mount Horeb. He is instructed to take off his sandals because he is standing on holy ground. Whenever we try to say words of appreciation on someone’s life, we most certainly are approaching ‘holy ground’ and do so with a certain sense of deep awe and trepidation. It is a sacred space. A place of encounter.
Some years ago, the Theologian, Sean Fagan, wrote a modern article on De Caussade’s spiritual classic and explained ‘The heart of his teaching is the conviction that God’s purpose is made actual for each one of us precisely in the situation in which we find ourselves at each single moment of our lives, and that purpose is one of infinite, tender, merciful and all-powerful love. Our response is to live that moment to the full’.
Catherine’s grasp of that truth was more than a favourite caption on her wall. She lived it day by day during her long and very full life. Essentially, Catherine maintained a deep simplicity throughout her life no matter what she was asked to do or wherever she was asked to go.
Her immersion in each ‘present moment’ or ‘ministry’ of her life reminds us of another special moment in Scripture – that passage from the Gospels that we know as the ‘Transfiguration’ which took place on another mountain – Mount Tabor. Jesus took Peter James and John up a high mountain, and was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun and his clothes became as white as snow. In the radiance of His glory, the disciples saw him conversing with Moses and Elijah. In essence, it was the place where heaven and earth met and Peter exclaimed “Lord, it is good for us to be here!”
Somehow, one can sense that Catherine’s life reflected that joy. Wherever she was missioned and regardless of the difficulty of the task in hand, it would seem she had cultivated a lifelong habit of repeating that prayer in her heart: “Lord, it is good to be here!”
When the Second World War started, Catherine was at Notre Dame Southwark. While in sixth form there, the famous Dominican preacher and writer, Fr Ferdinand Valentine came to give a Retreat. The influence on Catherine of this Lancashire Dominican was to be far-reaching. Like Alphonsus de Liguori in Bourbon Naples, Fr Valentine was an ardent believer in encouraging groups of lay people to come together and give each other mutual support in their spiritual lives.
From Notre Dame Southwark, Catherine won a scholarship to go to university at Kings College London to read history. She went in 1940 but, owing to the War, she was evacuated to Bristol. On 1st November 1940, their family home was bombed. Luckily, there was no one at the Hughes’ house that day but 6 of their neighbours were killed.
At Kings, eight women students - including Catherine, formed a lay Christian group which they called ‘The Royal and Ancient Order of Pachyderms’ with a simple (but demanding) rule of life and Fr Valentine, whom they called ‘Old Leather’ was their Director. The rule included 15 minutes daily mental prayer, a letter to Fr Valentine each month, and the ‘DAC’ – the discipline of the alarm clock – i.e. to rise as soon as the alarm sounded! A pachyderm, Catherine explained, is one of the classes of animals with
exceedingly thick skin - e.g. elephant, rhinoceros, hippo - because, as Catherine and her friends firmly believed: ‘You had to have a thick skin to continue your commitment for life’.
At age 25, Catherine decided it was time to enter Religious Life. After some hesitation as to which Congregation, she eventually settled on the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur.
When news of Catherine’s death on 17th March became known throughout the Notre Dame world, tributes flowed in both from our own sisters and from others around the globe – those who had known and worked with Catherine over many years. Bishop Hubert Bucher of Bethlehem in South Africa called her a ‘giant’ among our sisters and she was but, in her simplicity of outlook, she would never have considered herself in that light.
Having entered at Ashdown in 1947, Catherine was there as a postulant and novice until 1950. She spent a few months at Battersea after her Profession and was then sent to Teignmouth for 2 years as 6th Form Mistress. In 1952, she was missioned to Notre Dame High School, Sheffield as Deputy Head but after a year she received a mission to Mount Pleasant and served there as a lecturer from 1953 – 1966. During these 13 years, Catherine had a profound and lasting effect on the students whose lives she touched and she kept up a lifelong friendship with many of them. In 1966 Catherine moved to Kirby where she lived until 1972 and where she was Head of Saint Gregory’s Comprehensive School. Catherine was later to say that, looking back on her long and eventful life, probably it was in Kirby that she was happiest of all – living and working amongst its people. In 1972, Catherine was appointed Principal of Mount Pleasant College of Education. Her vision for the future did much to lay the groundwork for the eventual merger with Christ’s College and St Katharine’s Anglican College into what was later to develop as HOPE University.
Catherine became Provincial of the British Province in 1978 and was active in helping to shape the Conference of Major Superiors in England and Wales. Within our Province, she encouraged educational innovation in ministries, enabling sisters to reach out and develop programmes for children and adults with special educational needs; to work with ‘Travelling People’ and to live and work with the poor in inner city areas. Fearless in her desire to serve the poorest of the poor, she was not afraid to take risks.
Elected as General Moderator in 1984, Catherine faced many challenges. However, her desire to serve Christ in his poorest members enabled her to rise above all difficulties. In order to strengthen programmes for newer members and for ongoing renewal in the Congregation in the spirit of Vatican II, her General Leadership gave priority to on-going Formation.
Catherine was single-minded in her pursuit of what she thought was a right and just course of action in any given situation and she encouraged others by her vision. Following in the footsteps of Julie and encouraged others by her vision. Following in the footsteps of Julie and Françoise, she always showed a preference for the poor in the most abandoned places.
It would be fair to say that Catherine’s early training and that ‘development of a thick skin’ when she was a student in London, all enabled her to pursue her preferential option for the poor with a steely determination. However, the ‘thick skin’ often concealed a loving heart which she gradually allowed herself to show more freely the older she became. On completing her term in General Leadership, Catherine had a short spell in Peru and then chose a ministry in South Africa with people living in poverty. Catherine was always ‘forthright’. As one of her closest friends said “She could ‘annihilate’ with a glance but so too she could ‘energise’ . . .”
However, formidable though she was at times, Catherine had a great sense of humour. Once, at a gathering in Nigeria, she was introduced to the crowd as Sr. Catherine ‘Huggies’ (Hughes presented a great problem for pronunciation!).
On returning to Liverpool and the community at 266 Woolton Road, Catherine continued to inspire others during these last years of her life. She loved being close once again to her family and enjoyed spending time with the younger generations of ‘Hughes’. She rejoiced also in time spent with friends. Catherine kept up her links with South Africa and also encouraged friends and Sisters to fundraise for Kroonstad. Wherever Catherine was and at every stage of her life, she settled comfortably into each ‘present moment’ and lived out that prayer ‘Lord, it is good to be here!’
As Sean Fagan observed, if this habit of praying ‘Lord, it is good to be here’ is cultivated throughout life, it will be our constant support especially in difficult and painful times. Indeed, it will enable us to prepare for the big moments. When our biggest moment of all comes prepare for the big moments. When our biggest moment of all comes, the moment of our own personal transfiguration, we will be ready to welcome it. As Catherine shone with the whiteness of death and the radiance of Christ’s coming, I am sure she was able to repeat in her heart, ‘Lord, it is good to be here’ and that she meant it as she’d never meant it before. We may be sure that her heart will go on singing it for all eternity.
Catherine, as you now rejoice with Yahweh, welcomed and embraced by He Who IS, and where time is no more, please remember us.
It is good to be here, united in Christ, and to be celebrating eternity now in this Eucharist.
With love and gratitude, we celebrate all that you have become and all that you continue to mean to your family, friends, students and Sisters of Notre Dame throughout the world.
Lord, it is good to be here. . .
Tribute given by Sister Patricia Ellen Gribbin,
Provincial Moderator of the Sisters of Notre Dame in the UK,
at the Requiem Mass for Sister Catherine Hughes SND