Thanksgiving for 170 years of the Sisters of Mercy, at Derby - the Bishop's homily
On the 23rd of September, the Bishop celebrated Mass in thanksgiving for 170 years of the presence of the Sisters of Mercy at S. Mary's, Derby. The following was his homily at this event.
"What a wonderful presence you have had in Derby as Sisters of Mercy. From first establishing a convent here in S. Mary’s parish on the Nottingham Road in October 1849, and the early vitality of teaching in the day and night schools, of setting up an orphanage, a house of mercy and a teachers’ training college. Just ten days after arriving in Derby your predecessors were visiting the poor and the sick in their homes. Seven months later the joy of a new novice. Six years later in 1856, being feted with a military guard of honour for the return to Derby of Mother Mary Francis Bridgeman and three other sisters after their heroic and selfless nursing work during the Crimean War. Then the necessary move of the convent from Nottingham Road to what became Bridge Gate in 1862, a gift from the Honourable Mrs. Beaumont whose home it had been and who was such a generous benefactor. Then, along the way of your spiritual journey here in S. Mary’s parish, Derby, you gradually established S. Philomena’s Convent, Beechwood, Catherine McAuley House, Mount Carmel House, S. John Fisher and S. Philomena Convents, and all the units of The Mercy Care Centre. Although the difficult and painful decisions to close both Bridge Gate and Beechwood Convents have now been made, what a wonderful legacy of Christian nursing care for the elderly, and specialist care for people suffering from dementia, still remains here in Derby thanks to your prayerful presence and hard work over the past 170 years.Then there’s your ecumenical work at the Padley Centre in reaching out to the homeless.
"Your work in education here in Derby also led out from the Bridge Gate Convent schools to the following houses being opened in Derbyshire at points in your history, Belper, S. Joseph’s, Derby, Alvaston, Swadlincote and S. Mary’s Nursing Home, Ednaston, and in Nottingham at Carlton, and in Lincolnshire to the staffing of a primary school and a secondary school in Gainsborough. Not all have continued to this day, some only for a short while, but they each served a useful purpose in their time. And so here again we thank God for the legacy in education you leave here in Derby.
"I am delighted to have this opportunity to join you in giving God thanks for all that he has helped you to achieve through your prayerful and active presence here in Derby. You have indeed much to give thanks to God for, and you have chosen some most appropriate scripture readings to express this. In particular, I would like to comment a little on the first reading from S. Paul, one of my favourite scripture passages.
‘Out of his infinite glory, may he give you the power through his Spirit for your hidden self to grow strong, so that Christ may live in your hearts through faith, and then, planted in love and built on love, you will with all the saints have strength to grasp the breadth and the length, the height and the depth; until knowing the love of Christ, which is beyond all knowledge, you are filled with the utter fulness of God.’
"On occasions like this, there can be a danger of just being nostalgic, but instead this reading from S. Paul is an encouragement to you as a Religious Congregation to look upon the past 170 years as a time of grace, as a fruitful time marked very much by the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit. It has indeed been a most blessed period of time in your history which at some point soon will bear being re-examined to explore what can be learned for your present time and for the future. I say this because although the English translation of this piece of scripture suggests, in its use of the words ‘you’ and ‘yours’, that it’s a prayer addressed to the individual, in the original Greek, all these pronouns are plural. It’s a rich scriptural text therefore that a community or a Religious Congregation could fruitfully reflect upon especially when you hear Paul praying that you ‘may grow strong’. Because isn’t it true that most of us are strengthened in our faith and in our commitment to the Lord by the witness of those around us, and by that of those who have gone before us? Therefore, the memory and varied Christian witness, teaching, prayer, nursing and acts of courage, compassion and love of your Sisters who have served here in Derby these past 170 years all have the power to continue to inspire, shape and strengthen your lives as Sisters of Mercy.
"There’s also a challenge for you, for all of us, in this scripture passage when S. Paul prays may ‘Christ live in your hearts through faith’. This personal living relationship with Christ was foundational for the amazing generosity and self-sacrifice which inspired the first Sisters of Mercy who came to Derby and subsequent Sisters since. The Risen and living Lord Jesus continues to come to us in Word and Sacrament, as today in this Mass of Thanksgiving, and, as well we know, he continues to seek hearts in and though which he may live and act. We know in hearts where Christ is allowed to dwell and to work there is always self-giving and passionate love which continues to inspire and make fruitful the work of all Christ’s disciples; this is certainly true of you and of all who live out the Religious/ Consecrated Life, because your life is essentially a response to the Holy Spirit’s call to follow Jesus intimately and to live the Gospel generously, especially in and through your 4th vow of service and outreach to the most vulnerable and poor of our society.
"Your leadership team has had to make difficult decisions concerning Beechwood and Bridge Gate. Yes, there are real issues to be faced of ageing Sisters and a decrease in the number of young people entering Religious Life, which have no doubt had a bearing on the decisions they have made. But in the gospel reading, you have chosen for this Mass of Thanksgiving to God, I hear a wonderful expression of your ongoing trust and confidence in the One whom we each seek to follow generously; the One whom you hear saying to you in this gospel passage when contemplating your future: “Do not worry. No; set your hearts on his Kingdom...There is no need to be afraid” I thank God and you for your courageous witness in Derby these past 170 years, and I ask God’s blessing on your new initiative to lease the Bridge Gate Convent building to a local charity, Women’s Work, Derby for part of their work. It’s a charity which works with and reaches out to support and improve the health and well-being of disadvantaged and vulnerable women (and their children) here in Derby and the county. To the Leadership Team and to all the sisters who have served so generously here in Derby, and whose presence will be greatly missed, I now end by personalising the final part of S. Paul’s prayer in the first reading. This is my prayer for you, and I know I am joined in it, by all your guests, especially the clergy and parishioners of S. Mary’s and neighbouring parishes:
‘Glory be to God whose power, working in you, can do infinitely more than you can ask or imagine; glory be to him from generation to generation in the Church and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever. Amen.’