Sister Mary Modwena of Jesus 1943 - 2005
Janet Mary Toon
I say yes, Lord
Sr Modwena was born 4th April 1943, at Cookley near Kidderminster and brought up in Burton on Trent. She was not baptised as a child, but was assured that she could choose her own faith when she grew up. However, occasionally, between the ages of four and fourteen she did, for some reason, attend a Methodist Sunday School!
As a child she was hospitalised for a potentially fatal condition. The doctor who saved her life said to her parents, "Somebody must have prayed for this child - and I know I have. Only prayer could have saved her". The Doctor was a practising member of the Jewish faith. Whilst she was in hospital someone had placed a rosary in her cot. When she was older, she begged to have it given her and though she lost it subsequently, it remained with her as an image of what prayer could do.
Later she wrote:
I have known explicitly since I was four that I was a) born, and b) survived , because it was God's will, despite all the odds being against me. Hence I searched for God, and when I found him at the age of 15 in the Catholic Church, becoming a religious seemed to me the natural next step to Baptism!
Her baptism and reception into the Catholic Church took place in the old Church of St Mary and St Modwen in Burton on Trent, on February 6th, 1963 and her confirmation followed soon after. She was 19.
Janet's earliest memories were mostly not of religion but of politics. Her father was the local secretary of one of Britain's two dominant political parties. Before the age of reason she was sent out to push partisan election literature through the doors of the unsuspecting, and she did in fact, retain a keen interest in political and social issues all her life. The world of history and books drew her. Even as a nun she liked to be surrounded by a library!
Freedom to choose
Like many families who tell their children they can choose their faith when they grow up her family were not well pleased when she chose to become a Roman Catholic (Her sister, Jenny, chose to become an Anglican - and married a vicar!).
Reading an earlier edition of this account, a friend from Janet's Library College years wrote and reminded us that her particular feminine vanity had been shoes: she had dozens of pairs! An appropriate preparation for becoming a Poor Clare and spending the rest of your life going barefoot!
Janet trained for her librarianship qualifications in Liverpool and it was while she was there that her eye fell upon an advert in the Universe¹s vocations column that a kind friend had placed as a gift to the sisters in Hawarden.
She was committed by the terms of her grant to work two years in a library to repay the funding for her study and this she felt honour bound to do. It was a long wait.
The text below and other direct quotes that follow are taken from notes she made on God's call in her life.
I was 24 when I dropped the bombshell on the family, and as "Freedom to Choose" was a family war cry there was no discussion, but I knew that only my sister was in favour of the idea - and everyone else was against it. They thought I was throwing a lot away, and were sure that I'd be turfed out in a matter of weeks. When it did last they could do nothing, though they still did not approve. And when ever they report that someone has gone off the rails they add "but everyone can make their own choices in life, like you did"!!! (The exclamation marks were all in Sister's original text!)
Her sailing was far from fair winds and prosperous voyage. While at 15 a religious vocation had seemed "logical and rather interesting", by the time she was twenty she summed it up as "a dreadful idea that would not go away". When she was twenty-four she decided that she would give it a try - so she could forget about it!
She had met Mother Cherubina, the first Abbess of the community. Mother was a vibrant inspiration even in her old age. They spoke in French. Sr Modwena had spent most of her holidays in France with the family of her French pen friend, Chantal, and she was a fluent French speaker to the last.
The fact that Sister read Sacred Scripture in French was part of a Hawarden legend. It happened that we had the former Delegate General Fr Herbert Schneider OFM staying for Christmas. As he was giving a talk in choir he asked for a Bible to check out a quote - so Mother Francesca handed him hers - in German. "No!" he exclaimed "The German I know!" and turning to Sr Modwena "Please lend me your Bible!" Sr Modwena blushed. "I'm sorry Father it's in French." Presently after Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Welsh and Spanish we found him an English Bible!
Mother Cherubina, of course, did speak English most of the time, but like Sr Modwena she had spent a lot of her early life in France. This gave them a common interest, despite the fact that Sister - whose sole encounter with the contemplative life had been Mount Saint Bernard's in Leicestershire - had begun by declaring her desire to be come a Cistercian! Having met Mother, she abandoned all thought of the Cistercians and knew her home was Hawarden: "I was all set to come here, despite the fact that I didn't know a thing about the Poor Clares!" As a librarian she soon remedied her ignorance. But that still left her, like Jacob, wrestling with God.
A valiant loser
I was fighting a losing battle with God at the time. I only entered to get the matter settled so that I could go on living my life my way, without this vocation idea continuously getting in the way. I had everything in my existence nicely worked out and a lifestyle I loved.
In other words she was joining the community not to follow her vocation but in the earnest hope of losing it!
If the vote at the chapter for my clothing had gone against me I would have been delighted!... It was only after my Solemn Profession that I knew that I had done the right thing, and, yes: that God really did mean it
It was an heroic choice. The old Hawarden community was going through a time of great struggle and suffering; it was when her life seemed at its bleakest that her certainty in the Lord was strongest. She made her final vows in 1972 on the 6th August, the Feast of the Transfiguration. And it was her perseverance, that, after the death of Mother Cherubina and Mother Michael Angela, kept the old sisters together as a viable community.
Deaths and departures left Sr Modwena the only young sister, and presently, its Vicaress, making a novena of years in faith until in 1982, when the Lord sent us along from London and a new generation of Hawardenites began as Sr Amata made her Solemn Profession.
Called by name(s)
When Mother Cherubina arrived at Aston Bank in the 1930s she got a sign painter to produce a series of cell notices with a selection of useful religious names. As candidates appeared she distributed the names to fit the notices!
Thus, when Sr Modwena was clothed she received the name Mary Magdalen, though she had always loved the fifth century British hermit, St Modwena, who spent her life in prayer on the Isle of Andressy in the river Trent.
Whilst holding the patron saint of contemplatives in great honour, Sister did find it somewhat embarrassing when visitors asked her what sensational and sinful things she had done to receive such a name. Though she was not above replying, "Well. In my wicked youth I did push campaign literature for A Certain Political Party through peoples doors..." When Mother Francesca asked her if she would like to change her name she greeted the suggestion with cries of gladness and begged for the name Modwena. So, in a memorable community recreation Saint Modwena, (who slightly resembled Sr Damian) descended from heaven and after telling the story of her own life and that of the early British church, conferred her name on the erstwhile Sr Mary Magdalen.
The sound of music
The praise of God in the daily singing of the Divine Office was what drew Sister Modwena to the contemplative life. She also loved the rosary, daily saying the Glorious Mysteries after communion. Her favourite mystery was the Crowning with Thorns and if we were doing a special presentation of the Rosary she would sometimes read a reflection of a favourite poet (she had a great love for the writings of Elizabeth Jennings) or one of her own poems.
St Colette was her great inspiration. She once said at community chapter, "I think we are called not to do what St Clare did, but what St Colette did. Colette re-presented Clare to her own time - and that is what we are called to do; to make Clare live today!"
Sr Modwena served the community at various times as bursar and portress. She also looked after the laundry, chasing the overworked and absentminded to produce their washing, with exemplary patience. But she is best remembered for her work with Sr Agatha in the servery, hostessing retreat groups in the fifteen years up to the onset of her illness.
Evenin early Lent, in the year of her death, she went along to choir to lead the prayers at exposition for a retreat group, though she was by then unable to play her guitar. She loved music and spent a surprising and happy time during her silver jubilee retreat, sitting and playing her recorder in her cell and in the garden. She also had a bash (the operative word) at the violin and the cello with Sr Agatha.
She was a brilliant comic actress (even when not on the violin!) and was much on call during the Christmas festivities. Her last appearance was as Aristotle in "Faith and Reason". Sr Elizabeth and Sr Juliana approached her saying they hoped she felt well enough to do it as the part had been written for her. Inspecting the script she replied, "I can see that! I note, too, that the Delphic Sybil wanders round the stage after me with an easy chair exclaiming, 'Sit! You are not a dog'. Also St Thomas Aquinas baptises me. I am flattered...."
The royal challenge
In the notes Sr Modwena wrote, previously quoted, she says, with moving honesty:
My life as organised by me would be geared to avoiding myself - but you cannot do that in religious life.
Because God loved her, he challenged her.
The illness which led to her death actually began in June of the millennium year, but the hospital was slow to reach an accurate diagnosis. She had what was for a shy and extremely modest woman, a painful and humiliating time before the specialist finally discovered it was cancer of the bladder and operated in November of 2003. This was followed by radium treatment, and two other primary cancers in different parts of the body. Somewhere along the line her arm got damaged and as it did not fall into the category of her specialists it was a long time before it was treated - and then unsuccessfully. It was her left arm and she was left handed. The radium treatment after her third operation induced lymphoma and she was in considerable discomfort. This was followed by an almost total and apparently inexplicable inability to retain food.
Our dear Doctor Tom arranged for her to go to Nightingale House, in Wrexham ostensibly to be made comfortable before another major scan. She went in, on her own feet, on Tuesday of Easter week, and was sedated for her now considerable physical pain. Whist she was still fully conscious her brother, Bob was able to visit her and they had a very blest visit. She had developed renal failure and simply began to slip away. One of the good Fathers at the Cathedral came to anoint her.
That Monday was Sr Modwena's birthday. Dear Mother spent the morning with her and Sr Agatha the afternoon.
Early on the morning of Tuesday 5th April 2005, the Hospice rang, asking dear Mother to come; it was obvious that Sister Death was drawing near, but gaining confidence from Mother's presence, Sister rallied a little. Canon Quigley went to anoint her and Bishop Regan stopped by to say the rosary.
Sr Agatha went to relieve dear Mother at lunch time so that she could come home to tell the community. Like Mother, Sister Agatha observed that Sr Modwena seemed to be at the invisible end of a conversation and would exclaim, from time to time as she struggled to breath, "Yes!" On one occasion her eyes grew round with delight, like a child being offered a treat and her lips formed a silent "Oh!"
Singing is Sr Agatha's line in prayer; she warbled her way through Mercy Chaplet, and felt moved to treat Sr Modwena to Turn your eyes upon Jesus. Sr Modwena murmured between gasps, "God reward you!"
Members of the wonderful staff at Nightingale House joined Sister in prayer. Throughout Sr Modwena's stay they could not have been kinder or more capable.
When Mother returned to relieve Sr Agatha, Sr Modwena looked to have rallied slightly and seemed safe for the night. But there was a sudden deterioration in Sister's condition just before 11.00, and she died as the rising bell for Matins was ringing at Ty Mam Duw.
Here at home we made our way downstairs to sing, "Light your lamps; the bridegroom is here! Go out to meet Christ the Lord!"
Sr Modwena's death will always be woven in our memory with that of great Pope John Paul II. Her requiem followed his, a day later on the 9th April. It has seemed that we spent those days in a ceaseless singing of the litany of the saints, which accompanied both of them to their final rest.
When we came to put away Sr Modwena's very few personal possessions and share between the sisters small keepsakes that they might remember her by, only one poem seemed to have survived her drastic self-editing:
Cloud sky and mountain
Mirrored in water, calm, still
Brings peace to the soul.
Blossom shimmers in sunlight
Shadows dance, patterns
Form and scatter like my dreams
As I sit watching
The light play on the mountain.
Fish leaps, water drops
Sparkle as they fall, bright pearls
Grace the limpid stream.
Mist swirls and eddies, creates
An illusion of
Distance, mystery; mountains
Tantalise me, draw me
Onwards, forgetting my home.