On Saturday October 23rd 2021 we had a wonderful celebration and Mass of Thanksgiving at St Clare’s Church, marking the FCJ Bicentenary and rejoicing in the jubilees of some of our sisters in Liverpool and Birkenhead.
We were joined by many friends, Companions in Mission, colleagues, past pupils, parishioners and FCJ sisters from Merseyside, Salford, Manchester and London. Sr Bríd, the FCJ Area Leader in Europe, was visiting from Ireland and was able to join us for the celebration. It was a delight to get together and to have the opportunity to celebrate our FCJ life together after such a long time of not being able to meet. Fr Aidan, our parish priest, celebrated the Mass and gave a wonderful homily – which is shared below.
Planning the celebration was a real team effort – as a result of COVID the parish hall had not been used for almost two years and so we began a few weeks earlier with a parish day of cleaning! We had a great community building day as so many worked together to make it usable again. Planning the celebration was also a community effort with each one making a contribution – baking, writing prayers, choosing readings, planning music etc!
There was a tangible sense of companionship and gratitude as so many people from such diverse areas of our lives and ministry came to join us for the celebration and to express their immense gratitude for the contribution of the Society to their lives, and to the region over so many years.
Homily – FCJ Mass of Thanksgiving – Canon Aidan Prescott VG
Today’s Mass of Thanksgiving is a multi-layered celebration for the Sisters Faithful Companions of Jesus on Merseyside. We give thanks for the bicentenary of the congregation’s foundation; two hundred years in which the love and dedication of countless sisters has blessed the Church in many countries across the globe. Individually, four of our sisters are marking significant milestones in their religious life: Sister Breda (70 years); Sister Nora (65 years), Sister Rachel (50 years) and Sister Lynne (25 years). Cumulatively that’s 210 years of religious life between them. I’m not sure what the collective term for several jubilees is. I’m tempted to call it a jamboree, but that perhaps has other connotations! So, let’s settle for the fact that the combination of these events gives us just cause to celebrate, but above all to give thanks to Almighty God.
An historical anniversary or the jubilee of religious profession naturally invites us, in our mind’s eye, to look back along the road we have travelled and to ponder all that has happened along the way: the joys and sorrows; the successes and failures; but hopefully, and above all, the grace of the companionship we receive from Jesus Christ.
The first element of our celebration today is the bi-centenary of the FCJ congregation. This takes us to territory that none of us has direct contact with. As the memorable opening of L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between reminds us, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” We have to travel back in time to 1820. In England the Regency period comes to an end with the accession of George IV and the pioneering nurse Florence Nightingale is born. In France, Napoleon is exiled on St Helena and will die the following year. It is to this period that Marie Madeleine d’Houët, the foundress of the Faithful Companions of Jesus, pinpointed the foundation of the congregation; quite specifically to Holy Thursday, 30th March 1820, as she prayed before the Altar of Repose.
I read on the FCJ website that, “In the wake of the French Revolution, women all over France worked for the restoration of the primacy of religion in French life and for social stability. Many of these women formed groups for mutual support and in numerous cases these developed into religious communities. It is an amazing fact that between 1800 and 1820 thirty-five new communities of women were founded in France; and each year between 1820 and 1880 six new communities were founded.” This might lead us to think that there was a certain inevitability to this burgeoning of religious life in France. Yet even a cursory reading of Marie Madeleine’s story reveals that there were plenty of obstacles along the way for this spirited woman; widowed young, being a single mother, spending years discerning the precise nature of her religious vocation, and not a few obstacles from the ecclesiastical hierarchy. There was nothing straightforward about the birth of the Faithful Companions of Jesus!
I have nothing but the greatest admiration for those spirited souls who despite all the odds have had the courage to go out start a religious foundation from scratch. I’m not sure I’d know where to start! But then when we think about it, the Lord himself chose apostles and disciples who were not always the brightest and most talented people, but who with the power of the Holy Spirit were able to proclaim the Gospel with such conviction and zeal as to convert many to Christ. And that is precisely the point, it’s not the mammoth efforts of the individual foundress – in this case Marie Madeleine – but surely the grace of God, the action of the Holy Spirit. As it says in the Constitutions of the Society,
God asked a free heart of our foundress to dwell always in his presence as an empty vessel ready to receive all from him, to remain undisturbed in his hands so united to him as to be lost in him, desiring only the accomplishment of his will. We also beg the grace to accomplish God’s will with fidelity and joy.
The second strand of our celebration singles out our four jubilarian sisters: Breda, Nora, Rachel and Lynne, whom we congratulate in a particular way today. Between them they have completed 210 years of service. Whilst we know that their 210 years of religious life has all overlapped to some extent, each with the other; cumulatively their years of service take us back to the time of Marie Madeleine. What an appropriate thought, since each of these four sisters has been inspired by the vision set out by their foundress. Ultimately, of course, they are each inspired by the Lord Jesus himself, whose faithful companions they are professed to be.
It has been my privilege to be an honorary co-companion with them during my time here. Over the years I have learnt something of their individual stories, of lives spent in various communities, both in this country and abroad, and to appreciate the many and varied ways in which they have touched the lives of so many people for good.
They follow in a long line of FCJ sisters who have served communities on Merseyside for the best part of 180 years. The back of today’s order of service gives a timeline of their service stretching back to 1844, with the foundation of Bellerive and running the school at St Patrick’s school. For instance, Mother Xavier O’Neill the headmistress of St Patrick’s worked tirelessly in the difficult circumstances of the poverty and disease that was rife in the city at the time, succumbing herself to cholera. One of the buildings at Bellerive is named after her. In recent times Sister Brigid Halligan did sterling work as head at Bellerive, something recognised with the award of the OBE in the New Year’s honours list of 2008. Who knows, she might have a building named after her!
On Merseyside only Bellerive and Upton remain as FCJ schools, whilst their involvement with other schools has come and gone over the decades. I have to say it was news to me to learn that the FCJs were involved in St Clare’s School at the turn of the 20th Century! We see that they made a significant contribution to schooling in the south end of the city, as well as on the Wirral. Just think of how many children must have encountered FCJ sisters in all those schools during those years. Their influence will have reached far and wide in ways that they can scarcely begin to comprehend. Insofar as they inspired others to be faithful companions of Jesus, they were faithful to their own calling and we thank them and God for it.
The Gospel passage that we heard today has a particular resonance for the FCJ sisters. This is because it portrays the figure of St Mary Magdalene. But the resonance is much more than the fact that their foundress, Marie Madeleine, had her as her patron saint.
The Gospels relate that after Jesus was buried in the tomb the apostles locked themselves away in the Upper Room. In their grief they were overcome with fear, and one might say an element of despair, if we take the disciples on the road to Emmaus as indicative. Mary Magdalene and the other women, on the other hand, were no less grief-stricken, but their grief was overcome by love. Mary, at the first possible opportunity, wanted to complete her ministrations to the dead body of Jesus. Her love and constancy is rewarded with the first appearance of the Risen Lord.
Marie Madeleine observed that, “My name is Magdalen. I will follow my patron saint who so loved Jesus, …as to accompany him in his journeys and labours, ministering to him even to the foot of the Cross with the other holy women who did not like the apostles, abandon him, but proved to be his faithful companions.” That is the spirit that she wanted for all her sisters – to be faithful ‘to the cross and beyond’.
The instruction of the Risen Jesus for Mary to ‘go and tell the brothers’ has earned her the epithet apostola apostolorum, the apostle of the apostles, as the privileged first witness of the Risen Lord. That too remains a constant reality for the FCJs, whose constitution says that,
Like Mary, Mother of Jesus and Mother of the Church, and like the holy women, messengers of the Good News, we are sent to proclaim the Truth, Jesus who is alive and lives among us, who is Son of God and Saviour of the world.
I said at the beginning that an occasion such as this, “…invites us to in our mind’s eye to look back along the road we have travelled.” But that is not all we should do! This is not the end of the story, either for the congregation or for these four sisters celebrating jubilees. Constantly attentive to the prompting of the Holy Spirit they must continue to discern how better to be a faithful companion of Jesus each day. Thankfully the congregation was able to have its last General Chapter the year before the pandemic struck. So at present they are being guided by six broad themes: Women of Hope and Energy for a Broken Church and World; Compassionate Action; Care for Our Common Home; Vocation Ministry; Governance and Companions in Mission. This constant reflection and renewal of their mission and ministry in the Church is vital for the congregation’s fruitfulness. So this has led, just last year, to the opening of the FCJ Centre at St Hugh’s, with its focus on young people, community and faith development.
The sisters also chose a passage from St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. This beautiful prayer of St Paul reminds us unequivocally that all that we do should be built on love. That must be at the heart of every authentic religious vocation and indeed at the heart of the life of anyone who bears the name Christian. It is a sine qua non for anyone who aspires to be a faithful companion of Jesus.
Today we give thanks for the fidelity of all the FCJ sisters over many generations who have witnessed to the love of God, made visible in Christ, and have served so many communities across the world. In particular, we are thankful for their service in the Merseyside region.
But perhaps we should let St Paul direct our final thoughts to the one who should always be the focus of our praise and thanksgiving.
Glory be to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine; glory be to God from generation to generation in the Church and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever. Amen.