Sr Gina CSF

I could take you to the exact part of the pavement which was my Damascus Road encounter. The words were ‘God made me to know him, to love him and serve him and to be happy with him in this world and in the next.’ I had been given the meaning of life, my destiny, my goal.

Sr Gina CSF

Who are the Community of St Francis?

The Community of St Francis (CSF) is a Franciscan Anglican religious order of sisters founded in 1905, and is the oldest surviving Anglican Franciscan religious community. As First Order sisters, the CSF is an autonomous part of the Society of St Francis (First Order brothers). 

The community was begun in 1905 by Sr Rosina Eleanor Rice, who left another Anglican religious order, the Society of the Sisters of Bethany, to found CSF. After a short period in Hull, the sisters moved to Dalston in East London in 1908, where they supported themselves by working in the parish, caring for the sick and dying, and running a laundry. In the late 1950s their house came under a compulsory purchase order, and in 1962 CSF moved to a house in the hamlet of Compton Durville, near Yeovil in Somerset. There they ran a nursing home for elderly women for some years, before changing their ministry to one of hospitality. CSF grew considerably, and new houses were founded in other parts of the country. In 2010, the sisters closed their house at Compton Durville.

Sr Gina standing by a labyrinth, taken when Gina led a prayer school in Abingdon.

When did you feel called to be a Sister?

It’s hard to trace exactly when the niggle started. Was it peering through the convent fence on my way home from primary school to watch the Catholic Servite novices playing ball, or was it seeing Anglican sisters from the Community of St Mary the Virgin in the back row at church with pregnant women from their Mothers and Babies Home in Stamford Hill? Anyway, by the time I was fourteen and being prepared for Confirmation, words from the Bible such as ‘They forsook all and followed him’ were leaping out at me with uncomfortable insistence. Wasn’t that what the sisters had done? I remember asking God to give me a sign if that’s what he wanted. One day I was waiting in the vicar’s study for my Confirmation class. He came through from the church with a Sister and, patting me on the head,  commented “here’s a vocation for you in a few years, Sister.” Oh, help: was this the sign? On another occasion, I was given part of the catechism to learn by heart and was repeating it in my head over and over on the way home. I could take you to the exact part of the pavement which was my Damascus Road encounter. The words were ‘God made me to know him, to love him and serve him and to be happy with him in this world and in the next.’ I had been given the meaning of life, my destiny, my goal. 

But time passed and I pursued other ways by which I could know, love and serve God. I went to Teacher Training College. I chose divinity as my main subject and engaged fully in the chapel life of the college. Yet, the niggle persisted. In the second year I made my first retreat. The retreat was conducted by a Franciscan novice and was based on the call of the disciples. Every word seemed to be aimed at me. By Sunday morning, I was in turmoil. It came to a head when the words of the Introit at the Eucharist, which happened to be the feast of the Conversion of St Paul, were our Lord’s words to Paul; ‘It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’ Yes, it was! I went to speak to the conductor and admitted with tears that I felt called to be a nun but I wanted to have a career, fall in love, get married and have children. He was calm and wise. He advised me to visit a convent to learn more, to complete my training and to teach for at least a year to become fully qualified. Then see if I still felt the same. 

Half way through my third year my sense of vocation had grown stronger and by the Christmas I knew I needed to talk to my parents. The prospect was daunting because neither of them were practising Christians. I confided my anxieties to one of the lecturers and she assured me that God would provide an opening when the time was right and give me the words. It happened on Christmas Eve and the response was devastating. My mother was hysterical and my father furious that I was wasting my education. Nearer the time of my departure to test the call my mother was threatening suicide and her sisters, my aunts were warning I would cause her to have another stroke. (She had had one soon after the birth of my twin brother and me.) Dad wouldn’t speak to me. Only my twin didn’t oppose me. He had wisely decided to keep out of the conflict. Soon after successfully completing my probationary year as a teacher I left home to enter the Community of St John the Baptist. Despite all their protestations and threats my parents came to my Clothing as a Novice and seeing I was still their daughter and I was happy they began to come to terms with having a nun as a daughter. My mother even carried the  photo they took at my Clothing in her handbag and showed it to others with great pride. It was still there when she died twenty years later.

My early years in the Community of St John the Baptist

Life in the noviciate over fifty years ago was very different to now. We had virtually no free time, had no personal possessions, never handled money, never went out without permission, ate in silence in our allotted place in the refectory, wrote only six letters a month and never made phone calls. The list could go on. But deep down I was happy. Happy despite darkness in prayer and no prospect of returning to my career. 

Once I was life professed I did the Gilmore House course to become a licenced parish worker and embarked on parish ministry which I loved. But all through the 17 years I did this work I was the only sister whose work was focused outside the convent and this gave me a different perspective to my sisters. I longed for the Community to return to its original charism of reaching out to those on the margins, but with diminishing numbers it had become more inward looking and resistant to change. The vast Victorian building was now too big for them but the upheaval of moving would bring was too daunting.

Joining the Community of St Francis

So eventually, after 26 years, following a two years probation, I transferred my vows to the Community of St Francis. This enabled me to live in small Community houses embedded in deprived urban settings and opened doors into counselling training, hospital chaplaincy and for 14 years, prison chaplaincy, first at Brixton Prison then at Wormwood Scrubs. I retired from salaried employment nearly six years ago when I turned 70. In January 2019 I celebrated the Golden Jubilee of my Profession. It has always been a challenging life but I have never regretted my early decision to take the plunge and give it a try.  All these years later the call persists… I guess God knew best!

Sr Gina receiving a blessing from Sr Sue at her Golden Jubilee.
Sr Gina cutting a cake at her Golden Jubilee
The Community of St Francis
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