… at least, famous in the C S Lewis sense. If I remember rightly, for I have not got my copy of ‘The Great Divorce’ to hand, he heard singing and joyful tumult, and asked his guide who was coming. The reply came that it was one of the Great Ones, who on earth had been Sarah Smith of Golders Green. I count myself privileged to be old enough to have known some of the great ones of the Anglo-Catholic Movement – not, of course, Newman and Pusey, nor even Dom Gregory Dix and Dr Mascall – but rather some of those ordinary but wonderful lay women, usually single, devoted to their parishes and to their priests, who were once such stalwarts of the Faith.
Emily Lenderyou, always known as ‘Lindy’ was well into her seventies when I went to be priest-in-charge of St Edmund, Forest Gate. She had moved as a child into a house in the parish which her parents had bought before the First World War. She had cared for both of them until they died, and had been a civil servant. Taken to St Edmund’s in her teens by a friend, she was a was a loyal and even fierce supporter of its tradition. Mass every Sunday, a regular penitent, her financial giving sacrificial to the point of recklessness, she was a talented seamstress, and made two albs and two cottas which I still wear, decorated with rows of fine drawn thread work. There was nothing of the ‘narrow minded spinster’ about her, and she seemed instinctively to understand many of the pressures which a priest nearly fifty years younger than her was subjected to. She was wise, funny and contented. She saw the church she had worshipped in all her life demolished and redeveloped, and she amazed the Bishop on the day of the consecration of the altar in the new Church Centre by telling him, ‘This is the happiest day of my life.’ Well into her eighties, her wonderful Irish doctor found she had a slow and painless cancer. He got her into St Joseph’s Hospice where she had a marvellous six months, made all the net curtains for my new Vicarage, and travelled by builders’ van (more kind friends) to see my new church. She asked me to leave her for a time in front of the Blessed Sacrament altar. When she died I grieved for my loss and rejoiced for her gain. I still do.
Eileen King had been a missionary teacher in Papua New Guinea returning to retire to Plaistow in East London. She had worked with them overseas, and in retirement was close to their house at Balaam Street. She joined the congregation at St Philip’s Plaistow where I was Rector. She was tall and angular, strode round the parish collecting children (she revived the youth work in the parish) and would hoot with laughter. She looked after the altar linen and one Holy Saturday fell down the steps behind the Blessed Sacrament Altar. Although badly shaken and bruised she refused to go to hospital. ‘They might keep me in and I’d miss the Easter Vigil’ she said – and she got her way. During this time her block of flats was being upgraded, to turn the bed-sits with shared bathrooms into self-contained one bedroom flats. Eileen was appalled at such extravagance, and threatened to sub-let her bedroom if she was not given one of the two ‘bed-sitters’ which were left. She got her way! By this time the controversy over the ordination of women was under way and dividing our parish. She told me that she had always wanted to see women ordained. But she did not believe that I and others were misogynists and that we had done more to enable the ministry of women in our parish than anywhere she had known. I treasure that: it gave me great comfort at a very difficult time in my life. Eileen was taken ill while with friends in Yorkshire. She stayed in hospital in the north because she thought that people might “fuss” if she came back to London. She badgered the Lord to take her home, and he did two weeks before I left the parish. I celebrated her funeral Mass on the day before I moved.
Thanks be to God for the service that these women gave to his Church and to us, his priests. May they receive the reward of their labours.