Saturday, 27 November 2010

A chapter of my life closed forever

I received sad news from Ireland yesterday. Sister Victoire Murphy has died.

I saw her last in 2002 at the launch of my book - a history of the Manchester school I attended. She'd flown over from Ireland, against doctor's advice, to meet  hundreds of her former pupils and her former Chair of Governers, Dame Kathleen Ollerenshawe.

Sister Victoire spent her remaining years in a nursing home in Limerick. Her final weeks saw her in considerable pain (she'd suffered with back problems for decades) and immobile. The email I received yesterday spoke of her "just hanging in there in her inimitable way".

Sister Victoire took her FCJ name from that of the Foundress of the FCJs, Marie Madeleine, Victoire, de Bengy, de Bonnault de d’Houët. Sister Victoire also shared the Foundress' spirit and vision. Courage and confidence was a prayerful wish the Foundress often offered to others. Both women lived their lives with courage and confidence.

I'm unable to put what I'm feeling into words. All I know is that this woman played a huge part in making me who I am today. Her guidance, by example, to all 'her girls' was rooted in the philosophy of the FCJs.

Marie Madeleine, Victoire,
 Companionship is central to the FCJ philosophy of education; companionship expressed through faithfulness, gentleness and respect. Respect that begins with the self.

 Any time a girl was 'in trouble' at school, Sister Victoire made it clear that she was disappointed that the culprit had let herself down rather than the school.  She had high expectations of all the pupils in her care and was, in the words of the old cliché 'firm but fair'. The one time I believed I had been treated unfairly by the school, I stormed into her office and demanded an explanation - which I got.

At Old Trafford with boys from the Prep in the early 1970s

All this makes Sister Victoire sound stuffy and serious. On the contrary, like her namesake, she had a great sense of humour and enjoyed life to the full. She was a fan of Manchester United (Matt Busby gave her a seat in the Directors' box) and persuaded team members to act as linesmen and referee at the Prep School Annual football match.

With Matt Busby and George Best c1967

She liked a glass of wine and good food (I cooked dinner for her during our week-long collaboration on the research for the book). As I got to know her a little better during that week, it was clear that if she hadn't become an FCJ, she would have been a terrific business woman. She persuaded George Best to stand for hours to be photographed with individual girls to raise funds for the school. All George received in return was her thanks and, probably, a cup of tea in the convent when it was all over.


I'm hoping that a group of 'old girls' living within striking distance of London will get together in the New Year and raise a glass or two of something a little stronger than tea to the memory of this remarkable woman.

I was not to know that my Mum would die less than a month after writing this, on 22 December.