Last member of Dominican Sisters of the Charity of the Presentation of Our Lady returns to France

A Berkshire parish church said goodbye this week to the last surviving member of the order of Dominican Sisters of the Charity of the Presentation of Our Lady.

Following the death of Sister Veronica, 100, in December last year, Sister Thérèse, 90, became the order’s last surviving nun.

Now she leaves the town of Wokingham and returns to her roots in France. Around 250 people, including children from the town’s St Teresa’s Catholic Academy, parishioners, residents, and deputy borough mayor Cllr Adrian Mather, came to a farewell mass for her at Corpus Christi Catholic Church, led by Parish Priest Canon Simon Thomson.

After 60 years serving as a teacher, Sr Thérèse will join nuns at a Dominican convent near Toulouse.

Sr Thérèse began her work in Wokingham in 1967 and has remained here ever since, teaching thousands of children.

“I was born in a tiny mountain village, Montréjeau, in the Pyrenees Mountains on the Spanish border,” she told The Wokingham Times.

“It was lovely growing up there, and there were happy times.”

But life could also be hard.

“I’ve gone through a lot,” she said.

“There were difficult periods, even days without food. The war affected us enormously, and taught us a lot. When it ended there was an atmosphere of friendship, helpfulness and gratitude.”

After secondary education in Bearritz, she began looking after children whose parents weren’t able to care for them, in Montauban, 50km from Toulouse.

“I arrived three days before my job started, and I needed somewhere to stay,” she said.

“I took a room at the convent hostel in Montauban, and it was so good that I never looked anywhere else.”

It was there that she chose her life’s path.

“I had always wanted to be a nun, even as a child, but in Montauban I decided to give my life to the Lord,” she explained.

By coincidence, it is to the same town that she will return to live later this month.

Sr Thérèse has language degrees and is fluent in English, Spanish and French, but it wasn’t her decision to become a teacher.

After she had assisted the nuns in French convents, she was asked if she would prefer to teach Spanish or English.

“Coming from where I grew up, of course I said Spanish,” she said.

“But they said, ‘hard luck, you’re going to England, the sisters in Wokingham need another nun to help them.’ I was the only one with enough English, so I came. The sisters told me: ‘you are going to teach,’ and so I did.”

The sisters first came to Wokingham in 1904, and took rooms above what is now the Edinburgh Woollen Mill.

“The children were mostly from poor Irish Catholic families escaping the troubles,” she said.

“But Catholics and non Catholics alike were all welcomed. It was lovely, and the sisters did a lot of good.”

Eventually the nuns bought the plot of land where Corpus Christi Catholic Church and St Teresa’s Catholic Academy now stand. They built Presentation Convent (now two private houses), and St Teresa’s Primary School.

“When I arrived, I decided to do whatever I was asked,” continued Sr Thérèse.

“It was hard to begin with – everything was different, and English money, especially counting in 12s was very difficult – until decimalisation.”

She did enjoy teaching, though.

“I gave my best, and I made the children produce their best, too,” she said.

“I know at times I was strict, but I hope I was always fair.

Canon Simon Thomson, and parish administrator Hannah Procter at Corpus Christi Church were both her pupils.

“Father Simon, and Hannah were both good students, but Hannah dreaded me because she wasn’t good at spelling and I was trying to help her to improve,” she said.

“It was a good thing, though, because with the job she has now, she needs to be able to spell well.”

One year Sr Thérèse had 53 children in her class.

“There were no regulations,” she said.

“As long as you could manage, you could have as many pupils as you liked.

“And once the children were seated on benches, they couldn’t move until playtime because they would have to step over the others to get out.

“But they were happy – it was a very happy time.”

In his thanksgiving address Canon Thomson celebrated her 60 years in Wokingham, and 120 years of service from the Dominican sisters.

He said: “I feel enormously privileged to be here. Who would imagine that little Simon, her pupil, would one day end up as the parish priest of Corpus Christi where he grew up as a boy.

“I’ll never forget my first Saturday evening Mass five years ago, with Sr Thérèse sitting there. I was 59 at the time, but I felt seven years old in her presence. We have never lost touch, and I am so thankful for those formative school years.

“We wish Sr Thérèse every blessing in this next stage of her life. She and the sisters have been witness to their faith and will be remembered for a very long time.”

When she returns to France, Sr Thérèse says she will accept whatever her new convent would like her to do.

“I will re-adapt to living in France, and to speaking French,” she said.

Asked what is important to her, she said: “I believe in prayer, and making sure I say thank you to the Lord, even when something bad happens – because something good will happen eventually.

“I firmly believe this gives me the strength to carry on. My motto is to ‘live and to die in the service of God and my neighbour’. It is what I and my sisters have tried to do all our lives.

“I have tried to give my best. I didn’t always succeed – I had failures like everybody, but I had quite a few successes, too. I found my strength in the Lord, and in prayer.”

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Story and pic. courtesy Wokingham Times