Dame Felicitas Corrigan

Writer with a Benedictine gift for friendship

Kathleen Corrigan, writer, organist and nun: born Liverpool 6 March 1908; entered the Benedictine Order, Stanbrook Abbey 1933, taking the name Sister Felicitas, clothed in monastic habit 1934, took solemn vows 1938; Organist, Stanbrook Abbey 1933-90; died Cheltenham, Gloucestershire 7 October 2003.

Dame Felicitas Corrigan OSB was one of the great Benedictine figures of the 20th century - a century she experienced personally almost from beginning to end. She was 95 when she died on 7 October (feast of the Rosary, in the year of the Rosary declared last October by Pope John Paul II). The anonymous author of a religious classic about life at Stanbrook Abbey, appropriately entitled In a Great Tradition, she exemplified many of the qualities of that monastic tradition which has so deeply moulded English civilisation.

The nuns of Stanbrook near Worcester are an enclosed community, devoted to prayer according to the Benedictine pattern, the regular chanting of the Divine Office, interspersed with both manual and intellectual work. Dame Felicitas, born Kathleen Corrigan in Liverpool in 1908, one of 14 children (eight of whom survived into adulthood), entered the abbey in 1933.

A talented organist, who at the age of 23 had won the first organ scholarship offered by the Archdiocese of Liverpool, she contributed her services in this capacity from her arrival right through until 1990. She also directed the choir. She was a well-known proponent of the plainchant, laying the foundations of modal music for Mass and Office during the changes from Latin to English after the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.

She wrote the Office of Compline for Stanbrook, and, whilst bemoaning the loss of Latin as a liturgical language, threw herself into the creation of a worthy English substitute. She well understood that, if English were to be used, translations must be of a poetic and theological quality which could truly lift the soul out of the mundane, an insight which appears prophetic in the light of liturgical squabbles that have plagued the Church in recent decades.

Stanbrook has become known over the years for its cultural riches. Besides its musical tradition, a strong interest in art and typography is evident in the work of the Stanbrook Abbey Press. But perhaps the greatest cultural expression of faith in the abbey was the gift for friendship with those on the outside of the convent walls. Many of these have been well-known literary or artistic figures, whilst other unknown and unsung souls have turned to the nuns for advice and spiritual sustenance.

Dame Laurentia McLachlan, who was Dame Felicitas's first, and most influential, superior, maintained not only a fascinating correspondence, but a first-hand friendship (the Stanbrook parlour is never knowingly underused) with George Bernard Shaw and Sir Sydney Cockerell. This was documented not only by In a Great Tradition (1956, subtitled "Tribute to Dame Laurentia McLachlan, Abbess of Stanbrook") but also in a later book by Dame Felicitas, The Nun, the Infidel & the Superman (1985; revised and reissued as Friends of a Lifetime, 1990). This was the basis for Hugh Whitemore's highly successful play The Best of Friends, also made into a 1991 film, starring Sir John Gielgud as Cockerell, Patrick McGoohan as Shaw and Dame Wendy Hiller as Dame Laurentia.

One of Dame Felicitas's concerns was to show how the enclosed religious life was at the centre, rather than the periphery, of all that makes life worth living. For her, the Benedictine gift of hospitality required by extension a deep appreciation of human friendship. In the great tradition of her forebears, Dame Felicitas developed intense literary and spiritual friendships with a diverse range of people, including Sir Alec Guinness and his wife Merula Salaman, the novelist Rumer Godden, and the poet Siegfried Sassoon, whose later poems of religious conversion, A Path to Peace, she edited and Stanbrook Abbey Press printed in 1960. This was followed in 1973 by Siegfried Sassoon: poet's pilgrimage, in which Dame Felicitas drew on her voluminous correspondence with the poet.

Another figure whom she admired, and promoted even though she had never met her in this life, was the brilliant medievalist Helen Waddell, a number of whose translations from the Latin she edited, and whose biography she published in 1986. Helen Waddell won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. George Thomas of Soho (1970) was a reminder that suffering and deprivation in early life may bear remarkable fruit, as it did in the life of Alec Guinness, who wrote the foreword.

I first met Dame Felicitas Corrigan in the early Eighties, when I was researching the topic of women and Christianity. She had recently returned to her native Liverpool as a delegate to the National Pastoral Congress. For all her liturgical and moral conservatism, she engaged fearlessly and open-mindedly with the issues of the day. Reflecting from the calm perspective of the contemplative life, whose end is to examine everything not according to passing fashion but sub specie aeternitatis, she thought that the issue of women in the priesthood should be addressed through a more profound apprehension of the meaning of gender.

Being herself endowed with a particularly strong personality, she sympathised with the desire of women to have a more clearly acknowledged and defined role in the Church. Yet she disagreed with the push for the priesthood as such, which she saw as overturning an incontrovertible fact of nature, not to mention the centrality of symbolic significance in the divine plan. She speculated on whether the role of deaconess, referred to in the New Testament and in early church documents, should instead be revived.

Believing that an understanding of history was vital to sound decisions, Dame Felicitas wrote extensively about powerful female figures such as St Scholastica, Heloise or St Hildegard of Bingen. An extract on Hildegard, from her highly popular Benedictine Tapestry (1991), gives the flavour of her argument:

In her own downright fashion, Hildegard strongly supports the equality of man and woman: "Man cannot be called man without woman, neither can woman be called woman without man." Biologically and essentially different, they are equal in partnership, a balance between hierarchy and complementarity. The man, she holds, represents Christ's divinity, the woman his humanity, and the two are inseparable. Sexuality has a value quite apart from marriage; it forms the spiritual being of man, so that each sex is given a specific task in the human community in general. When she searches for a figure to express God's supreme love for all that he has made, she can find none nobler than the union of man and woman in marriage.

It was this spousal model, out of fashion in theological circles in the post-Sixties period, but now making something of a comeback under the influence of the present Pope, that was at the centre of Dame Felicitas's fascination with the neglected Victorian poet Coventry Patmore, who had been the subject of her undergraduate thesis at Liverpool University. Patmore was regarded in his own day as a master of English language and metrical form, though he is now overshadowed by the genius of another Roman Catholic convert, Gerard Manley Hopkins. Felicitas saw Patmore as foreshadowing the Second Vatican Council, as an authentic mystic, and as the prophet of marital spirituality. His "Angel in the House", conventionally dismissed as a merely sentimental expression of Victorian family values, she saw as a rigorous exposition of the teachings of the "Angelic Doctor" - St Thomas Aquinas.

Rigour was something that strongly marked Dame Felicitas, not only in her writing, but in her friendships. She could appear forbidding when questioning or enlightening the unsuspecting visitor. "Enunciate!" she once admonished my quietly spoken husband. Her own diction was perfect, a quality I noticed also in the Sister who read at her funeral. But it was all done with a smile: the playful cuffs were part of the she-bear-hug. Surge, surge, she was exhorting the troops.

She wrote us many letters of encouragement during the 1990s, as we tried to found a Centre for Faith and Culture and its accompanying journal, Second Spring. When she praised, it carried weight, since she did not squander praise lightly. She was in every sense a mother, enquiring after our health, the progress of the children, and telling us to take St Joseph as our managing director. She once told me, in our discussions about the role of women, that the worst disaster for a nun was to be a spiritual spinster.

Along with the acuity went a marvellous sense of humour, which underpinned her very real humility. "Heaven help the Church if I am a theologian!" she annotated a factually disorientated gossip column sent for our delectation in 1991 at the time Benedictine Tapestry was being promoted. The columnist had muddled her up with Dame Laurentia, claiming that Felicitas had enjoyed a friendship with Shaw ("this would make me 150 years old"). She loved hilarious anecdote:

A father took his little son to Mass; the genuflexion was dutifully copied, and, when the father knelt, the little one followed suit, but his head did not reach even the desk of the pew. Soon a stage whisper enquired: "Daddy, who are we hiding from?"

This is taken from one of her famous round-robin letters, at the end of which she rhapsodised on the readings for the season ("the Latin comes trippingly, and means so much more, is so much richer in content"), before ending with:

The moment I begin to be pious (shades of Daisy Ashford and her young visitors) is the signal to stop. My greetings and heartfelt thanks for [here follows a list which I dare not put down . . .]. Thank you. Thank you.

These are the words that came to me, as we followed Dame Felicitas Corrigan's coffin into the company of generations of remarkable women interred at the heart of Stanbrook, the golden light of autumn illuminating the glorious cloister, whose traditions, thanks to women like this, are as vital as ever.

Leonie Caldecott

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