Byline: Peter McMenemy
For someone who described herself as a reluctant convert to the Roman Catholic Church, Mother Mary Garson's achievements in founding and running a Benedictine congregation for over half a century - now spanning three continents - have been described, by the former Papal Nuncio Archbishop Pablo Puente, as "a true miracle of our times".
She came from a Presbyterian background; her career had involved wartime service in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force, industrial work and educational psychology in child guidance clinics before a chance meeting changed her life. Having been impressed with the faith of a Catholic family with whom she stayed "on the Continent", she became a convert in 1947. She described herself as "the kind that left bed and enthralled reading just in time to attend the 12 o'clock Sunday Mass - the last possible".
Garson asked a friend to find her a priest modern and unshockable, "not realising that all were of the latter category". A Jesuit, Fr Bernard Basset, enlisted her into the Cell Movement, a continuation of RAF leadership courses. This involved weekly meetings of active Catholics, discussion of the Gospel and apostolic work. "Slowly I came to realise God's goodness and my need," she wrote later. "Father Basset, despite evidence to the contrary, thought I had a vocation."
While Garson was considering that advice, the chaplain of her local cell in Brighton asked her to visit a semi-blind old lady, caring for her blind sister and a 90-year-old friend, both bedridden. "The conditions in which they lived were appalling," she recalled:
Could I do something? Compassion impelled me. Fear, lack of experience and domesticity held me back.
She went on retreat to think and pray. Her local chaplain asked her how much she would need to buy a house for needy people. Garson guessed at PS800. The priest told her that, by coincidence, he had been given exactly that sum by someone who knew nothing of their plan. In March 1954 she received the Catholic Church's approval for the project.
Fifty years later, Mother Mary celebrated the golden jubilee in a packed Arundel Cathedral with the Papal Nuncio presiding; she was head of a congregation - the Sisters of Our Lady of Grace and Compassion - with over 200 sisters, more than 300 paid staff and hundreds of lay volunteers.
Mary Sunniva Garson was born in 1921 at Udny Green, Aberdeenshire. She studied at Inverdon Academy and Aberdeen University, where she gained an MA in Psychology. She was then commissioned as an officer in the Waaf, working on the testing procedures for RAF recruits before being seconded to the Army to help on the diagnostic testing of soldiers returning from Burma.
When she opened her first house for the needy in Brighton, the only seating at their inaugural meeting was wheelchairs. They decorated the house before the sale was completed. Their original idea was to form a community of dedicated men and women living a life of prayer, hospitality and compassion. For 18 months, Garson continued working as an educational psychologist at a child guidance clinic.
On trains travelling to work, "in ignorance and with freezing fingers", she drafted a set of rules for her community. Her archbishop forbade having men in the group. Other difficulties followed; one priest urged guarantors for the house purchase to withdraw from such a wildcat scheme.
Within three years, Garson and her helpers had acquired another house next door, increased the number of their residents to about 40 and started the first sheltered accommodation scheme in a third house, with flats for the active elderly. Inspecting a country club that had previously been the home of Dame Vera Lynn, Garson surveyed the club's bar and told the owner: "This would make a beautiful chapel."
Today the Grace and Compassion Benedictine congregation runs five residential homes and a nursing unit in the UK and 11 schemes of retirement flats; five foundations in India, two in Sri Lanka and one each in Kenya and Uganda. When the community adopted the Rule of St Benedict as a way of life in 1978, Mother Mary saw this to be both sensible and practical; she no doubt recognised St Benedict as one of the first and greatest of management consultants who knew how to make a human organisation work and prosper in harmony in all the problems of daily life in a community.
Mother Mary Garson was appointed MBE in 2004. Her citation said:
Mother Mary has been an inspiration to those who have worked with her, instigating and nurturing each development, and continually promoting the vision of individual dignity. Mother Mary is profoundly generous, acutely aware of other people's needs and ready to make herself available whatever the demand. She has engendered an overwhelming family feeling about the charity, attracting people of all religious faiths, and, by her example, they foster participation and unity.
Mary Sunniva Garson, educational psychologist and nun: born Udny Green, Aberdeenshire 3 October 1921; professed a nun of the Sisters of Our Lady of Grace and Compassion 1962, Prioress-General 1985-2005; MBE 2004; died Bognor Regis, West Sussex 8 March 2007.