Sr Catherine of Jesus at Wood Hall Carmel near Wetherby celebrated her Platinum Jubilee (70 years of religious Profession) on Saturday 25thMay 2019.  The whole community from Thicket Priory Carmel (York) travelled to Wood Hall for the Mass, celebrated by Bishop Marcus Stock together with a good number of clergy from the Diocese of Leeds, and also attended by many other religious sisters and friends of the community. At the end of the Mass, Sr Philomena, the Prioress of Wood Hall gave this address:

There is a motto on our Carmelite crest which says: Zelo zelatus sum pro Domine Deus exercitum“With zeal I have been zealous for the Lord God of Hosts   (“I am filled with zealous zeal for the Lord God of Hosts”)

This is the answer of Elijah the prophet when questioned by God why he had fled into the desert after the confrontation with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. This is the motto which we, as Carmelites, try to live out day by day.

I thought immediately of this motto when thinking of what could be said on this occasion when Sr Catherine celebrates 70 years of dedication to God and his people through her prayer and self-giving.

If there is a word which sums up Sr Catherine it is desire, that zeal for the coming of God’s kingdom on earth which is the heart of her very being. Over all the years from her entrance into Carmel until today, she has never lost that first keenness to know Christ. “All I want is to know Christ and the power of his resurrection…”and to pray that His Kingdom may come. She has inspired so many with the same desire.

She shared with me only recently the grace that touched and changed her life, moving her to leave her large and loving family for the desert of Carmel.

She was always keen on study and when her class was asked to read a section of St Matthew’s Gospel for their homework, she decided to read the whole Gospel at one go. This had a profound effect on her and from that time onwards she set her sights on giving her life to the One she had met in those pages.

The rest, as they say, is history. She entered Carmel at 19 and never looked back. Catherine’s love for her vocation has been, and still is, an inspiration to us all. Her keenness to explore the truth and to give herself has never wavered and urges us all on to do the same. 

Catherine grew up in Manchester in a working class family with devoted, hard working parents. She was fourth child of seven siblings: three boys and four girls, always considered as the sensible one! She was 12 years old when the Second World War was declared and she and her siblings experienced separation: the three boys going off to fight and the girls being evacuated from the city for safety. This didn’t last long for Catherine because she was very homesick, so she returned home. (The truth was that she complained so much about the landlady’s cooking that she departed from there by mutual agreement!) So the nightly bombing of the city was experienced by her at first hand. Her mother’s drapery shop got a direct hit but with the usual Lancashire wit she put a sign up in the smashed window to say “Business as usual!” 

Catherine is a well travelled Carmelite! She entered first at Manchester but this was too near her family, so then was transferred to Exmouth in Devon. From there, because a noisy neighbourhood had developed close by, the community moved to Thicket Priory, near York. Here she met big challenges.

Catherine is very much a city girl who loves the bright city lights – and sees so little of them now! At York, in the heart of the country they were obliged to have an enclosure wall built around their 23 acre property. They had very little money, earning their living by baking altar breads. So the Prioress decided they would establish a poultry farm to pay for the wall. And Catherine was asked to take charge of it – having to learn from scratch something beyond her experience or inclination. To her credit the monastery ended up with over 5000 hens and raised enough money to complete the wall.

Our foundation here from York was made in 1969 but Catherine did not come then as she was needed in the much reduced community there. She was sent to Wood Hall in 1971to help consolidate the new foundation here at Wood Hall. She was elected our first prioress at the end of that year. She is a born leader and has led our community with great wisdom and gentleness over many years. She fully embraced the renewal that was asked of us by the Church after the 2nd Vatican Council with great energy. And has been a great friend and guide to us and to many outside out community.

So, Catherine, we can only say “Thank you” for your response to His call over all these years, for your zeal and dedication –  and praise the Lord for all He has done for us through you.