Community on retreat 22-30 July. Services open; shop closed.

Dame Felicitas Corrigan

(1908 – 2003) b. Liverpool 6 March; d. Nazareth House, Cheltenham 7 October

As she was dying in Nazareth House, aged ninety-five, Dame Felicitas was offered a cup of tea in a plastic cup ‘because it’s safer’. ‘I prefer to live dangerously’ she retorted. Her refusal to play safe manifested itself in many ways – she saw her vocation to be a Benedictine nun as a call to ‘launch out into the deep’, to approach the God of truth, goodness and especially beauty. Her willingness to go into print, sometimes with unpopular opinions, demanded courage, as did, perhaps, her confrontational style of conversation. Her generosity often took her beyond safe limits, and could take others beyond their comfort zones as well. Both her gift for friendship and style of argument probably stemmed from the rough and tumble of life in a big lively family.

Kathleen Corrigan was the second of eight surviving children of a Liverpool taxi driver and his wife Edith Breze. The three eldest children, Mary, Kathleen and Harry formed a triumvirate of formidable intellect, strong musical gifts and sharp sense of humour. When very young, Kathleen learnt to play the organ and accompanied Midnight Mass every year from the age of fourteen until she was seventy. She won a scholarship to read English at Liverpool University; her dissertation was on Coventry Patmore, who remained for her an ideal of the Catholic husband and father. She also won the first organ scholarship offered by the Liverpool Archdiocese. She entered Stanbrook Abbey in 1933 and was for the length of the novitiate the senior of another lively family of eight.

Early in her monastic life she presented Abbess Laurentia McLachlan with her first literary offering, a compilation of letters: Any Saint to any Nun and continued writing for the next sixty years, producing fifteen books in all, and countless articles. After Abbess Laurentia’s death in 1953 she wrote In a Great Tradition which includes the history of our community from 1623 to the then-present as well as a portrait of Dame Laurentia and some of her many friends, notably George Bernard Shaw and Sir Sydney Cockerell.

Perhaps Dame Felicitas will best be remembered as the biographer of Helen Waddell, the Presbyterian medievalist from Northern Ireland. Helen’s niece, Mollie Martin, supplied Dame Felicitas with many hundreds of letters and other pages of Helen’s scrawl which enabled her to get into Helen’s mind and heart and present her to the world in a way which seemed authentic to those who knew her best. This book won its author the James Tait Black Memorial prize for biography and led to many other projects, including the editing of Helen’s unpublished translations of medieval Latin authors with the title More Latin Lyrics. The introduction is one of the finest pieces of Dame Felicitas’s writing – vivid and poetic but sparer and less flowery than some of her earlier writing.

Her close friends included Siegfried Sassoon about whose conversion to Roman Catholicism she wrote the delightful Poet’s Pilgrimage; Alec Guinness with whom she exchanged four thousand letters, some of which plumb great depths; and the novelist Rumer Godden, whose In this House of Brede, modelled on a pre-Vatican II Stanbrook, was an attempt to make amends for an earlier unflattering portrayal of nuns in Black Narcissus. But not all Dame Felicitas’ friends were famous; they included many ordinary men, women and children, of all ages and many nationalities, educated and not. She was equally concerned for the physical and spiritual well-being of them all and was utterly devoted to her ever-increasing family.

For decades she coped with her ever-growing circle of correspondents by writing a circular letter – two closely typed pages of foolscap, brimful of anecdotes, observations, literary allusions and insights garnered from her own rich spiritual experience and wide reading, and usually with a few sentences in her beautiful neat script added for each individual recipient. She often quoted her favourite translation of the New Testament: John Lingard’s.

Her jobs in the monastery included printing, gardening, running the library and sacristy, and for a year she was the cook: ‘the year we dined at the Ritz’ (on feast days). She excelled in all she did, but she was a supreme organist. She ‘built us temples in our sense of sound’, to quote Rilke. When failing sight caused her to stop playing all her creative powers seemed to suffer. Fiercely conservative, she resisted the vernacular liturgy – she claimed she prayed always in Latin – yet her setting of Compline in English has been described as peerless. She was a wonderful teacher with the imagination to discern and solve the difficulties of the pupil: ‘Come DOWN onto the note as if you were ski-ing down a mountain!’ On occasion she’d say hopefully ‘Did I make you cry?’  She was unstintingly generous with her time and experience to many students of many different disciplines, Gregorian Chant, theology, Helen Waddell, the role of the deaconess in the early Church, to name but the most obvious.

Dame Felicitas was not an easy person to live with, but her kindness and generosity could leave one gasping. To a novice in search of a container for some branches with which to decorate the church door she offered her own tin bath. The trouble was that she expected everybody else to be as generous as she was herself, especially to her host of friends. When almost seventy and in poor health she volunteered to go to Nigeria to help a young Igbo community there. This was not a success and she returned within three months.

In repose her face was serious, even sad, but when she smiled or laughed it was as if the sun suddenly came out over a grey lake. She liked nothing better than a sparring match with another whose intellect and knowledge matched her own; a combatant unequal to the task could easily feel bullied. The only remedy, if possible, was to make her laugh.

Alexander Myers recalls his first encounter with ‘the Dame’. Having long desired to meet her he rang Stanbrook and asked to speak to her.

Alexander: Am I speaking to Dame Felicitas Corrigan?

Dame F: I prefer to be addressed as Sister Felicitas.

Alexander: I am so sorry, Sister Felicitas. I am ringing to ask if it might be possible to visit you at your convent.

Dame F: I don’t live in a convent. I live in a monastery!

Alexander: I am so sorry. If it would be possible for me to come to visit you in your monastery, I wondered if it would be possible for me to spend some time praying in your chapel.

Dame F: We don’t have a chapel. We have a church!

They became firm friends.

Dame Felicitas is a subject of the ‘Oxford National Dictionary of Biography’.