(1908 – 2003)
Nun and Writer
Dame Felicita Corrigan was a Benedictine nun in the Order of Saint Benedict, author and humanitarian. “Dame” is not a title of honour but the monastic form of address, equivalent to the “Dom” used of monks. Both terms have been in continuous use since the middle ages.
She was born Kathleen Corrigan, on March 6, 1908 into a large Liverpool family, and developed a talent as an organist. In 1933 she entered Stanbrook Abbey in Wiltshire as a nun, and eventually became director of its choir. One of her projects was to develop an English language version of the office of compline for the abbey.
At the age of 25 Kathleen decided to be a nun. It was a mature age to experience a calling, and for a time, it seems, Miss Corrigan was not at all sure she wanted to be called. She was staying at Stanbrook Abbey, a rather grim-looking pile in the English Midlands that houses a Benedictine convent. She was studying Gregorian chant, for which the abbey was noted. She spent three days in a cell, decided that was enough and on her departure returned to the earthly life of sin by buying a packet of cigarettes and theNews of the World, then as now the most scurrilous of Britain’s Sunday papers.
At least that was her story, possibly exaggerated: she had a sense of humour. What was uncontested was that the abbess of the convent, Laurentia McLachlan, eventually persuaded her to join the community, and she took the name of Felicitas Corrigan, with the title of “dame”, the female equivalent of “dom” for a monk. The abbess had a gift for friendship, Dame Felicitas recalled, and perhaps that helped to change her mind and accept the privations of convent life.
Laurentia was no ordinary abbess. Although the convent was “enclosed” and a nun had to speak to a visitor through a double iron-grille, the abbess had formed friendships with many people in the outside world, among them George Bernard Shaw, who described her as “a woman without frontiers”. In a letter the dramatist wrote, “Though you are an enclosed nun you do not have an enclosed mind.” That also exactly describes Dame Felicitas. After her mentor Laurentia died in 1955, she continued the practice of offering the values of the convent to the outside world. Perhaps the best known of her friends were Siegfried Sassoon, some of whose poems she had printed on the press at the abbey, Rumer Godden, whose novel “In This House of Brede” is set in a convent like Stanbrook’s, and Alec Guinness. While writing his recent biography about the actor, Piers Paul Read had access to 832 letters in the abbey archives written by Guinness to Dame Felicitas about his problems.
Her father was Irish, but like many from poverty-stricken Ireland at that time he found work in England. He got a job as a taxi driver in Liverpool. Her parents had eight children to bring up. But they were careful with money and Kathleen was clever. She said that she had thought about being a nun as a child, although this used to be a common fancy of children steeped in Catholicism. She took her mother’s advice and decided that, whatever lay ahead in her life, she should first get an education. She gained a degree in English at Liverpool University, a remarkable achievement: this was a time when women in Britain still did not have the vote. She trained as a teacher. She had a talent as an organist and won a scholarship to study the instrument. So music was the discipline that first brought her to Stanbrook Abbey.
She wrote 15 books, among them affectionate accounts of Laurentia McLachlan, and most of them providing an insight into a normally hidden world. She wrote a book about saints and their more human characteristics, entertainingly picking out what journalists call “the busy bits”. In another book she describes a novice’s reception into the centuries-old order of St Benedict. The novice exchanged her “silks and ornaments” for a plain tunic. Then “the great enclosure door swung open in answer to the novice’s importunate knocking, and presently closed slowly again behind her, shutting out the world and its vanities for ever.”
In the course of her career, Dame Felicitas befriended and/or corresponded with several famous figures, notably the poet Siegfried Sasson (whose conversion to Catholicism was owing in part to her influence), actor Alec Guinness, and novelist Rumer Godden. She wrote a prize-winning biography of Helen Waddell.. The Nun, the Infidel, and the Superman, one of the books inspired by her predecessor, Dame Laurentia McLachlan, was turned into a play by Hugh Whitemore and later a film starring Wendy Hiller as Dame Laurentia.
Not everyone who came to the abbey accepted its faith. Brother Bernard, as the abbey called him, came close. The author of “St Joan” was fascinated by the power of prayer. Tired of being a celebrity, Shaw said he envied the “freedom” behind the iron bars. But in the end he kept his distance. Sassoon became a Catholic at the age of 70, seemingly finding peace after being haunted by memories of the first world war. Dame Felicitas saw him as “a 20th- century portent”, a summing up of “the war-tortured, spiritually bewildered, forsaken and blindly seeking men of our times”. The dame could write.
Although the Benedictines are not a missionary order, for Dame Felicitas such encounters were special experiences in a mostly routine life, regulated, as she put it, by bells. “The daily life of a strictly enclosed nun, however romantic to the imagination of a casual observer, offers little that is exciting or dramatic: six hours a day in her stall at choir, two or more hours of manual work in field or house, reading, study, the companionship of the same familiar circle. It is a life spent in hammering out within the silent factory of the cloister benefits that are imponderable but priceless.” After reforms by the Vatican, life at the abbey changed marginally. The iron grilles came down. A visitor these days can talk to a nun in the comfort of a parlour.
Dame Felicitas, the nun who could tolerate the News of the World, could also rebel against the discipline of goodness, of, as she put it, being “ordered by another from morning to night”. She was tempted by the idea of having tea made in a china pot and served with buttered toast. But there was no time for that at the abbey. That indulgence, she said, would have to be put off until she got to heaven.
Dame Felicitas wrote about other figures in whom she was interested, including Hildegard of Bingen and the poet Coventry Patmore. She also edited publications for the Stanbrook Abbey Press. Other works include:
In a Great Tradition (1956)
George Thomas of Soho (1970)
Siegfried Sassoon: Poet’s Pilgrimage (1973)
Benedictine Tapestry (1991)
– Wikipedia ‘The Free Encyclopedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Felicitas_Corrigan
– The Economist October 16, 2003
Nun and scholar who gave guidance to the famous
Thursday October 23, 2003
The Guardian, Manchester, England
For one who had spent almost her entire adult life in a secluded Benedictine abbey, Dame Felicitas Corrigan, who has died aged 95, was a shrewd and often wry observer of the outside world. Perhaps not so much of its passing fads and fashions, or of the names and faces that briefly capture the public imagination, but of some of the essentials of everyday secular life. In particular she had an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the many aspects of human friendship.
This insight informed the dozen or so books she wrote, including a memoir of her good friend, the poet Siegfried Sassoon, and biographies of the poets George Thomas and Helen Waddell (this last book won her the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1986).
Her best known work, however, remains an account of the unexpected friendship between her first superior at Stanbrook Abbey, Dame Laurentia McLachan, the playwright George Bernard Shaw and the scholar Sir Sydney Cockerell: In a Great Tradition (1956), which was later expanded into The Nun, The Infidel And The Superman (1985). The book became first a successful West End play, starring John Gielgud, and later a film. Both were called Best Of Friends.
One of Dame Laurentia’s maxims for her nuns was “you may be enclosed but you don’t need to have enclosed minds”. Dame Felicitas – the title Dame is given to English Benedictine nuns in preference to Sister – took her superior at her word. She developed her knowledge of the world principally by forging warm and enduring friendships with the many who came to see her at Stanbrook Abbey in Callow End, Worcestershire. The fact that the encounters took place through a metal grille did not seem to limit their beneficial effect for both sides.
Some of these visitors were famous. Alec Guinness and the novelist Rumer Godden were regulars. Godden believed the prayers of the nuns at Stanbrook had saved the life of her grand-daughter. Dame Felicitas also helped her in the writing of her 1969 convent-based novel, In This House Of Brede. Others were nieces and nephews, the children of Dame Felicitas’s seven siblings. While others had simply read her books and written to her. Like Dame Laurentia, she maintained a large correspondence, often resorting to circulars in an attempt to keep her many contacts satisfied.
She was aware, too, of the mystique that the choice of an enclosed life had given her. On her occasional forays out of the abbey she cut quite a dash; as, for example, in 1980 when she attended the National Pastoral Congress of the English Catholic Church in Liverpool, or in 1991 when she gave a well-attended London lecture. At a time when most female religious orders had abandoned wimples and black robes, she immediately stood out. But it was the calmness and serenity that she radiated and the quick and infectious wit behind an initially forbidding face that drew people to her.
Her talents were many. Watching Dame Felicitas captivate her audience with her lecture, actress Dulcie Gray, who had appeared in Best Of Friends, speculated that such stage presence would have made her a great actress. She excelled at the abbey as a gardener and librarian, but her first love was music. In her youth she had won an organ scholarship in the archdiocese of Liverpool, and it was while studying plainsong that she first visited Stanbrook and met Dame Laurentia. From her earliest days in the abbey, she was its organist, doubling up as choir mistress for long periods. Poor eyesight finally forced her retirement in 1990.
She could be formidable in debate. One of her particular interests was the role of women in Catholicism and she wrote an approving foreword to a book detailing the wider use of female talents in the early church. She was not, however, a supporter of women’s ordination, being too conscious of the tradition and history of the church.
Born Kathleen Corrigan into a Catholic family in Liverpool, she was encouraged in her interest in music from an early age by an ambitious mother, even though her father’s earnings as a driver meant that money was always tight at home. At 15 she was the paid organist at a local church. She studied English at Liverpool University and received a teaching diploma from Cambridge.
Hers, by the standards of the time, was a mature vocation. She was 25 when she entered Stanbrook and 30 when she took her solemn vows. It was not, she liked to recall, a life she had embarked upon lightly. “Mother, do you think I have a vocation?” she asked her novice mistress soon after arriving at Stanbrook. “Yes dear, I do,” the novice mistress replied. “Damn,” said Felicitas.
Stanbrook was her home for 70 years, save for a brief spell in the mid-1970s when she travelled to Nigeria to help a new community of Benedictine nuns there. It was not a successful initiative and she returned home.
There was always a sense in which she could have made her mark wherever she chose, but it was that rare combination of spirituality and scholarship at the abbey that made her such an extraordinary and inspiring character.
Felicitas (Kathleen) Corrigan, nun, writer and musician, born March 6 1908; died October 7 2003.