Sr Dorothy Bell
ON Sunday a distinguished gathering of prelates, education chiefs and students past and present associated with Digby Stuart College, Roehampton, will bid farewell to the institution's outgoing principal of 21 years, Sr Dorothy Bell.
Sr Bell enjoys an unparalleled reputation in the field of Catholic education. In those years not only has she piloted Digby Stuart through a sticky process of recognition by the Government as a teacher training college, but she has overseen its transformation into an institution for broader-based undergraduate studies students now gain qualifications for entry into all kinds of professions.
Ubiquitous in her involvement with the running of Catholic schools, Sr Bell was until recently Chairman of Governors at Woldingham School, Surrey and, more controversially, she has been appointed Chairman of Governors of the proposed new Sixth Form College being set up by the Diocese of Westminster. "There is no way our secondary schools can offer the range of subjects that ought to be offered to students at sixth form lever, she told me over lunch at one of her favourite watering holes near Richmond Park. "I know that there has been some opposition tu the new Sixth Form College, but Catholic education must keep up with the times."
Though entering late middle age, Sr Bell has no intention of bowing out of active involvement in educational and pastoral projects underway in the Archdioceses of Westminster and Southwark. She declares herself "more than ready to move on" to her new role as this country's first full time diocesan co-ordinator of AIDS-related matters, a post created by the Archdiocese of Southwark after a prophetic conference two years ago on how Church resources, both practical and pastoral, can he applied to problems posed by the capital's expanding population of people with HIV and AIDS. She makes no bones about the scale of the dilemma the Church faces in providing a positive response to AIDS: "The problem is like an iceberg's lifespan, but in reverse," she says. "An iceberg is formed in the North Pole, but gets smaller as the currents take it into warmer waters. AIDS is like an iceberg that carried on growing, all you can see is the lip', but the bulk, hidden underwater, is growing all the time."
The hidden, and more Insidious aspect of AIDS is the fact that nobody knows how long the virus' incubation period can last, explains Sr Bell. Parents don't know if they are carriers until it comes to having a child who turns out to be HIV positive. "They find out the hard way that the one-night stand they had 'X' years ago actually infected them."
Sr Bell, who is already a patron of Catholic AIDS link, describes her new post primarily as educating people about the disease, and as being the "catalyst" that sparks people into thinking that they have something to contribute, not least because AIDS will inevitably affect a wider body of the population in the years to come; "People have to understand that in 20 years time it may be a member of their family who is affected perhaps a niece or nephew AIDS isn't always the result of homosexual encounter, it came from blood transfusions, it comes from drug abuse as well," she warns.
Sr Bell envisages the creation, across denominational boundaries and incorporating secular caring agencies, the social services and government health watchdogs, of day care centres where those affected directly or indirectly by AIDS may come for emotional and practical help. She brings to this daunting task excellent credentials; in ecumenical contacts, gleaned from her part in the creation of the trans-denominational Froebel Institute which incorporates Digby Stuart, and in ties with central government and the social services (in 1985 the Home Secretary appointed her to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs).
"The task is to make parishes and deanery councils alive to the problems posed by AIDS", she says. "The ordinary churchgoer would be shocked at the amount of people tied up with the parish whose lives are affected by the virus."
"The immediacy of the problem cannot he underestimated. Just the other day some of my students came to me seeking assurance that we would welcome AIDS sufferers on our roll. They were shocked and worried when I told them that such people were very probably here already."
It is clear to anyone who meets her that Sr Bell boasts a quality which is hard to find in a religious or priest whose primary vocation is to pray or preach the Gospel, and who is sometimes illequipped to turn his or her hand to a more professional, secularised occupation.
Sr Bell can only be described as a hardened professional.