Monica King on Margaret Sinclair, the irrepressible Scottish nun whose birth was marked this week
Despite the beauty of the city, Edinburgh once contained tenement buildings which had been blackened by the smoke corning from the chimneys. This gave the town the nickname of "Auld Reekie".
In one of these tenements, at 13 Blackfriars Street (off the High Street), was born Margaret Sinclair on March 29,1900. Margaret's father was a poor dustman who was paid 21 shillings per week, which was insufficient to feed six children. John and Bella were the eldest, then came Margaret, followed by Andrew, Lizzie and Lawrence.
When Margaret was old enough she attended a non fee-paying school run by the Sisters of Mercy. These sisters also ran a fee-paying convent school in Chalmers Street. The Sisters found she was a happy little girl and well-behaved. She was painstaking about her school work and was popular with the other children at school. Sometimes, however, even though she was not the eldest in her family, her mother used to keep her at home if any of her brothers and sisters were sick. Her mother depended on her and used to say that she was "always so wise and unselfish and thoughtful for others". While she was looking after the family she would keep an eye on the other children in the backyard. The Sinclairs were the proud owners of a swing in the yard and Margaret would give them 20 swings each.
At the age of 14 Margaret left school to begin work as an apprentice French polisher. She worked at the Waverly Cabinet Works in Edinburgh (no longer in existence). After a day's work she would attend evening classes at the Atholl Crescent School of Domestic Economy, obtaining certificates in sewing, dress-making and cookery. She also took an allotment during the First World War even though, as she admitted, she knew nothing about gardening. This did not prevent her from winning a prize for her cabbages and for the best-kept plot.
By this time Margaret had grown up to be an attractive young lady who liked dancing and dressing in the latest fashion. But all the time a sense of the presence of God was with her. No matter how tired she was after the parish dance, she would pray and say her rosary. Once she turned to her sister, Bella, who was her constant companion, and said: "I enjoyed myself so much that I must give God his share. Think of how many religious orders were praying for us and how many souls God was call ing home while we were dancing and enjoying ourselves."
Since Margaret and Bella both had jobs, they were earning enough to have a short holiday every year. They would go to Rosewell, a small village on the outskirts of Edinburgh. In those days Rosewell had little to offer in the way of entertainment and did not even have a cinema. The girls enjoyed themselves all the same. But there was a slight altercation between them about going to Mass. Margaret liked to go to daily Mass but Bella felt that she was not worthy enough to go more than two or three times a week. "It's the devil putting this idea into your head," said Margaret. "You don't go because you are good but because you want to be good. When you begin to go every day, you will find that you cannot live without it."
It was while on holiday that Margaret, now 19 years of age. met a young ex-serviceman. This man used to accompany Margaret and Bella to Mass and they soon became friends. He, however. fell in love with Margaret and somehow they drifted into an engagement. But deep down in her heart Margaret felt dratai to the religious life. The seeds of her vocation had been sown. She applied to enter the Poor Clare Colettines in Cromwell Road. Notting Hill, London (the convent moved in 1970 to Barnet, North ,London, and the original buildings were destroyed).
We can now picture Margaret tramping the streets of London as an extern Sister. The life was hard; she was far from home and very homesick. Her Scottish accent seemed to create a barrier between her and her Sisters, and she experienced real loneliness. She wrote about it in one of her notebooks, entitled The Way of the Cross. "First Station. Jesus receives the cruel sentence of death and receives it with meekness. 0 my Jesus, help me to think of this often and give me the grace to accept all unjust criticism in the same way as I desire to do in all things Thy holy Margaret's final martyrdom began two months after her Profession. It was discovered that she had tuberculosis of the throat. She was taken to a sanatorium in Watley, Essex. There, she suffered seven months of agony with prostrating weakness, constant breathlessness, choking in her throat and loneliness away from her convent. Once, after a day of excruciating pain, she smiled and said: "Oh, this has been a glorious day a day of suffering. If I could only save one soul for Jesus, it would be worth it all."
On another occasion, a wasp flew into her throat and stung her. Despite the blinding pain, Margaret forced herself to smile while saying: "It is the will of the good God, and another wee bit of the Cross."
In some ways Margaret's life was a mirror of that of St Therese of Lisieux, who offered all her sufferings to Jesus for the love of souls. Both followed the path of meekness and humility which led them to heaven.
Sister Mary Francis of the Five Wounds, as she was known in religious life, died on November 24,1925. Her last words were: "Jesus, Mary and Joseph, I give you my heart and my soul."
Her body was taken back to the convent in London.
In 1978 Margaret Sinclair was declared "Venerable". In 1982, during his visit to Britain, Pope John Paul II visited Rosewell and spoke the following words: "No visit to Rosewell would be complete without mentioning a young woman whose holy life and final suffering gave full expression to the message from Sacred Scripture that we have been reading today Col 1:24, Mt 11:28-30.
"For it was to Rosewell that Margaret came on holiday with other members of her family from their home in Edinburgh. Margaret could well be described as one of God's little ones, who through her very simplicity was touched by God with the strength of real holiness of life. whether as a child, a young woman, an apprentice, a factory worker, member of a trade union, or a professed Sister in religion. How appropriate then that Rosewell should be chosen for the location of the Margaret Sinclair Centre, the purpose of which is to make her inspiring example better known and to promote her cause for beatification."
In 2003 Margaret Sinclair's remains were taken from the cemetery at Liberton, where she had been buried, and re-interred at St Patrick's church in Cowgate, Edinburgh, which is the church that she most often attended during her early years.