Page 9, 5th February 1982

5th February 1982
Page 9
Page 9, 5th February 1982 — The deaf nun who heard the children in need

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The deaf nun who heard the children in need

SINCERE thanks to old friends and readers who seem to have liked what I wrote about Littlemore, two weeks ago.

One correspondent hoped that I. would revive All Sorts but one cannot put the clock back 18 years. I would now classify myself as semi-senile since that frightful morning when I put the instant coffee into one mug, poured the hot water into another and drank the second without noticing any difference.

I dare not promise to answer every letter but quote one which should give pleasure in the office: M.S. writes: "As a convert in 1947, a wise old priest advised me to read a good Catholic paper. "I suggest the Catholic Herald" he said and I have done so ever since. How it has changed over the years and I am not going to say for the worse as I think that succeeding editors have moved with the times, yet still manage to convey strong Catholic principles with honest coverage of news and views. I hope the present editor will invite further contributions from you for the pleasure of those who enjoy your special brand of erudition."

I must put the hot water in the right mug after that!

And now would you follow me to 20 Athole Gardens, Glasgow, where I must pay off a lifelong debt.

The Notre Dame Child Guidance Clinic has just completed 50 years of service and has honoured the golden jubilee with a delightful paperback. Freedom to Grow tells us all about the clinic and I would like to congratulate Sister Jude, the authoress, and John Burns, the publisher, for bringing it out.

Psychiatrists of every hue should lap up the details of this success story while I give all my attention to my little nun. Twenty years ago, I published my first book with its fetching title "We Neurotics; A handbook for the Half-Mad".

The heroine in this crazy epic and in the sequel, "We Agnostics" was The Little Nun.

I wanted to reveal her identity then but the authorities were against this, so now let me name The Little Nun as Sister Marie Hilda, the foundress of the Glasgow Child Guidance Clinic, who died in 1951.

Our story begins when young Sister Marie Hilda was posted as lecturer to the Notre Dame Training College at Dowanhill. This was in 1905. She brought with her a good history degree from London and a course of lectures in psychology which she had attended in Louvain.

Psychology was a suspect subject in those days and for many years to come. Marie Hilda was then no expert but a very gifted teacher, full of common sense.

So many students crowded round her desk to put personal questions that a bench had to be provided outside the classroom, where they could queue.

Later, the bench was moved to a room downstairs for the queue was too long. In 1932, it changed houses and moved to 14 Bowmont Gardens, a four-storey house.

When first I met Marie Hilda in 1945, the bench had settled down at last at 20 Athole Gardens, a magnificent clinic with every known form of play therapy, available for children of any background or persuasion, whether they could pay or not.

Sister Jude records how a student was standing near Marie Hilda, as a sign-writer inscribed

Notre Dame Child Guidance over the main door.

The student, overcome by emotion, said to Sister "Are you not proud to know that you have created this wonderful clinic from a basement room?" Sister turned to her "What nonsense! 1 was admiring his skill. Isn't he doing it well?"

What was Sister Marie Hilda like'? In her day, Sisters did not bother much about vital statistics: — I would describe her as plump, not portly, and in height, some 4ft 9ins, give an inch or two either way.

She, who had a sensible answer to every question, saw herself as a kind of old-fashioned pen-wiper when I asked her why the local dogs always followed her barking as she crossed from the College to the Clinic; "I think" said she "that my long black skirts baffle them; they don't understand how I move",.

Her smallness was a feature; at College she was called 'the Mighty Atom' and a stranger, who had volunteered to shift a heavy load to the Clinic, also put it nicely "I would do anything for that wee nun."

Nuns never posed for photographs in her day and the first photograph of her that I have seen is the one in this article, cut from Sister Jude's book.

So many albums are sad — that one of Mary was before the marriage broke up — there is Jim before he left the priesthood Marie Hilda never changed an inch from this photograph, morning or evening, summer or winter, bankrupt — as she often was or holding a fat cheque.

She once silenced opponents of some plan with the astonishing remark "God generally wants what I want" and this amalgam of confidence and docility, so very childlike, partly explains her influence with children of any age.

Many great saints achieved their holiness in foreign countries, St Anselm, an Italian thrived in England, St Anthony of Padua came from Portugal, St Boniface, patron of Germany, was born in Devonshire.

Marie Hilda's heart was in Glasgow but she was born in Bishop Auckland and her mother came from Lincolnshire.

She had, too, a French connection, a great grandfather who served in the Imperial army and who was made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour by Napoleon for outstanding bravery in Italy.

Marie Hilda was the youngest of seven children and spent two years as a baby in South Africa. Sister Jude preserves the memory of a violent storm at sea on the return journey when Marie Hilda's mother roped all the lifebelts together "that they might go down as a family".

When Sister Marie Hilda announced "God generally wants what I want" she not only reflected a childlike confidence which drew children to her but an enduring strength derived from her own happy home.

It is easy to forget how far advanced she was in her day. One distinguished doctor recorded "Glasgow still needs a great deal of ecumenism but there is one place, where, from the start, there was no discrimination of any kind and that was the Notre Dame Child Guidance Clinic.

It was a place where Jews, Protestants, Catholics — all were accepted. No-one cared what you were so long as you were interested in child guidance.

The clinic was staffed by the best professional people in the city, independently of what their religion was. They considered Sister Marie Hilda a genius."

She was. I recall her disgust when the cane was often used as an aid to theology. "Father" she once said, "Hold out your hand". I duly did. She, in turn, picked up a newspaper. "Now," said she "how many persons are there in the Holy Trinity? God the Father (smack), God the Son (smack) and God the Holy Ghost (smack)."

Though so very far advanced Marie Hilda in her personal piety remained Victorian. Indeed, Dr Letitia Fairfield recalls how "an awestruck clerk once informed me 'Queen Victoria is waiting to see you, dressed as a nun'."

Another doctor put it well: "Her dealings with people was her way of worship; there was a religious teaching that came to me through working with this woman".

It is a striking fact that, in the early days of the clinic, the majority of cases came to her from the Courts, but, by the time of her death, she received few court cases but 116 from parents and 163 through the medical profession; she herself said of her play therapy "The parents come for help and the children for play."

For me personally, the mystery and miracle of Sister Marie Hilda lay in her deafness, a handicap which she turned into a blessing and which won her the hearts of all.

As far as 1 can remember, she never told me that she was deaf, certainly never spoke about it or in any way complained. Like many another, I was astonished at our first meeting when she drew her chair close and took my hand.

I never knew how or when Marie Hilda lost her hearing, one forgot all about it and conversation became quite normal even natural as soon as she took your hand.

SisterJude reports a mix-up at the clinic when Marie Hilda met a well known psychiatrist, and, thinking that she was a new cleaner, took her round the clinic to show her the rooms which she was to do out. Never, over seven years, did I ever see Sister flustered or confused. They said that she could lip read, that she somehow was helped by the vibrations in your wrist.

She spoke of her handicap twice. Once in Dumbarton, 1 was astonished to find her making the community retreat.

For many days on end, she came to the conferences with the other Sisters though, from that distance, she could not hear a word.

When I asked her, she replied simply that it helped her to sit with the other Sisters to share the comfort of belonging to a community.

And, on the same retreat, she asked me to pull back the veil in the confessional and hold up my fingers that she might know the number of prayers that, for her penance, she ought to say.

When, on this occasion, I asked her what she normally did, she replied enigmatically that with any priest other than Father X, she just confessed her sins, counted ten and went out.

Nothing about her impressed me more than the way she coped with her deafness. She seemed to gain from her handicap. There was about her a peace, a gentleness, a deliberation which made each client feel, as she held his wrist, that all her interest was with him.

Many children in the playroom showed this contentment on their faces as she spoke to them.

Let Archbishop McQuade of Dublin round off this tribute. When the Archbishop first met Sister Marie Hilda, he expressed concern about her deafness and asked if she had ever had a hearing aid!

"Oh yes" she replied, "my Superior bought me one but I sold it and gave the money to the clinic". Sister Jude who tells the story added, "Rarely had the Archbishop been known to laugh more heartily."

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