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RIP – Theresa CSF

Teresa CSF

page 16 Teresa, in the blue sweatshirtFrom the sermon preached at her funeral by Damian SSF

If the truth be told, Nan Foster, born in 1928, had a difficult and unhappy childhood, losing her Mother when she was two, and with a sometimes distant Father, moving around first with the Army and then, after the War, in the RAF. Her nickname ‘Tim’ might indicate she grew up as something of a Tom-boy. But she had learnt to be Christ’s disciple as part of that growing up and she held to that, as Tim became Nan who became Sister Teresa of the Community of St Francis.

Teresa only eventually came to the Franciscan family after two tours with the Church Mission Society, though we can see how she had already been thinking of vocation at the time of her first job when, known as ‘Matron’ at her uncle’s boarding school (though really only the assistant), she offered herself for training first as a nurse and then as a midwife at St Thomas’s Hospital. In 1956, at the age of 27 Nan was indeed thoroughly trained for the work assigned to her with CMS in Egypt. However this tour proved hugely costly to her, in exposure to the traumas of ugly warfare and some horrific sights as the Suez Crisis escalated, and as she found herself under house arrest. Her family recounted that she never quite got over that deathly experience, and CMS wisely relocated her to Sierra Leone where she served altogether more happily for the next eight years in a team of like-minded colleagues with a structure of prayer and service in a more predictable role.

Completing her time in West Africa, she was left in a dilemma. They wanted her back at St Thomas’s as an executive; Africa had touched her heart. But there was a deeper call to give herself more completely, which she felt she was resisting. After talking it through with Aubrey Evan-Hopkins, the Vicar of Folkestone and a friend of Brother Edward’s, she agreed to visit Compton Durville to become a little more informed. However she was determined not to make a good impression, arriving on a motor bike, daubed with bright ruby red lipstick and with an equally red outfit, looking as unlikely a candidate for a convent as Maria in The Sound of Music. Strangely or not, Mother Agnes saw beneath the surface and the reluctant Nan was made a postulant on 1st January 1965, and given the name in CSF of Teresa.

The rest you might say is history! Her training as a nurse fitted in well in a recently constructed ward for the frail and elderly at Compton Durville and she later took charge of the Convent Home. Yet she could still spring surprises, like when she asked if she could discard her habit because she wanted to go horse-riding, and so became the first CSF sister to be seen in public in mufti. How she loved the fresh air, to feel the breeze in her hair, to ride the hills on four legs – or four wheels: for she recounted how on her first visit home, her Dad offered her the ignition keys of his open-top car; together they sped up the dual carriageway, her veil flapping in the wind, and he turned and said to her in fatherly relief, ‘So you are still my daughter!’ On one occasion Teresa gently escorted Sister Muriel to the local GP, suspecting she’d had a heart attack. The doctor disagreed and directed them back home, but Teresa went the other way to South Petherton Hospital where the fact of a heart attack was quickly confirmed.

Whether Teresa was a handful or not, Mother Agnes announced that, now in first Vows, she had been chosen to go and live at Alnmouth Friary – another first for the two Communities who were seeking closer ties. She was in her element. Though initially she was told that her cell was apart, on the ground floor, and she wasn’t to join in singing the plainsong in Chapel, she slowly edged into the full life of the brothers and proved the success of the alliance. She certainly enjoyed the company of men and her natural positioning of herself as a Number Two meant that those gifts of perception and encouragement enriched the community life no end. There were many endearing qualities in Teresa, providing you didn’t ask her to cook! A lasting memorial at Alnmouth is the etching of Saint Clare for which she stood as a model, now placed beside a matching Saint Francis.

There is so much more: Novice Guardian for almost the decade of the seventies; Provincial Secretary for five years; and attendance at a course at the Irish School of Ecumenics in Dublin which led to the opening of the CSF house in conjunction with the Brothers in Belfast. She and Sister Nan acquired a delightful pup with a broken tail called Scrap whom she trained and walked all over Cave Hill above the city. Things were still pretty rough in the 80’s and Teresa’s work with Crossroads took her into many an IRA household where all her diplomatic skills were carefully exercised. She was probably close again to what had so terrified her in Egypt but the words of Our Lord to Peter, ‘Do you love me?’ provided a second chance to allow herself to face heavily traumatic days, this time more in God’s strength.

New Zealand followed and founding a region with a small group of Sisters on the other side of the world was again not an easy task. But she turned to her Lord through the turning point of a directed retreat in Auckland, as doubt became faith and she settled into a task for which she had been feeling ill-equipped, giving herself more deeply to other people, enabling them to stand firm, even indeed to function. If others might have felt left out, that is the other side of the coin. Her personality tended towards the introvert, which sometimes worked brilliantly, as with many in Newcastle-under-Lyme to whom she gave spiritual direction. Others may have been left cold. ‘It’s all too much’ she could be heard mumbling under her breath or addressing the dog. And then as happened on one occasion when a preacher didn’t turn up, she got up and spontaneously preached a memorable address which one sister present said gave her stories and illustrations that have kept her going for years. Her election as Minister General in 1996 again left her feeling uncomfortable, but she undertook the role in faith, and approached her task pastorally and as a spiritual guide.

Teresa’s loss of memory more recently in these last years in Birmingham was painful to her and to those who cared so wonderfully for her, and when finally last March it was recognised that she needed professional care she moved quietly into Albion Court. But somehow the quality of our sister was still able to shine through. Such credit was expressed for her Christian life by their Sister-in-Charge who said, ‘Dementia took away her memory but it didn’t take away who she was.’ Teresa shone as a witness to the Resurrection. Thanks be to God! f

Sister Teresa CSF died on 16 December 2013, and her funeral Mass was held at St Germain’s Church, Birmingham. She was aged 84 years and was in the forty-sixth year of her profession in vows.