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RIP – Leonore CSF

Sister Leonore CSF (Dr Leonore Cooke MBE) died peacefully on 27 July 1997 at South Petherton Nursing Home, aged eighty-eight years and in the thirty-sixth year of her religious profession.

In placing the letters CSF after her name, it seems only right to make the point that no way can a particular body of people ‘claim’ Leonore. Partly because she was very much her own person, a woman of definite views and strong character, with an individuality all her own; and partly because – in terms of years and practical service – others might seem to have a greater claim.

In his foreword to her autobiography, Bishop Kenneth Woollcombe says – in reference to the award of MBE for her work in Tower Hamlets – “ . . . her services to India and Bangladesh . . . deserve far more than any medal could ever recognise.” That was the Leonore we inherited, as it were, from the Sisterhood of the Epiphany, to which she belonged for twenty years; or from Ludhiana Medical School, where she worked and taught for seventeen years before that. Leonore was the second surviving child in her family, with one older and one younger sister, and two brothers. No doubt being one of a group from an early age, together with an adaptability learned from the regular moves the family made with her soldier father’s postings, stood her in good stead in later life. Even at the age of sixty-seven, when ill-health obliged her to return to England, the prospect of a totally new environment was faced with outward ease, if with some inward qualms. That adaptability, combined with the strength of character fostered by her mother’s calm continuance – together with her father’s discipline – gave her the single-mindedness with which she accepted a total change of direction at twenty-five, having discovered herself inept at teaching schoolchildren, and with a new and exciting opportunity for a medical career, as well as an undeniable calling to missionary service overseas.

Under the auspices of the Edinburgh Medical Missionary Service, and already having a science degree, she trained for five years before being seconded to Ludhiana in North India. One of the ‘extras’ taught in the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary was the extraction of teeth, and – how typical this seems – Leonore held the record for the number drawn under one anaesthetic! She had the long, strongly-developed hands of a surgeon, capable, none-the-less, of minute detail and care, as we later observed in her embroidery and making of tiny toy animals.

Leonore eventually became Professor of Anatomy and Registrar of Students at Ludhiana. While there, in the early nineteen-fifties, she met Franciscans of First and Third Orders, becoming a novice Tertiary in 1954. Two years later, the pull towards Religious Life in community drew her to the Sisterhood of the Epiphany, already known to her, here and in India. Her excellent mind mastered a new language so that she spoke it fluently and colloquially. She also learned New Testament Greek and started on Hebrew! Every visit of doctors and nurses from the West was used for learning more up-to-date methods.
Leonore was possessed of admirable leadership qualities, demonstrated in the years of building, equipping and staffing Saint Anne’s Hospital, Barisal. There, she delivered hundreds of babies – many in abnormal births, performed Caesarean sections, set bones, coped with accidents, parasites, epidemics, even a case of smallpox: besides recruiting and training nurses and being pastorally responsible for all who came.

She grappled for most of her life with fear – fear which must not be shown by ‘a soldier’s daughter’. Her courage in the face of the feeling of panic was sorely tested through the riots of Ludhiana, the wars of partition, cyclones, and the murder of Father Alan Macbeth by dacoits during a raid in which a Sister was badly handled and stressed, and all their valuables stolen.

Back trouble and recurring amoebic dysentery forced her eventual return to England. Medication, two spinal operations and hip replacements improved the situation, but she was advised against going back. She recovered sufficiently to give another ten years of vital service, five among the Bangladeshi of Tower Hamlets and the rest in Birmingham and Compton Durville.
The opportunity for work in London’s East End came as a complete gift and surprise, arising from a conversation between Brother Michael and Donald Chesworth, then Warden of Toynbee Hall. The latter bewailed the sad fate, particularly of women, among the influx of Bangladeshi immigrants settling in Whitechapel and Stepney. For reasons of language and culture, they were unable to avail themselves of the medical facilities on offer in the area. A woman doctor who could speak the language was the great need; and Michael thought of Leonore.

She was clear that her outdated practice and lack of knowledge of modern drugs would disqualify her from prescribing, but her skill as an interpreter and expertise in diagnosing among the Bangladeshi, made her invaluable at a baby clinic, a health programme and for domiciliary visits. She was sought out for advising medical staff new to the area, for lectures and for dealing with day-to-day problems. One story which she often told was of investigating a complaint from a downstairs flat-dweller who had water dripping through the ceiling from the flat above. Leonore found that, according to the custom in their own country, a Bangladeshi man and his wife poured water over each other by way of bathing. But – they stood on the floor, not in the bath!

During those later years, the battle with fear – still lurking in unexpected places – was considerably relieved by the Laying-on of Hands; while a further struggle was won in a crisis of faith, known to few, as she read and studied to keep pace with modern thinking and interpretation in the Church. Cultural change in England, from what she had known years before, was immense; but she persevered, nothing daunted.

None of this was easy for one expecting a less demanding situation, and the final years at Compton gave no let-up, as she
tried to accept the diminishments of old age with deterioration of mind as well as body. In the end, removal to the dreaded nursing home gave her security and serenity.

May she rest in peace and rise in glory. f