SISTER ROMAIN Anne de Clerque Wissoc de Sousberghe
Sister Anne was born in 1904 in Brussels into an aristocratic Belgian family able to trace its history back to the 12th Century. She “came out” as a debutante at the Belgian Court but she had little time for the trappings of this kind life and had felt the call to religious life while at boarding school, near Liege, run by the Sisters of the Assumption. She showed real potential as an artist and on leaving school enrolled at the Royal Academy of Fines Arts in Brussels. She really wanted to be a sculptor but was torn between this and the strength of the call to become a religious. At the age of 25 she was faced with a life-changing decision, either, to follow her heart and become a sculptor in Paris or listen to God’s call and enter the Congregation of the Helpers of the Holy Souls. She said: “I didn’t want to be a nun, I wanted to be sculptor. I had lots of boyfriends, and I remember one whom I think I might have married, but I had to do what I felt God was calling me to.” She was greatly influenced by her paternal grandmother who had a deep concern and cared for the poor. This led Anne to seek a religious order that worked with the poor and she found the Helpers of the Holy Souls.
So, the 25 year old graduate of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts chose to spend her life as a Helper of the Holy Souls. She had met the Sisters through a University association set up to help foreign missions. She recounts: “ I became a nun because I wanted to help the poor. My family were well off and I thought there was a lot of injustice in the world. As a student I had studied many of the great religions of the world. That opened me up to how God reveals himself through different cultures.”
During World War II, in Belgium and France, she endured many hardships and privations. She chuckled when recounting the Sisters’ resourcefulness living in a house with no water or electricity and very little food! After the war she was appointed as Mother Superior in London and then Portsmouth.
During her early training she had shown real potential in religious education. Already her future ministry was calling. She studied catechetics at Lumen Vitae, Louvain University, in her native Belgium. She found the courses very forward-looking and they were life- changing for many people including herself. She began to develop more creative approaches to opening up the Catholic faith for children. She put her training into practice in 1958 where she was given a remit, by Cardinal Griffin, in London, to teach religious education. She recalled a sociological study which highlighted the fact that three in five Catholic children could not find a place in a Catholic school. There existed groups like Our Lady’s Catechists who did sterling work but the need was great for training catechists. She started training people in new ways of sharing their faith. Sister Anne said: “ I found that people were over dogmatised in childhood which meant they had to believe, but didn’t feel at ease with it.” One of her aims was to get parents involved as much as possible in preparing their children for the Sacraments. Her approach was often a revelation to them an awakening of their own faith!
Her teaching methods would allow children to work their own way around moral issues and reach conclusions themselves. This new, fresh approach resulted in Sister Anne lecturing across England and Ireland and publishing a best-selling book in 1965: Tell My People
.She admitted that she didn’t know she had a gift in this area. “ I was an artist so didn’t really analyse what I was doing. Over 200 people came to Sunday school classes. I think it was because we allowed them to learn from and build on their own experiences”. Sister Anne would often say, with a twinkle in her eye: “I wasn’t radical but I was revolutionary!”
In the 1960’s there was a strong movement within the Church to bring new life to religious education. Sister Anne’s approach to catechetics and liturgy at the time, was one, among others, that was instrumental in revolutionising the Sacramental programme for Catholic children in England and Wales. At the height of her catechetical ministry from 1965-1972, a heady time for the Church, implementing the decrees of the Second Vatican Council, she was a member of the teaching staff at Corpus Christi College in London, a national catechetical centre set up in 1965 by Cardinal Heenan but later closed down for being too liberal and for having “gone too far”. She continued to share her vision and experience with many groups, in England and Ireland, including seminarians and those training to be Religious Education teachers, and she could be found every Sunday with the children of Our Lay of Hall parish, Camden Town, assisted by her community and VIth Form students from the Faithfull Companions of Jesus school, Somers Town, whom she had trained as catechists. She became a member of the Bishops’ Social Welfare Commission for those with disabilities and devised programmes for children with special needs.
Working in the catechetical field did not deter Sister Anne from using her artistic gifts. She did eventually became a sculptor and an accomplished artist. Her art work and pottery take pride of place on the walls and shelves of her Sisters, family and friends. For nearly 40 years, until she was 94, she was a student at Kingsway Art College, London. She was a firm believer in lifelong learning. “Art is very important to me. It helps me keep alive and creative. I loved the art classes because of the many people I met and also the good company and fun we had together”.
The changes in religious life meant new adaptations for her. The Helpers, like so many other religious Congregations, were downsizing and seeking new ways of living community suited to different generations. For those no longer in active ministry, this meant setting up purpose-built accommodation for their elderly Sisters. Wishaw, in Lanarkshire, was the chosen location and Sr. Anne moved there in 2006, after the closure of the Portsmouth convent, ,where she had celebrated her 100th birthday! She found Scotland’s weather cold but soon warmed to the priests and people of the area. Eventually, the Wishaw house also closed and the few remaining Sisters went into nursing homes. Sr. Anne went south with Srs. Marian Limbrick and Joyce Smith to St. Vincent’s Nursing Home in Pinner, Middlesex , where she appreciated so much the care and attention of the staff and residents, many of them retired priests and Sisters. She died there, slipped away, literally, on 12 February. She was 111 years old! Her secret to a long life? Optimism and faith in the God who walks with us.
Sister Romain, Anne de Clerque Wissoc de Sousbergh, Helper of the Holy Souls.
Born, 7 November, 1904, died, 12 February, 2016 aged 111 years.