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General Council April 2015

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Members' Stories

Jacqueline M. Privett
In perpetual vows

Andrée Kirby
In perpetual vows

Alexis Pottinger
In perpetual vows


Jacqueline M. Privett

Carolyn When I was received into the Church at the age of 19, I had no knowledge of Institutes, secular or otherwise. I wanted to be a good Catholic and after going from my home in Devon to London to study, I discovered my local church, St James, Spanish Place. Browsing one day through the CTS rack I came across a pamphlet on Third Orders and sat down to read it. I had been worried that I was not as fervent after three months in the Church as I had been when I was received and belonging to a Third Order seemed to be an answer. “I shall join the Carmelites,” I thought, “they seem to be the most difficult” but upon reflection I thought it was perhaps better to join a less demanding group. The Servites seemed to be the least challenging so I decided to join them!

Had I reflected further I might have noticed a happy coincidence: that my birthday was on the feast of St Juliana, a Servite saint. Aged 14 I had one day opened Butler's Lives of the Saints, curious to see if there was a saint Jacqueline. There wasn't. There were plenty of St James, but no female saints. Discovering St Juliana was my birthday saint, I had been praying to her for help on a regular basis ever since but without her Servite identity impinging on me.

I decided that I would visit the Servites' Church in Fulham Road in London so one Saturday headed that way with the intention of going to confession. I had to confess telling a lie and was worried that this would stop me being a tertiary. It so happened that there was no one hearing confessions at the time I presented myself so I went home again.

Three weeks later I headed to Fulham Road again, found a priest in the confessional and told him I wanted to be a tertiary. He told me to go next door into the priory and I met Fr Gerard Corr OSM, the co-founder of the Servite Secular Institute. And the rest, as they say, is history!

My training as a member of the Institute had its difficulties with my studying and I was lucky finally to pass my degree after which I went on to Teacher Training. Now I would be very hesitant to advise anyone to start following their spiritual vocation while studying full time. When I finished my Teacher Training I worked for a year in London which was convenient as Institute training meetings were held in the Fulham Road parish. I met many Institute members from a variety of walks of life and remember fondly the actress, the Foreign Office secretary, the retired lady whose life had been lived in India with echoes of the Raj, the Austrian nurse, the doctor, the retired mill worker and many others. After a year I moved to teach in Birmingham and for the first time found myself without other Institute members in my local area.

Institute life involves travel, spiritually and physically, if the latter is possible. From Birmingham I attended meetings in London and in Bristol, driving my bright yellow Morris Minor through the winding A roads (no motorways in those days.) I enjoyed meetings with prayer together, discussions, washing up, interviews with the Head of the Group and having small conversations with other members in passing, not realising that these were to be the basis for lifelong friendship maintained over the years with little or no further contact. Spiritual friendship in our Secular Institute is a very strong factor. We usually call it “family spirit”. Living individual, busy lives we try to maintain contact by phone calls, letters, Skype, e-mails where an actual meeting is not possible but inevitably there are members whom one rarely sees, which makes meetings (when they do happen) even more special. This spiritual identification of members is particularly striking one meets in a national (rather than a local) group. Everyone fits in; is talking on the same Servite wavelength and is welcomed and accepted. They have not “lost out” by being for most of the time an isolated member.

The vocation of the individual is just that: individual. No matter where one finds oneself or chooses to be, it is assumed you will be the best possible version of yourself, taking all opportunities for widening one's appreciation of one's calling. Some members' apostolate is within the Institute itself, training others, leading groups, working “behind the scenes”, filling the various offices and appointments. My vocation led me to the Servite missions for five years early in my Institute life. I loved being in Africa, running a small African school and I was lucky that Swaziland was at that time a British protectorate so English was the teaching language at secondary level.

I returned to the UK as my parents' health deteriorated. It was a challenging time as the contrast between England and Africa was acute and I was homesick for Africa for a couple of years. However my vocation was not as a missionary and had I stayed, I would have put my Secular Institute vocation in danger. Being a Secular Institute member demands secular living and one struggles if one's environment is too far removed from the secular norm.

Within a couple of years both my parents died and I settled as a teacher in a school in Hampshire where I stayed for fifteen years. I then moved to be Deputy Head of a school in Bromley in Kent, which was a new and exciting challenge. This was to be my last teaching post and when the school's circumstances changed I was lucky enough to be offered a couple of years' early retirement. This enabled me to study for a Diploma in Pastoral Ministry and I then moved to Nailsea, near Bristol, where I now live.

I then took a course in Spiritual Direction and this led to my having directees of my own. I feel singularly blessed in this work and find it a privilege to accompany others on their spiritual journeys.

Do I regret joining a Secular Institute ? No because I think that that is where God wants me. At the time I joined, a key phrase was “holy, humble, hidden”. I think I have perfected “hidden” and am now working on “humble”; God willing, He will perfect “holy” in his own good time!

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Andrée Kirby

Andree My father was English and my mother Belgian. When I was born, my mother dedicated me to Our Lady and promised in her honour to dress me only in blue and white until I was 7. Even when I went to school at 5, I did not wear the uniform. This did not worry me: I think I was rather proud to be special to Our Lady. My mother took her promise very seriously and sometimes it was difficult as we went to buy shoes!!!

I wen to a convent school and then to a teacher training college. At 20 I started teaching infants in a Catholic primary school. About this time I questioned whether I had a vocation but decided I would like to give myself to God but not in a convent. As I knew nothing of the existence of secular institutes I did nothing and carried on with my life. I was not interested in marriage, so I suppose God intended that I should dedicate myself in this form of vocation - but not yet.

When I was 36, I was asked to adopt a young girl. She was brought up in a convent with a few other girls and now they were leaving school, they were returning to their parents. But this particular child had no family at all and nowhere to go. Wendy came to live with us (my parents and I) and although I made many mistakes we learnt to love her and she us.

A year after this I came across the Servite Secular Institute. As soon as I heard about it I knew that this was what I always wanted to do. The trouble was that I did not know if the institute would accept me as I had an adopted daughter. Could I live the life while being a parent, for Wendy looked upon me as a mother? I was told there was no problem. You see if you are living a consecrated life in the world you must be able to show that being a secular person living a complete secular life in whatever circumstances God has put you does not prevent you from being completely given over to God following the vows of chastity, poverty and obedience. It is possible to be a person of prayer, and it is not necessary to be in a convent to do this.

Now as years have passed, Wendy has a daughter married with three children and a son married with one little girl. I am a grandmother to Wendy's son and daughter and Granny to their children. They all know about the Institute, they know I go to meetings and a retreat, and there is no conflict of interest.

When I retired from teaching, I did various voluntary jobs, I organised the Christian Aid collection in my district, I worked in a hospice for the dying, and I ran a charity shop for the Catholic Children's Society. Now I am 80, I have given these up: I would now be more of a liability than a help. I live in a warden-controlled flat. I go each day at 6am to open my church and prepare for Mass. I do this with another lady. There is not a lot I can do: someone has said that the usefulness of our lives is God's concern, not ours.

I see Wendy and her daughter most weeks - her son only sometimes as he lives further away. The grandchildren I see in the school holidays and this is a great joy to me. I go regularly to institute group meetings where I find support and stimulation and comradeship. Our order, the Servants of Mary, has a particular charism for family and hospitality. I try to follow both these. My two families have given me great love and blessings. I know that in everyone's lives there are heartaches and mistakes and I am no exception. But the love of my adopted family and the love of the members of my Institute family have been a great gift from God and I thank Him for it. The fact that our Institute belongs to Mary brings be back to the day my mother dedicated me to Our Lady and made me wear blue and white and it makes me thing I am in the right place.

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Alexis Pottinger

Alexis 'Vocations to the priesthood and the consecrated life are born out of the experience of a personal encounter with Christ, out of sincere and confident dialogue with him, so as to enter into his will. It is necessary, therefore, to grow in the experience of faith, understood as a profound relationship with Jesus, as inner attentiveness to his voice which is heard deep within us.' (Message of Pope Benedict XVI for the 50th World Day of Prayer for Vocations, 2013)

Background
I was born into a family of observant Jews in the Reform tradition. My father was a prominent member of the Jewish community, having been curator of the Ben Uri Art Gallery during the 1950s and 60s. I was batmitzvah (confirmed) at the age of 15. While I was preparing for my confirmation, I felt a strong spiritual yearning. However, at that point the youthful idealism of teenage years, the desire to change the world, was channelled into politics, and I followed my activist friends into agnosticism. I went to university in 1966 to study economics and politics, and was caught up in the student revolution of 1968. That direct experience of raw politics in action showed me clearly that politics was not the solution to what I was seeking, but to change the world required first of all a change of heart. After graduating in the summer of 1969, I went on holiday to Morocco, and in the desert, had a life-changing personal encounter with God. At that moment I recognised that, as God is supreme, the best thing I could do with my life was to devote it to knowing him and doing his will. It's only looking back that I realise that I had fallen in love with God, but with no conception of this possibility in my religious tradition, I did not know what had happened or how to express it.

Journey with Buddhism
On my return home, I picked up a book on Buddhism, which I found very attractive as a guide to living. Despite the fact that Buddhism does not have the concept of a personal god, I continued in my prayer life to deepen my relationship with my Creator. I studied mindfulness meditation with a Buddhist monk of the Theravada tradition, which is an austere form of Buddhism. Then I met a Tibetan lama, and became engaged in the Mahayana tradition, which makes full use of the senses in its religious practices and also places great emphasis on the compassionate heart. While studying with the Lama, I met my future husband, a Jamaican musician, writer and artist. We had two children, and lived our life together focussed on the love of God, expressed as an exploration of a variety of faith traditions. My husband introduced me to the New Testament which I read for the first time when I was 26. Through the Scriptures I became familiar with the person of Jesus and came to admire his teaching on an intellectual level.

Emigration to Jamaica
When my children were small, my husband became ill and wanted to go home to Jamaica. I got a teaching job, and took the family to live there in 1982. After two years, my husband died, but I decided to stay in Jamaica for my children's sake. Shortly before his death, we had bought a house in Kingston. He had not seen it, but gave the area his approval, as he had known it before coming to England in the 1960's as a good residential district. Unfortunately in the intervening years, it had become ghetto, so I found myself a single white woman with two young children living in the Kingston ghetto. Life was tough.

Conversion to Catholicism
All this time my heart was still restless. My house was next to a Pentecostal church and I was fascinated by the three-hour Sunday services which were very lively and full of joy. I attended some services, but did not feel that I belonged. Then in 1992 someone invited me to her church. On arrival at the address, I found myself on the steps of the Roman Catholic church of Ss Peter and Paul; the old prejudices that I had absorbed as a child came to the fore, and I really did not want to go in. Just then, my friend who was inside greeted me, and not wishing to appear rude, I entered with great trepidation. My first Mass, the celebration of the Solemnity of Ss Peter and Paul, was an experience of instant conversion in heart-to-heart encounter with the person of Jesus Christ. I was struck by the similarity with a synagogue service, and with the blessing of bread and wine, which was exactly the same as the Friday night ritual performed by my father in our Jewish home. I knew I had come home, and that this was the fulfilment of the encounter in the Moroccan desert.

Beginnings of vocation
The first person I spoke to about my wish to become a Catholic was a Servite sister. She led the RCIA programme, and I got to know and love her. She returned to England before I was baptised, so I received instructions from a wise and generous Jesuit priest. I was baptised in 1994, and returned to England with my children the following year, as we had been unable to make a stable life in Jamaica. It was in Jamaica that I first came across secular institutes. As my family situation and my age and background were not suited for a commitment to religious life, I was delighted to discover the possibility of consecrating my life to God in the world. However, due to my circumstances at that time, I was not able to pursue this possibility.

Encounter with the Servites
On my return to England in 1995, I spent the next few years settling down. While I was training in computing, I attended a local church for daily Mass. There I met a woman who was very welcoming and hospitable, and who asked me to teach her how to use a computer. I visited her every week, and discovered that she was a member of the Servite Secular Institute. The more I found out about her way of life, and about the Servite Order, the more I realised that this was the vocation to which God was calling me. While considering it, I happened to meet in London the Servite sister I had known in Jamaica, and the sense of God's providence was very strong. The fact that one of the Seven Holy Founders of the Servite Order was named Alexis was another encouraging sign!

Living the Secular Institute Vocation
I began formation in 1998 and took first vows in 2002. I worked as a project manager and trainer of teachers of adults. Now, although past retirement age, I work part-time at a further education college. I do this out of necessity, as we share the insecurities of lay life, and my circumstances require that I continue to work for the time being. I am not typical of the membership, being a widow (and grandmother!), whereas most members are single women. Taking the same vows of poverty, chastity and obedience as those in religious life, we live the vows in the context of ordinary lay life, bringing our experience of personal encounter with Jesus Christ in prayer and in the Eucharist into our family life, workplace and parish communities, with the emphasis on personal responsibility in following our Rule. I took perpetual vows in 2009, and have the joy of knowing that I have been blessed to be where God has called me to be, a Servant of Mary in the world of everyday life.

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