By Shelley Marsden
POSITIVE portrayals of them may seem few and far between, but women like Sister Linda Dearlove MBE paint the most realistic version of what it is to be a nun today.
A Sister of Mercy, founder of the King’s Cross-based charity Women At the Well seven years ago, to help women out of prostitution, Lynda is all too aware of negative portrayals of nuns, but believes what’s important is that they continue to do what they do – that is, help people.
She said: “I’m not worried about combating negative stereotypes. What’s important is that we do what we do and we get on with it. Yes, there’s poor journalism and poor filmmaking out there; there is, if you like, picking on minority groups. But profile is not the most important thing to us – it’s continuing to help people.”
Lynda, who makes no bones about who she is and proudly adds Sister before her name, added: “People may well have presumptions about who I am and how I operate. But in fact, then they generally discover that none of those stereotypes are true. Sisters over the years have quietly got on with doing what needed to be done. We haven’t necessarily got as involved in the public domain, either at a political level or hierarchical levels and part of the problem is that there is this ‘unknown’ element to what we do, so presumptions can be retained.”
Using Stephen Frear’s film as an example (about an Irish woman who had been at a ‘Magdalene Laundry’ and was now searching for her long-lost son), Lynda, who describes herself as coming from a “northern working class Catholic family, shaped by a strong sense of community and social justice” believes artistic licence abounds where sisters are concerned.
“People feel they can poke fun at lots of things nowadays, and women in general are fair game. Add to that that we, nuns, already a minority, are also women of faith and there’s even more to lampoon. We are ripe for negativity, anger and laughter. It seems as though there’s a presumption that that’s OK, without understanding so much of what nuns are, what they really do.”
What they do often includes vital relief work abroad. Linda has colleagues currently working in the city of Taclaban in The Philippines, where the typhoon wiped out an entire secondary school, kitchen and laundry.
She explained: “Just think of how much money was raised to create those resources – and all the poor people whose lives depend on access to these things. What we in the UK sometimes forget is that people in Britain at one stage didn’t have access to hospitals and schools, other than because predominantly sisters, and communities like ours, provided those services, for free – then gradually the health service took over. Our social history is forgotten.”
Women’s roles are more evolved and have been able to move into fields, like teaching and nursing and many others, which before they hadn’t the choice to, something Lynda also feels has an impact.
“The world has changed in huge ways since the days of Philomena”, she said. “The actions of the nuns in that film were being carried out at the behest of the state. It’s easy to look back and say, ’These awful nuns did that…’ but it wasn’t happening in a vacuum. It was part of a system that was sanctioned by the state and society because people wanted things hidden and out of the way, people weren’t being kidnapped in that sense.
“That’s not to say the woman herself acted freely and I certainly do not agree or condone what happened, but I do think we take things out of context without exploring or explaining that context.”
Sister Lynda’s charity provides a service for women locked into a pavement culture and its surrounding issues of drugs, alcoholism, violence and homelessness. Women at the Well provides a physical and emotional space for them to look at how they can exit that lifestyle, and works alongside the specialist sexual exploitation unit, providing a victims’ centre when establishments are raided.
Something important that Lynda feels nuns are doing now is making their voices heard on a legislative level, something borne out by Spanish nun Sister Teresa Forcades, who has become one of Europe’s most influential left-wing public intellectuals, campaigning for Catalan independence and the reversal of public spending cuts.
Sister Lynda’s charity is heavily involved in policy and legislation within British government, including potential policy changes or unintended consequences of legislation that may have an impact on the women they work with, and international law with regards to its impacts on women.
She said: “That would be a very big difference to where nuns were forty years ago – that notion of holding governments to account and assuring the predicaments of some women’s lives are shone back to the government and challenging it.”
Speaking to Jane Garvey on Radio 4, Lynda described how many people have no idea that many of the nurses during the Crimean War were Sisters of Mercy, and subject to such abuse when they came home that soldiers – who in some cases they had saved the lives of – had to provide them with a guard of honour as the public tried to stone them.
She said: “Move forward in time, to jokes like Pick Up A Penguin about nuns’ traditional dress, and people are still making a joke of these people. But looking at the real work and real lives? That’s a story not often told.”
See www.watw.org.uk for more.