Sister Valerie Cook, OBE (1924-2013)
There must be hundreds of former La Retraite girls who like me, at one time or another had the experience of waiting outside Stan’s office! Mother Mary Stanislaus was known to generations as ‘Stan’, long after the Sisters of La Retraite had, in the wake of Vatican II, gone back to using their baptismal names. Sr Valerie, as she became, was a gifted teacher of history, who from 1961 was also to become the very able and respected headmistress of La Retraite High School, Clifton.
Whether you were a naughty girl sent out of class or a 6 th former filling in your college or UCCA forms, waiting outside ‘Stan’s office’ you were confronted with her system of ‘traffic lights’: red for ‘Please wait’ and green for ‘Enter’. It nearly always took ages for that green light to display but once you entered that office you knew that you had Sister Valerie’s total and undivided attention for however long was necessary. She was no ‘soft-touch’ for she knew what she wanted, but she knew how to listen and as she listened, how to ask the right question, avoiding petty detail of whatever nature to focus on the bigger picture.
This search for the bigger picture lay perhaps behind her desire as a young woman to study history at Bristol University where she became very interested in politics. She spoke with great affection always of her life as a student and the friendships she made during that time, often over earnest political discussions or hiking around the countryside. She was a keen walker all her life, striding out with her rucksack on her back and enjoying the immensity of nature as she gazed upon the world from the summit of a mountain. Looking at her own future she began to long for a life totally given to God and seriously considered joining a missionary congregation working in Africa. Indeed she even went to be fitted for her postulant’s habit before at some point during the train journey back home to Bristol deciding that her real vocation lay with the Sisters of La Retraite, whom she had known at school!
After her first vows in 1948 Valerie taught in La Retraite schools in London and Salisbury before moving to Bristol in 1956 as Head of History. The 1960’s and 70’s when Valerie was headmistress were also years of great change for the Catholic Secondary Schools in Bristol and Avon. As a member of the Clifton Diocesan Schools Commission, she was deeply involved in plans for their reorganization, and worked for years with a dedicated group of teachers, clergy and Education officials. It was a time of controversy and sacrifice, conflict and distress to all concerned, not least to Valerie, who was so intimately concerned in plans which led to the closure of her own much-loved school in 1982.
However as one door closes another is often said to open, or in Valerie’s case to open once more. As a child she had spent several years living on her Irish grandparents’ farm and from 1983-2002, with the exception of the three years she was back in London as Provincial Superior of the Sisters of La Retraite England/Ireland Province, Valerie’s life was spent in Ireland. She moved first to Cork where she was warden of the La Retraite hostel for students and then in 1987 was in the founding of a new community in Galway.
If Valerie loved Galway the feeling was mutual! Embracing Irish life, spirituality and culture she organised all sorts of retreats and Bible-study groups. She also worked in the library of the Diocesan pastoral centre and had many friends too in the University. She spoke easily of Jesus, her friend and rock, something she did very naturally throughout her life, and people listened – and still remember - what she had to say. These were indeed very happy years for her, set against the backdrop of the breathtakingly beautiful countryside of the West of Ireland in which to walk and paint and write poetry, all of which she loved!
However in 2002 progressively failing health brought with it another move, this time back to England; to Weston-super-Mare first of all before a final move in 2005 into the care home in Burnham-on-Sea where she spent the last years of her life.
Valerie will be remembered for many things, her wisdom and courage, her calm and her counsel, as well as her gift for friendship and love of life. I have no doubt that when Valerie went home to God on Saturday, 2 nd November the green entry light on the door of heaven was shining brightly!
Valerie is survived by her younger sister Mary, who lives in Norfolk.
Sr Valerie Cook, O.B.E. born Bristol 29 th April 1924, died Burnham-on-Sea, 2 nd November 2013
Sr Moira McDowall, La Retraite Galway, Ireland