Special Needs Spirituality
Jean Daniel and Liz Shaw, Sisters of La Retraite in Weston-Super-Mare and Bristol, work with people with Special Needs. They got together recently and talked about what had led them into this ministry and how they see it as part of the charism of La Retraite.
What lead you into contact with people who have Special Needs?
JEAN: I’ve been in the Guide movement since I was eleven years old, but it was while I was at Training College that I had the chance to help with a camp for Extension Rangers at Woodlarks in Farnham, Surrey. These severely disabled women lived in great big institutions and hospitals and this was the one week of the year when they got out. They lived such isolated, dull lives that the fun, fresh air, exciting food and lively friends became the high point of their year. I used to help run the weekly meeting for those who lived in St. Benedict’s Hospital, Tooting.
What happened once you entered the Congregation?
Why is the area of Special Needs important to you as a La Retraite Sister?
JEAN: Over the years, the CHCF has become very important to me as in Weston, Bristol and London it has opened up for me a friendship with people who have such potential for loving and praying – people who are so often sidelined in society, ignored or pitied and denied their dignity. They bring out the best in people and can be the source of great joy and freedom from ‘political correctness’!
JEAN: I remember Bishop Mervyn once saying that a person with handicap is totally untouched by that handicap in his/her soul. That’s always stayed with me. God is in every person.
LIZ: So often it’s simply about being with rather than doing for - though of course it can be both mentally and physically exhausting work!
JEAN: Yes, going to Lourdes is a wonderful experience even though the helpers come back exhausted and I always returned with a sore throat! Other pilgrimages are run by Faith and Light, the offspring of the L’Arche communities founded by Jean Vanier. Also in Bristol we have two Thomas More houses, set up for people with special needs whose parents can no longer look after them at home and want them to widen their horizons.
LIZ: And then you wrote a book with Fr. David Wilson some years ago, didn’t you, about faith development with what was described then as ‘mentally handicapped’?
JEAN: Yes, that was 1975! It was called “I Am With You” and was written in response to a request by the Bishops Conference of England and Wales to inspire and inform this area of catechesis.
LIZ: So you’ve had this love of people with Special Needs nearly all your life?
JEAN: Well – quite a lot of it. And not only me, but several other La Retraite Sisters – Sheila Toal and Norrie McInerny; Sheila Hayes, Mary Earls, Ellen Sheridan and Kathleen Withers all came to help at our Fellowship Club holidays at St. Rose’s, Stroud, and Paddy O’Connell belongs to the Faith and Light group in Salisbury.
Several sixth formers at La Retraite Clifton, used to come and help with ‘Tuesday Friends’, a faith group with children at Stoke Park and Purdown Mental Subnormality Hospitals (as they were known). I think it would be super if more young people could get involved in care or church situations as it really brings your own faith alive.
JEAN: I suppose we can really say that we’re tuning into our La Retraite Orientations …..
LIZ: Yes, that “just as God reaches out to us in our humanity, as Sisters of La Retraite, we want to reach out to others …and put this Relational Dimension at the heart of our choices, commitments and our life together.”