Nurse who manned a casualty station during the Blitz and surprised herself at 40 by becoming an Anglican missionary in Calcutta
SISTER FLORENCE was the last of the Oxford Mission Sisterhood of the Epiphany still in India. The Sisterhood was founded in 1903, when the Anglican Brotherhood of the Epiphany, which had been working among India's poorest in Calcutta since 1880, decided that it must have 'ladies' to help it.
1903 was also the year of Sister Florence's birth, so her remarkable century of life spanned the whole of the Sisterhood's history to date. She was first of all a nurse, and did not feel a call to the mission field until she was more than 40. In 1946 she sailed for India to find a new life dedicated to the service of God's poor and a new use for her medical skills.
Florence Bell was born to parents with a great admiration for Florence Nightingale, after whom she was named. A nursing career was the obvious choice, and in 1926 she began her training at the King George V Hospital, Ilford. She enjoyed her time there, and remembered vividly the excitement of the visit to the hospital in the 1930s of the Duke of York, who was afterwards King George VI, and his Duchess. During the war she was in charge of a casualty station in the East London docks, a heavily bombed area.
The call to a religious life in India came to her late. At first she resisted the message of a visiting preacher from the Brotherhood: "I was a comfort-loving creature - I liked nice undies," she wrote. "I thought, quietly, comfortably, 'Of course I am too old.'. But, strangely, the inner push went on."
Father Whitcombe B.E. made short work of at least one of her worries. "I remember him looking me up and down and saying, 'You do not look too old to me"'. He sent her firmly to the London office of the Oxford Mission. The Mother Superior in India, when told of her interest, sent a telegram: "Send her at once!"
Sister Florence's medical qualifications were soon tested. Within three weeks of her arrival in the heat and dust of Calcutta, she was sent out to the villages to deal, almost single-handed and with very few facilities, with an outbreak of smallpox.
Short but sturdy, and full of determination, she threw herself into the work. She was horrified by the conditions; having been used in hospital to a laid trolley with everything to hand, she found she had little to use in treating the patients, and had to ask for such basic requirements as cotton wool and powder. Even the local doctor refused to accompany her into one hut, and at first she and the Sister with her had to do everything, including burials.
There were lighter moments. She acquired oranges and lemons for the patients, but was shocked by the way that they simply dropped the peel on to the ground. With no Bengali as yet, she would go round saying, "Pick it up at once!" Cheeky little boys, when they saw her approaching on the road, would cry, "Here she comes! Pick it up! Pick it up!"
She looked after the health and welfare of the Brothers and Sisters, as well as the staff and boys on the Oxford Mission compound. But her main work for many years was with leprosy patients, whom she picked up off the pavements of the city and tended with care and loving kindness. When she was too old for this work, she carried on serving the poor through her helpers in any way she could.
It was formidable work. Sister Florence dressed the patients' diseased limbs- a call to supporters in England brought her bales of used tights to keep the dressings in place - and tried to give them hope. She started a Friends' Fund and bought prostheses for those who had lost limbs.
Her work was not unrecognised. In 1987 she received Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother's Award for Outstanding Service in the Nursing Profession. And two years later she was invited to Clarence House to meet the Queen she had so admired as Duchess of York. She was made to feel quite at home. "We were just like two old ladies taking tea together anywhere".
In later years, too old for active work, she used her Friends' Fund to send poor villagers and pavement-dwellers food and clothing. She started Poor Children's Music Chance, to provide talented youngsters with violins and tuition and to help with living expenses. She watched tenderly over the little boys in the Oxford Mission's orphanage who had always been her especial care. Living simply in her cottage in the compound, and very deaf by then, she remained keenly interested in the outside world and listened to the BBC World Service at top volume. Friends would be addressed at length, with only the need for a nod and a smile in reply. She loved them all, enjoyed letters telling her their family news, and remembered faultlessly the ages and characteristics of their children and grandchildren.
Her 100th birthday was celebrated with a tremendous party at the Mission. There were tributes in Kolkata papers and on local television, and even the Marxist Chairman of the West Bengal Left Front Committee sent a greeting. But she was amazed at all the fuss - "Such an ordinary little person" - and simply thanked God for His blessing in sending her to care for the poor in that beloved land. Obituary from The Times of 4 May, 2004
THE REVD. MICHAEL FEIT writes:
"I enclose a short appreciation of Sister and the O.M. for they have both meant a lot to me and have helped to mould my ministry both in England and here in Canada: "
My contact with the Oxford Mission first started in 1970 when I had to visit Calcutta as a consultant to the Commissioners of the Port of Calcutta during the building of the new dock at Haldia. Subsequent visits continued at regular intervals and covered a period of seven years, during which I made many friends at Behala: Father Mathieson, Father Thorman, and of course Sister Florence.
Prior to my actual visit I had contacted various societies in London with the view of being of possible use whilst in India, but the only Society that showed any interest was the Oxford Mission. At that time Ruth Winter was at the helm, and over the years she used to load me up with many necessities for the Mission, music for Father Mathieson, clothes and toys for Sister Florence's children, and even a set of dental equipment for Barisal. The only objects I declined to take were musical instruments, which I couldn't play, just in case Customs asked me for a tune. In case anyone is wondering about the excess baggage, it so happened that I was in the position of having an unlimited excess baggage allowance.
After my first service at the Cathedral, Canon Subir Biswas put me under the care of the Revd. Lilat Kundu who guided me to Behala and to living history, for I had read Father Douglass at Behala. This started my wonderful connection with O.M.
When Sister Florence came on furlough to the U.K. she often accepted our invitation to come and stay and rest with us in Lincolnshire, away from official talks and occasions. Sister was always giving thanks for the basic things in life, the weather, the growing crops, and life in general. My wife and I remember the time when, after a wonderful day at the coast near Maplethorpe, we would end up buying fish and chips at Hornecastle and eating them sitting in the parked car at the entrance to a wheat field, and watching the setting sun. Following our meal, Sister was intent on gleaning a handful of wheat, oats and barley to take back to Behala with her. Quite illegal of course.
We vividly remember the time when at 5.30 one morning, following new medication, I went into anaphylactic shock for the first time. Sister Florence became a ministering angel until the doctor arrived.
Although on furlough the events in India were always to the forefront of Sister's thoughts. What could she take back with her to help with the Christmas meal with the O.M. Brethren? What items were suitable for her little ones? And when the boys' orchestra was due at Leicester, everyone was encouraged to go: who could refuse her enthusiasm - an enthusiasm well founded, for the evening was a wonderful success.
Whilst acting as chauffeur taking Sister to various friends, acquaintances and family we ourselves made many new friends, most of course being part of that immense family of O.M.
We feel blessed to have known Sister Florence, for surely she walked with God and inspired all whom she came into contact with.
MICHAEL AND BERYL FEIT
MRS. NORMA MATTHEWS, SRN, SCM, writes:
It was in the early 90s that I was first introduced to the Oxford Mission at Behala, by Canon Messenger who was with the Church of North India for many years. He took me to the Mission and introduced me to Father Theodore. Naturally meeting a man who was larger than life, such as he was, was overwhelming, and I was completely mesmerised by Theodore, his work, and the Oxford Mission. Following this I was taken to 'the other side of the road' to meet Sister Florence.
How peaceful it seemed with the tank, the trailing frangipani, the flowers in bloom and the lovely green grass. A true oasis in Calcutta. It was here that I felt, when my business commitments would allow, that I would like to spend a quiet week, and subsequently I wrote to Sister Florence and this was arranged for the following year.
That week in retreat with Sister Florence had a very profound effect on me. Living in a culture like ours, I feel a psychological dependence on microwaves, food mixers, cars, Hoovers, washing machines - all the things we take for granted here. There I was accommodated in Sister's guest cottage and I slept on a bed very similar to hers, with four wooden posts and a string-type mattress - it was hellishly uncomfortable - and in a very small room adjoining it, water was brought in to me twice a day. Old stockings were used to hold the toilet rolls, and hot water in big chums was kept hot by a home-made insulated tea-cosy type of material. How those Sisters were able to utilise everything, without waste, should be a lesson to us all.
Every day little letters used to come to me from Sister, and in the evenings Bonno would bring supper round to me around six: much to my surprise it tasted very much like Heinz soup, and there was also the odd luxury of cornflakes. Not for one moment did I wonder where they came from. In fact these were Sister's own supplies, of which she had so little; and she deprived herself for me, as she would any guest that stayed in her compound.
My husband and I would visit Calcutta every year following this brief stay with Sister. We used to travel to Behala laden down, and there when we arrived she would be sitting in her little cottage looking radiant. The absolute joy of visitors, her delight at her supplies of Marmite, Cup-a-soup, Fox's Glacier Mints and cotton socks! It was as if one was transporting the Crown Jewels to her.
Sister trained as a nurse, and sailed for India as you all know over 55 years ago. . For hours she would tell me of the problems she faced, and how within the first month she thought, "I will never be able to stay"; and then one day she said, "God gave me the strength to come, He will give me the strength to stay". She would mesmerise me for hours with her tales of the patients she had nursed, the rabies, the smallpox, the leprosy. She gave me a vivid account of how she did a dressing on a young woman in the leprosy wards, and when the dressing came off the foot came off too. I was speechless, also about the young boy with the rabies, and although I've always considered myself a very practical nurse, able to cope with most situations, I seriously questioned whether I could have done what she did.
There was always so much to talk about, but always her main thoughts were for others, for her village, her children, and the music. At Christmas I used to send her boxes full of things for her boys, and how she would delight in wrapping up a present with something so simple as a bar of soap and a pen. It was all those little things that meant so much to her. I arranged for the magazine The Lady to be delivered to her: when she had read it she would say, "I've had a cream tea in Torquay, I've been to St. Ives and I'm going to an exhibition in London, and I can make ginger biscuits - because every night I imagine all those wonderful things that I read about in The Lady."
Sister was delighted with Mr. Roy and his wife, and how they cared for her. My friends Sister Tina and Rheka also visited Florence regularly, and following one of these visits informed me that Sister was deteriorating quite rapidly. Canon Messenger, John and I immediately booked our tickets to India and we returned to the Oxford Mission. Sister lay on the bed, looking like a little girl weighing no more than five stone. But still all she could talk about was her work, her boys, the Oxford Mission. Shortly after, she died peacefully, and I felt a great sense of relief that her suffering was not prolonged.
Two of the most remarkable people I have ever met in my life were at the Oxford Mission. First, Theodore, whom I saw as a saint, and secondly Sister Florence, a woman of true compassion, love, goodness and humility, every characteristic of a good Christian. I really do believe that she had the Kingdom of Heaven within. It was a privilege to have met her, she enriched my life so much.
When I left Behala for the last time, it was the end of an era for me.