Given at the Centenary Celebration of the arrival of Mother Mary Charles Magdalen Walker RSC in Nigeria, Founder of the Handmaids of the Holy Child Jesus, at the Church of the Most Precious Blood and St Edmund, Edmonton, on 18th November 2023
‘Here, I am Lord, it is I Lord, I have heard you calling in the night, I will go Lord, if you lead me, I will hold your people in my heart.’
The opening hymn sings of the call of Lord in the life of Margaret Walker, born 1881 in Brighton, Sussex and the following of her religious life. It is also the call which each of the sisters have heard as they follow the invitation of God in the order of Handmaids of the Holy Child Jesus founded by Mother Mary Charles Margaret Walker.
Their foundress had been educated at the convent of the Holy Child, Mayfield, Sussex. In 1901 she entered the congregation of the Religious Sisters of Charity in Dublin and was professed on 26th May 1904 having received the name of ‘Sr Mary Charles’.
As a religious sister she dedicated herself to the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, and modelled her life on Our Blessed Lady, her Mother.
The gospel of the Annunciation reveals the call of God in the life of the young maiden Mary in Nazareth. The angel Gabriel tells her that God has chosen her and that she has won God’s favour. She is called to become the mother of the Saviour, Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Mary expresses her astonishment. In response, the angel Gabriel tells her to trust in the power of the Holy Spirit. We can imagine the pause and moment of the silence, as the angel Gabriel awaits her response. The air is still and hot. One can imagine the anticipation, the pause pregnant with tension, waiting for the answer which will change the world. Mary says gently and humbly, ‘I am the handmaid of the Lord, let what you have said be done to me’. The angels in heaven rejoice.
God called the young girl, Margaret Walker, at the age of 20 into the order of Religious Sisters of Charity in Ireland whose motto is Caritas Christi urget nos, the love of Christ urges us on, or the love of Christ impels and directs us onwards.
Mother Mary Charles began her vocation as a servant of God in education which she understood led to the empowerment of women. She became a teacher in Dublin and followed a course in pedagogy at St Mary’s College, Dublin. It would have been difficult for a woman to study at third-level at this time and so it shows her determination for the good of others. She then taught in Cork, later Foxford, Co Mayo, where she met the pioneering Mother Arsenius Morrogh Bernard. Mother Arsenius, named after a desert monk, had opened a convent in April 1891, with an attached school and also provided pupils with both food and clothing. To alleviate the desperate poverty in the district she decided to establish a woollen mill. She took advice on factory construction and layout, selected her machinery, and recommended the factory's first manager, Frank Sherry. With the assistance of a loan, a substantial grant from the Congested Districts Board (CDB), and other monies, the Providence Mill opened on 25 April 1892. Factory inspectors commented on the mill's good management and working conditions. William JD Walker, an adviser to the CDB, after a surprise visit to the factory, spoke of its ‘smart business-like air’, and of its contribution to the ‘social and moral elevation of the people’. Alongside the mill, the convent opened a co-operative creamery, and it also provided community education in horticulture and diet. This additional work involved up to 800 households. She often said, ‘I am here to help the poor regardless of creed or politics’. Mother Bernard’s entrepreneurial spirit in the poor area of Foxford must have inspired Mother Mary Charles for her later work in Africa. On return to the Dublin area, Mother Mary Charles compiled a book of catechism notes used throughout schools in Ireland.
Increasingly she felt God’s call to work in Africa. Like Abraham she experienced the call within a call to ‘leave her country, family and father’s house to follow God’s calling. This was to be Calabar in SE Nigeria. When the Spiritan Bishop Shanahan CSSp appealed to the Mother General of Religious Sisters of Charity for a foundation in Southern Nigeria, Sr Mary Charles volunteered and obtained permission to work with Bishop Shanahan in 1923 in Calabar Nigeria. She became known as Mother Magdalen and headed to a distant land, although advised that the climate was hard, that it would be an act of madness, and that her mission would be impossible. Nothing deterred Mother Magdalen and so she sailed for Nigeria. She would hold the people of Africa in her heart for the rest of her life.
There with a pioneering spirit, she dedicated her work to teaching, preparing women for being good wives and mothers, establishing literacy centres, developing vocational education, and using the Montessori method of education for holistic learning. She was responsible for the building of schools, dispensaries and centres for twins and their mothers and visited the poor in their homes. She organised religious education so that, by 1929, 1000 people were attending her classes. She strove to raise the status of women and gave them a sense of their own dignity. Bishop Shanahan later visiting Foxford said, ‘Mother Mary Charles has done more work than all the priests of the mission put together’. Her work led to the foundation of the Handmaids of the Holy Child Jesus in the early 1930s with the entry into the fledgling order of four women she had trained. Today we see here the way the spirit has continued her work as the sisters make their fiat, ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord’.
St Paul reminds us that all we do depends upon God’s grace. After a decade, Mother Mary Charles’ health began to fail; she moved to British Cameroon helping a community of Franciscan sisters in their schools and then returned to England after her health broke down. After a period of relative obscurity she was welcomed back to Ireland in 1956. Later she was sent to Chikuni, Zambia in charge of the formation of African Sisters for the recently founded Handmaids of the Blessed Virgin Mary where she died in 1966. Her memory is revered today in Calabar where she was finally buried at the Mother House.
As we give thanks for her life and mission, we see that she trusted totally in God’s Providence: her call, her mission, her call to Africa, her struggle and during ill-health. Trusting in God’s Providence, she entrusted her life to the Father and consecrated it to the service of people in Southern Nigeria.
Dear Sisters, as you model your life on the love of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and your life on Christ inspired by your Foundress, give thanks and trust totally in God. May he bless you all on this Feast as you respond like Our Lady to the call of God, saying ‘I am the handmaid of the Lord, be it done unto me according to your Word.’
Thank you for your gift and service to the Church.
Bishop John Sherrington
Photo: Handmaids of the Holy Child Jesus pictured with Bishop John Sherrington and concelebrating priests