Living within a Religious Order -

Comboni Missionary Sisters

Clockwise: Sisters Ida Padrotti, Natalia Gomes, Patricia Holloway & Maureen Lynch

Date of photography: 27th March 2017

It was an honour and a privilege to be invited to see at first hand four Comboni Missionary Sisters living communally in their Chiswick convent, a fine example of independent-minded women who devote their interdependent lives to the service of God, to charity, and to supporting the underprivileged.   Not only do the Sisters pray for us, and for the world, they also work hard and selflessly, enhancing the lives of people in distant lands, in their own community, and in the local neighbourhood - they prefer to keep their mission ‘low key’ and few people know of their multifarious good works.  Many of the aspiring new Sisters arrived from different parts of the world, mainly from the other countries of Europe, and naturally enough they brought with them a great variety of attitudes and habits, creating a real sense of diversity and a splendid feeling that their small community was a reflection of the rest of the world and the whole of humanity.

The full story:

A handsome period house here in Chiswick, with a neat garden and an appealing air of stillness around it, is home to a number of Comboni Missionary Sisters.   A few years ago, I had the privilege of photographing Sister Ida Pedrotti as part of my 100 Faces of London project - an exhibition of which was held in 2012, just before the London Olympics.   (This project and the original image of Sister Ida can still be see online.)   It was Sister Maureen who kindly made it all happen then and she has proved equally kind and helpful in facilitating my return visit, this time aimed at telling something about living in a religious house - and what better place than this well-established community of Comboni Sisters.

Who and what are the Comboni Missionary Sisters, you might ask?   Their website informs us that they are ‘women consecrated to God for the mission ad gentes’ (ie ‘to the nations’) and continues:

The Comboni Missionary Sisters came into being in 1872 as an exclusively missionary institute and as a result of the prophetic inspiration of Daniel Comboni.   He was a missionary who was passionate about Christ and about Africa and who always and everywhere gave priority to the poorest and most excluded people.

Comboni believed unreservedly that the peoples of Africa could, through the power of the Gospel, become protagonists for the regeneration and liberation of Africa.   He recognised the importance and necessity of the presence of consecrated women in the evangelising mission of the Church, believing that their presence “constituted an indispensable element that was essential in all respects.”

The history of the Congregation with its light and darkness, heroism and daily tasks, faithfulness and shortcomings has been written by the lives of the Sisters who have preceded us in the same vocation:  it continues to be written day by day by each one of us, who following the original inspiration of our Founder, dedicates her existence so that the light of the Gospel is not denied to anyone.

This vision of his is alive in the sisterhood today wherever they are.

It is an unusually fine day and March is proverbially ‘going out like a lamb’, so we decide to take the photograph on the well-kept lawn, surrounded as it is by the masses of spring blossom that generously adorn the nearby trees.   While I set up the shoot, the sisters chat about the day’s tasks and in these simple exchanges there is a manifest sense of order, calm and tranquility.   After the shoot, when we speak about what they have done and where they have lived and worked, it quickly becomes apparent how wide is their experience of the world and, while there are no overt affirmations of spirituality in what they say, it is eminently clear that each has the same motivation, a motivation that springs from the same faith and vocation that they will have shared for most of their adult lives.

Sister Patricia Holloway may be 72 but both her agile mind and her mastery of detail would be accomplishments in a woman many years her junior - this is particularly helpful, as it happens, for she deals with some of the administrative duties of the house.   Born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and having completed her noviciate and her teacher training, she spent 13 years teaching in Uganda.   Then, after five years of social work in Chicago, Sister Patricia returned to Africa to spend a further 16 eventful years in Eritrea.   Since 2014, she has allegedly been in retirement here in Chiswick, although her daily tasks appear to be many and idle moments are rare.

Sister Natalia Gomes, now aged 66, is the youngest of the sisters I am privileged to meet.   She was born in the handsome provincial city of Viseu, in northern Portugal, home of the famous Dão wines.   After her Religious Formation in Italy, she came to Chiswick to learn English but more importantly, to gain her nursing qualification at West Middlesex Hospital.   She was then transferred to Egypt, to learn Arabic, thereafter undertaking postings in South Sudan to work with those suffering from leprosy which at that time was endemic.   She also spent some years working with refugees in the Central African Republic.   But that does not comprise all of Sister Natalia’s African endeavours:  she also spent 10 years in Uganda as the director of a centre for the formation and training of novices.   Since 2016, she has been helping to run the Comboni Centre for Spirituality and Mission here in Chiswick, where she works with another Sister and some lay people who want to be involved with the work of the Order.

Sister Ida Pedrotti was born in Dambel, near Trento, Italy - she is the Italian sister whom I had photographed for an earlier project.   At 89, she is now quite frail but stays active nevertheless; she can often be seen on Chiswick High Road on her way to Mass.  For many years, she was in charge of the Comboni Sisters’ Nursery School in Chiswick.   In recent years, she has done pastoral work, visiting and helping many in the locality who are elderly or housebound and, despite her advancing years, I am told she still does.

Sister Maureen Lynch is a youthful 76 and is originally from Birmingham.   She joined the Comboni Sisters when she was 18 and, having completed her Religious Formation and undertaken a course in Teacher Training, she spent almost eight years in Egypt teaching in a primary school on the Nile.   From Egypt, she returned to Chiswick and worked for a few years in the Chiswick Nursery School run by the Comboni Sisters.   During the last 20 years, she has worked as receptionist in her community, done voluntary work with asylum seekers and refugees, and been involved in issues of justice and peace.

Sister Maureen has lived in the Comboni Missionary Sisters’ house for a very long time;  it is the home she has shared with the other Sisters there in what seems to be a superb example of successful communal living within a religious order.    I take the liberty of asking how it all works, to which Sister Maureen replies:  “Yes, we do live communally, but we have our private rooms where we retreat for private contemplation, to pray, and to have our private moments, such times as every one of us needs in life.   But communal living is all about sharing and though we support one another spiritually, of course, we do so in practical and emotional ways too.   We pray together and we pray for each other.”  

In other words, the Sisters live both independent and interdependent lives, deciding for themselves how and when they share.   Sister Maureen continues:  “This house was established primarily to provide a home for retired Sisters but in the past, novices have been trained here too and with such lively young spirits around, the place was not only tranquil but sometimes quite lively too.   Many of the aspiring new Sisters arrived from different parts of the world, mainly from the other countries of Europe, and naturally enough they brought with them a great variety of different attitudes and habits, creating a real sense of diversity;  we had a splendid feeling that we were from all around the world.   Nowadays, most of us are old and I do sometimes miss the time when the nearby nursery was full of children, full of energetic young lives, and the house was full of novices too.”

It is evident that the recruitment of novices into the various Roman Catholic orders, both in the UK and in Europe, is generally becoming very difficult, with most of the new missionary sisters and priests being recruited from Africa, where Catholicism is experiencing its fastest growth.

As I pack up my photographic equipment, I am conscious that my visit has temporarily disturbed the special tranquility, the gracious tempo of this place.   Having received such a warm welcome from all four of the Sisters I photographed, I do hope that their customary serenity was quickly restored after my departure.   The Sisters pray for us, and for the world, but they also work hard and selflessly to enhance not only the lives of people in distant lands but also of those in their own community and in the local neighbourhood - they prefer to keep their mission ‘low key’ and few people know of their good works.   Because publicity is not at all their thing, the Sisters express a degree of concern when I mention that their pictures and their story will be uploaded to the web.   I do hope they accepted my assurances and I record here my thanks for their taking part.  

Text edited: 15th April 2017

To see sister Ida Pedrotti in 100 Faces of London please click here  

Page modified: 8th April 2019