Celebrating An Extraordinary Life

by Gerry Lynch last modified 23 Sep, 2013 05:18 PM

Sister Hannah's ministry of prayer and writing celebrated at Requiem Mass at the Minster Church in Warminster

Thelma Bailey, known to many as Sister Hannah, was a truly remarkable person.

When she was a child she caught a disease that resulted in nerve damage and progressive muscle wasting. With leg calipers and a general frailty of body she was unable to do many of the things others take for granted. She did not have the strength to ride a bicycle, so she rode a tricycle. Thelma was brought up by her mother to laugh at her own difficulties. By the time she reached adulthood most of the muscle tissue of her trunk limbs and face was gone.

In 1987 she wrote, “It is clear I have entered upon the final stage of my journey. That stage may be long or it may be short ... but in and through every experience the Lord will be there. I am not afraid.” Yet Thelma lived and served God for another quarter century.

Her legs were amputated and she got about with an electric wheel chair. But self pity was not her style.

Thelma did not define herself by her disability but by her faith. She wanted to be a nun and tried to join various religious communities. Her first choice was the Franciscans, whose practice of joyful poverty greatly appealed to her. Unfortunately her disability made it impossible for her to live with them as a fully professed nun in the Second Order. Instead she became a Third Order Franciscan. She also became a Friend of St Denys Ivy House. Her last years were spent at Cobbett House in Warminster.

With the agreement of her spiritual director, Thelma took name Sister Hannah and took vows to the Single Consecrated Life. She adopted the brown nun’s dress and discarded all other clothes.

Sister Hannah developed and sustained a rigorous discipline of prayer and communion. She was a familiar figure in Warminster going along in her chair to Church in all weathers.

Sister Hannah went twice a week to the St Denys retreat centre. There she would pray for people at Bath Hospital and the men at HMP Erlestoke. She regularly visited people in hospital and Erlestoke Prison. She wrote six books of spiritual poetry, prayers and meditations. She also wrote countless articles for magazines. She even appeared on BBC TV's This Is The Day . She was involved with the charity Lamp Lighters, and made several pilgrimages, most notably to Lourdes.

Sister Hannah's apartment was full of letters and papers and teddy bears. One carer remembers being introduced to her favourite, a large bright yellow one.

“This is Pooh”, Hannah said. She told the carer to pull Pooh’s string .The bear said, “I'm so hungry.” The carer thought this was Thelma’s way of asking for food, but when she offered to prepare some, Hannah declined and made the carer pull the string again.

Then the carer had a sudden brainwave and asked, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness”, and Hannah nodded.

Perhaps she wanted Pooh, the bear of very little brain, to be a lesson. Do not rely on human intellect or cleverness, but believe in the wisdom of God and trust that He rewards faith. She knew that the wisdom of God is far above our own.

Sister Hannah did not make out she was clever. She called herself mad and liked it when folks through her a bit off the wall. She liked butterflies, frail creatures that have undergone such wonderful transformation. God is greater. Sister Hannah knew Him to be so. She lived in constant hope. She knew peace, which she described as joy resting.

She was laid to rest after a well attended Requiem Mass at the Minster Church of St Denys, Warminster, presided at by the Revd David Hayes on 12 September.

Sister Hannah truly believed that Christ's own experience of pain and suffering meant that not only could He embrace hers, but that He was absolutely committed to her and stood by her every day in and through it all. She described herself as having the gift of weakness.

Sister Hannah’s autobiography, appropriately, is called In His Strength.

For more information on the Single Consecrated Life in the Church of England, visit http://singleconsecratedlife-anglican.org.uk/

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