Celebrating generosity and gratitude

“What chance did the firm plans of three provincials have against the prayers of these two women?” asked Johan Verschueren SJ, Regional Superior of the European Low Countries at a special ceremony at the north west Europe Jesuit novitiate, Manresa House, Birmingham on Tuesday 16th January.

The two women in question are Martina Scully and Colette Maher, faithful friends and supporters of the novitiate for over fifty years. Since receiving kindness and support from Gerry Marsden SJ, a member of the community of what was then St Gabriel’s retreat house, back in the 1960s, Martina and Colette have shown their gratitude by freely giving their time and talents to prepare Sunday lunches for the novitiate community.  Their culinary creativity and cheerful presence were key features of all high days, holy days and vow days at the novitiate for over 20 years and will be remembered by everyone who participated.

The ceremony was a special mass of thanksgiving for the service and friendship of Martina and Colette on the occasion of their retirement, after which they were awarded the Campion Medal for outstanding service to the Society of Jesus. Mass was celebrated by Irish provincial Fr Leonard Moloney SJ, Fr Verschueren preached and Fr Damian Howard, British provincial, presented the award.

The “firm plans” Fr Verschueren referred to were made around five years ago – to move the novitiate from Birmingham to Ireland as Manresa House is cramped and beginning to crumble; but the project came up against Dublin planning constraints and was abandoned in favour of a scheme to develop the Manresa House site instead.

Martina and Colette were typically self-effacing: "I don't think I've worked for such an honour.... [it] is far above us!” commented Martina, “The little we have done and yet we get this big recognition! It is a joy and privilege to have been here and to be allowed in the novitiate. We got more out of it than we gave."

Martina described the impact of the friendship of Fr Marsden (who died in 2008) and other Jesuits upon her and Colette: "The Jesuits picked us up and helped make us. They told us we were great when we thought we were nobody. The Jesuits show you a goal and point you in that direction; they make you realise that you are somebody.  Hip hip hooray for the Jesuits.”

Fr Paul Nicholson SJ, novice master 2006-14, said “It is hard to imagine the novitiate without Martina and Colette. Their quiet and loving generosity has been a great gift as well as a great example for all of us who have lived in or visited Manresa House.”

The redevelopment of Manresa House will begin in Autumn this year and is expected to take two years. The original Victorian central mansion and beautiful gardens are likely to be retained, while the modern extensions will be removed and new accommodation wings and learning spaces with greater capacity will be created. The new Manresa House will be able to host retreats and training in Ignatian spirituality.  The Diocese of Birmingham has helped the Jesuits to find temporary accommodation for the novitiate near Rugby during the building work.