Mary Kirk – the interviewer interviewed

I was born on Good Friday, 4 April 1947, after one of the coldest winters of the century. The paint froze on the walls of the nursery as my father was painting it.

My parents were both in their 40s when I was born. My mother was an only child, and my father had one much older, childless, sister, so there were no cousins. No family at all, really, apart from grandparents. My mother’s parents were still Edwardian in their outlook, and in their attitude to children. There was a slight claim to fame on that side in descent from Sir John Harington, godson to Elizabeth 1, poet, and inventor of the first flush lavatory. I rarely met my paternal grandfather, who was separated from my grandmother, who had once played the music halls in late Victorian London.

Aged two

My parents were not sociable people, and rarely entertained, and they did not encourage me to have friends round to play, or to stay. Consequently I emerged from childhood into university with little idea of how to form friendships or relationships. Children do not know that they are unhappy, because their world is their norm; it is only in retrospect that one realises. Nor had I really ever spoken to a boy by the time I was 18 as I went to an all-girls (Church of England) school. That school (now near the top of league tables) was not then particularly academic, and at prize-giving after I left the headmistress boasted of the “one hundred percent” university entrance success. That was me!

I didn’t want to go to Oxbridge, thus disappointing my parents (the story of my life). At the time modern languages teaching seemed dusty and irrelevant, so I opted for a new university – Warwick, where I read French Studies. I was in the first intake of students and we lived in a sea of mud, but the teaching was excellent and exciting.

At the end of my first year I was received into the Roman Catholic Church. I had become interested in Catholicism while doing History A level, mainly because of Transubstantiation. I also think there was a Romantic teenage fascination with ritual, and the sonority and rhythm of the Latin. Perhaps I wanted to be told what to believe – maybe so I could kick against it! During my first year I was in a serious car accident, and perhaps my survival also sparked a need for the security that seemed to be on offer.

On graduation I had no clue as to what I wanted to do, so I put off any decision by teaching for a year in a French university – at Pau, in the south west. But that was 1968 and the faculties were all closed most of the academic year because of les évènements. That was glorious – lots of money and no work. I got a part-time job in a private school in Lourdes – the first time I had been there. This led on to doing voluntary work at the Cité Secours St Pierre for poor pilgrims above Lourdes, run by the Secours Catholique (Caritas France).

I went straight from the dazzling light of southern France to a winter in Glasgow to start my PhD in medieval French romance. Glasgow in the late 1960s was grim: dirty, dark, cold. My parents sent shillings for the gas meter and I stayed in bed to keep warm. A research student falls between the camaraderie of undergraduate life and that of being on the staff. I was lonely and unhappy. Eventually the university gave me a “travelling exhibition”, money to go and do research where I wanted for a year. In those days money in academia was plentiful.

So I chose the Centre d’Etudes Supérieures de Civilisation Médiévale in Poitiers, where I met friends I have to this day. I also met my future husband, a New Zealander. He seemed different from other men, and I later found out why: he was a Marist Brother, the first of his order to come overseas to study anything that was not theology.

Engaged, 1972

He had been in the juniorate at 13, novitiate at 19 and final vows at 24. He was 29 when I met him. Eventually a relationship started, and he was released from his vows, but I think the guilt never left him. I also believe from things I have since discovered, though I shall never know for sure, that he was abused as a boy. It was a marriage which should never have happened: neither of us knew anything about relationship.

We married in 1972 in Strasbourg, where I had a job at the university.

December 16, 1972

Once again the universities were on strike and the faculties closed, so again I was paid for not much work. One might think I would have used the time finishing my thesis, but we travelled a lot round France. In the end it was a race between the thesis and the first baby, and the baby won. In 1973 I was pregnant, and my husband was appointed head of modern languages in a public school in Cambridgeshire.

Christmas 1973

Just after the birth of our second daughter one of his colleagues became ill, and there was no-one who could take over teaching A level French literature, so I did it – with a two-week old baby whom I breastfed at break times in the office between our classrooms. The stress was considerable.

Soon the job became permanent and full-time, and my husband also became a boarding housemaster. We taught six days a week. In retrospect I regret this deeply. It was so stressful, and of course the children suffered. But in the Seventies women were striking out for independence – and it was considered admirable to have both a job and young children. But the strains on the relationship and the family were such that we eventually moved to Suffolk, and my husband became head of modern languages at the new Diss High School, and I got a job on the Diss Express, in the days when it was still independent and quite a good little local paper.

1983

I loved this; I was in my element writing, and specially writing about people and their lives. In 1983 I was forced through illness to go freelance. I had ME after getting mumps, and I think it was exacerbated by my mother’s illness and death. My husband was also ill at that time. I edited various magazines, and wrote for quite a few of the nationals.

In 1986 my husband died. It was a traumatic death, and rumour still has it that it was suicide, but that was not the verdict of the coroner. These were difficult times: I was a single mother with daughters aged 13 and 11. I continued writing, and also got a job as a proof-reader to bring in more money. I also at this time trained as a relationships counsellor with what is now called Marriage Care (Catholic Marriage Advisory Council). Ironic really, but I gained invaluable insight. In 1988 I was appointed director of the Church and Community Trust, a charity concerned with helping local churches make the best use of their resources – buildings, money and people. I travelled the country to churches of all denominations. I found that extremely rewarding.

Five years after my husband died I was engaged to another man, but he too died a few weeks before the wedding. It was a bitter time. Many of my religious friends had declined invitations to the wedding as I was marrying a divorced man. They came to his funeral though, and I have struggled with forgiveness. Father Richard (Yeo), who was parish priest then, was wonderful pastorally. He had been helping my fiancé apply for an annulment. His kindness and support of me at this time were exceptional. Alas he left the parish not long after.

1991 with daughters Olivia and Anna, and Jessie the dog

My children had now left school and were at university, and – unsurprisingly, I think – I wanted to start anew somewhere else. I moved to France, to the eastern Pyrenees. Three books were commissioned, and I wrote them there: Holy Matrimony?, which was an exploration of marriage and ministry; The Marriage Workout Book (looking at the developmental stages of relationship); and Divorce – Living through the Agony. These were books aimed at the more popular end of the psychology shelves. On the strength of these I was later invited to contribute four articles to SPCK’s New Dictionary of Pastoral Studies (as was Peter Harvey).

During my time in France I worked as a volunteer for the Secours Catholique in Perpignan. It was very front line work as Perpignan is so near the Spanish border, and there were huge challenges around drugs and immigration. I remember a North African pulled a knife on me when I was on the information desk.

Looking back, I am not surprised that I sought a more emotionally secure refuge from the world, and I did have a trial period in a monastery, high in the Pyrenees, with an order called Les Ermites de Marie.

I was happy there, but did not join at that time for two reasons: my children were not yet completely financially independent; and the Prioress was removed because of her psychological abuse of the younger sisters, and this caused me to draw back. I still think of it yearningly.

At the end of the 1990s I moved back to England. My father by now was in his mid-90s, and I am an only child. Caring for him and doing the grotty things one has to do for very old people did unlock an affection for him within me. His death enabled me to buy the house where I live now, between Fressingfield and Cratfield.

I still needed to earn a living, as the bulk of my father’s estate was left elsewhere. So in my mid 50s I completely changed career. I trained as a fitness instructor, and then did specialist training to become an Exercise Referral Instructor, taking patients referred to me by NHS professionals. I went on to become a level 4 coach, with qualifications in mental health, obesity and diabetes, and cardiac rehabilitation, for clients who had had heart attacks or with other cardiovascular problems. I really enjoyed this, but the training was challenging, and very scientific (not my forte).

I retired at 64 in 2011, and immediately set out to fulfil a long-held dream of walking from Vézelay (in Burgundy, a medieval starting point for pilgrimage) to Santiago de Compostela, about 1000 miles. The walk through la France profonde was magical, but solitary. Over the Pyrenees and into Spain there were many pilgrims all heading for Santiago. You form deep bonds quickly as a walking pilgrim, and I made friends for life.

Walking to Santiago, 2011

The experience is addictive: it has a reality and a spiritual immediacy that I find lacking in “ordinary” life. In subsequent years I walked different routes to Santiago: the Primitivo through Asturias in 2012; the Via de la Plata (600 miles through Spain from Seville) in 2013; part of the Via Domitia through France in 2014; and the Camino Inglés in 2015. These routes are now becoming crowded, with more than 300,000 people on foot or bike heading to Santiago each year.

So I took on a bigger challenge in 2016: the Via Francigena, 1200 miles from Canterbury to Rome, through France and Switzerland, over the Alps and through half of Italy. Again, I had the time of my life, despite dangers, difficulties, pain and bad weather.

It is no disrespect to parish life to say that, for me, this is Church: the coming together of different nationalities, races, of people of different beliefs and none, all with a common aim, sometimes facing considerable difficulties. It is certainly a metaphor for life. My faith and trust have been renewed and deepened by the incredible kindness of strangers, by a sense of being “looked after” by guardian angels, by the love and care of and for others. On my first pilgrimage I was eating with an Italian woman, who said “The Church no want me – I am divorcèd!” And my response was, and always will be, “No. We are the Church – you and I and all these people, and we are loved by God.” I believe that.

All these lessons I have brought back with me, and I try to keep them real and alive within me in my quotidian. I miss the sense of adventure and freedom, but I tell myself that old age is my adventure now. I think that also these pilgrimages have taught me that Pope Francis is right to emphasise care for our common home, to tread lightly on the earth and to use its resources sparingly. They have taught me that we must look after the stranger, the migrant, the refugee – hence my growing support for CAFOD and living simply.

I am so blessed: I have a lovely home where I look out over fields, and where I grow all my own vegetables and keep chickens. I have acquired a fantastic – if crazy – young dog. I have good friends, daughters and granddaughters of whom I am proud. God has been very good to me.