Harleston parishioners Angela and David Paterson recount the story of their life – both together and apart
I was an only child. My father was Scottish Presbyterian, but he was received into the Church before he died. My mother was Catholic. Two cousins of hers were monks at Ampleforth, so I got in there, aged 11, with reduced fees. I didn’t like Ampleforth very much; it was too competitive and I didn’t want to join in, though I always enjoyed Biology. It was only when I went to college I discovered that I enjoyed learning.
I joined the junior seminary (St Joseph’s College, Mark Cross) at 18, after “I discovered I was going into the Church”! I was undoubtedly steered into it but that’s how it was back then. Ultimately out of 22 of us six were released to marry within ten years or so. When anyone left he was told to move to another area, and forbidden to talk about it to friends or acquaintances.
However, I found that I liked the collegiate life and went on to St John’s College, Wonersh. I was ordained in 1956 in Worthing and sent temporarily to a parish, and then after a year’s revision at Cambridge ‘Tech’, moved on to Downing College in Cambridge to study Life Sciences, gaining an MA, with Philosophy as an extra. I was subsequently sent to teach in the biology department of the John Fisher School in Purley, only to find that there was a yet no such department! So “Would I teach A-level Chemistry in the meantime?” My potential biologists and I went on to design and build a biology laboratory in the grounds of the school, having been given the shell of an old London pre-fab to work on.
While at Cambridge I had become interested in developmental psychology, especially that of young children with multiple handicaps, and how they coped with living – as they were then expected to – in the real world. This led in 1960 to my becoming one of the founders of the Society of St Bernardette. The Bishop approved of my dual teaching/admin role, although subsequently he wanted to change the (secular) detail of what we were doing – against local authority policy. Nonetheless, I had much Church support, and began giving talks to raise money. We eventually bought three large family-style houses for some 36-40 children who ranged from under a year to 15.
I was born in September 1945 in Ballymena, with my twin sister; we were the oldest of six children. My father died in 1952, so my mother was a widow. She didn’t have it easy. My grandfather had served in the British Army in the 1914-18 War so came north after the 1916 rising, because those who had served the British were not welcome. Our aunts paid for my sister and me to go to a convent boarding school in Lisburn when we were 11. It was strict, and the nuns were quite cruel, and we had silent retreats. It didn’t help me mature emotionally.
When I was 17 I read in The Universe about the Society of St Bernadette. I flew over to England, to Wallington in July 1963. I wasn’t even 18. I thought I was joining a small religious order. We took vows, renewable every year, and followed the Rule of St Benedict. We didn’t wear habits, but had a medal on a black cord round our necks, a ring, and sandals with no socks. I loved it.
We got up at six every morning, and started to get the children up from 7.30am. They were deemed ‘ineducable’, so there was no formal teaching, but we played with them and read to them, and took them out. It was a Montessori-type curriculum.
However, there were dramas and it was tense. David had rows with the bishop over his desire for financial control, and over his support for a professionally incompetent member of staff. Eventually the Society folded, its assets were made over to a Trust, and we became paid members of staff.
During all this turmoil a relationship with David was developing. While on retreat David wrote the bishop asking to be released – to be laicised. The bishop said “Go on retreat and think about it,” and David replied “I am writing this on retreat.” He was laicised in September 1967 (David; “I probably would have left anyway”).
I went back to Ireland, to a Cistercian monastery, talked things through, and then came back. At that time everyone was high on Vatican II, thinking everything had changed, but then in 1968 came “Humanae Vitae”, and we realised things hadn’t really moved at all.
We were married in December 1968. We weren’t allowed to marry locally, or have family there, and I couldn’t wear a white dress. It was going to be in the sacristy of St George’s Cathedral (Southwark), with two monsignors as witnesses, but we were allowed into the Lady Chapel as there was no-one around at the time. We were not permitted a nuptial Mass. It was all very hush-hush.
Very soon there were two babies (Andrew, born August 1969, and Shona in October 1970), chaos and terry towelling nappies. David’s life as an academic, a priest, and an only child, had not prepared him for this, and he left. We sold our house and he went to live with a teacher at the comprehensive school where he was head of science.
I went back to Ireland with the children, just before Bloody Sunday (January 1972 when paratroopers opened fire on protesters in Derry), though Ballymena was fairly safe. But David’s parents wrote and asked me to go back to England to live with them. In the end David’s father paid for a flat, and David started to pay maintenance. I went to evening classes and took my A levels. The local parish supported me and found babysitters. Between 1973 and 1975 I did my teacher training qualification, and then taught at the Sunshine House school for blind children in East Grinstead. Sunshine House closed in 1985 as the philosophy around taking children with disabilities out of mainstream education was changing.
Around that time David started seeing the children again.
David: I left ‘normal’ teaching and went into the RSPCA as Chief Education Officer, teaching and demonstrating how to handle animals in life and death. I had 17 teaching staff under me as my work covered the whole of England and Wales, and was quite frenetic. I did manage to get dissection stopped from all except specialist A level biology courses, and advised on the implications and reform of the 1876 ‘Cruelty to Animals’ Act.
In 1976 the woman I had been living with and I split up. Angela and I spent Christmas together with the children, and we started seeing each other again. We got back together (we had not divorced) and we had two more children (Ruth born in June 1977, and Helen in July 1979).
Angela: While we were apart for 1984-85, I had came to Norfolk in 1985, as I was teaching visually-impaired children. We did spend weekends together. At that time David was headmaster of a school in Buckinghamshire, and then he too came to Norfolk in 1986, and when we were back together we started fostering and providing respite care.
That’s when we had Millie. Millie had been brain-damaged by her mother (who probably had post-natal depression) bashing her against a wall when she was just six weeks old. She was blind and had cerebral palsy. She came to us when she was two. She couldn’t come earlier as we were looking after David’s mother. We fostered and then adopted her. The children all gave her their middle names (Mary Elizabeth Ann) as no-one wanted her to have the name her family gave her. She died when she was five on 14 January 1993. Both Granny and Millie are buried in Costessey.
A week after Millie died I had a planned hysterectomy, which I now feel was a mistake as I was very depressed and l left David three months later with the two younger children. We were divorced, and I got an annulment. I had huge support from St George’s parish in Norwich and we set up a branch of ASDC, the Association for Divorced and Separated Catholics. Bishop Peter Smith who has bishop of East Anglia at that time was interested, and asked me to set up the Association over five deaneries.
But I was lonely and started answering Lonely Hearts advertisements, and met and married Ken. In retrospect we should have lived together first as I didn’t really know him. I regretted it and it wasn’t a happy a relationship. During that period I had cancer, Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. After my chemotherapy was over I left him. He died soon after as a result of diabetes. I went back to Ireland, but then returned to England, to Sussex, to be near our son Andy. Because I was sure I was going to die I established a bucket list, and gradually ticked off the various ‘wants’: going up in a hot air balloon; having a Cocker Spaniel puppy; going to Disneyland; punting on the Cam.
Back together – and married – once more
And then …. David and I got back together again! The children had told him everything that had happened to me. He was working near Inverness at the time. We wrote to each other, and used to meet halfway, in Durham, for romantic weekends. On 20 November 2004 we married again – this time had a proper nuptial Mass and with the family present. We moved to Scotland for five years, but it was too far away from the children.
David: when we divorced I had given Angela half the equity on our house, and so I had to take in lodgers – students for the most part. I had done a PhD at the UEA in Ethical Development in Young People. I finally went to Scotland because I got a job with the Findhorn Foundation (a ’spiritual community’ and learning centre). It was a bit “hippy dippy”, but they wanted someone to take over the fundraising for their ecological projects. In fact when I finally left them I raised money for many local charities, churches and projects. I also steered a rehabilitation group for the unemployed. I stayed in northern Scotland for some ten years until Angela and I remarried and we moved to Annan.
In 2009 we went to Sussex, where I was privileged to be asked to lead talks and discussions on various Liturgical and Biblical issues (Old and New Testament) and science-related topics, for the Benedictine parish at Worth Abbey. This sort of thing was no longer deemed possible when we came to Harleston.
“The place where we have been happiest”
Angela: Finally we came to Harleston in 2016. It suited us very well as we were right by the doctors and the supermarket. I joined the U3A, and we discovered to our delight there was a Catholic church at Jay’s Green. We have been happy here, except that David’s health has declined and his COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder) is worse. He can’t drive now because of deteriorating eyesight, and Harleston doesn’t have an out-of-hours doctor, so reluctantly we have decided we must move to a care home in Norwich when we can sell our house.
David: My faith was always there, and I still say the Office morning and evening – though maybe my faith has wavered during times of severe emotional stress. I have no real regrets about the course my life has taken. The priesthood? I should probably not have been there in the first place. I now feel that priests should be able to choose to marry. I am definitely in favour of married priests. The Church uses and overloads its priests with work that lay people can and should be doing.
Angela: The Church permits Church of England priests who have wives to be ordained, so why not other men? I have always had good support from the Church and from priests throughout my life – for example, the ASDC and Bishop Peter Smith.
Thank God here we are together in our old age , happily reconciled with each other and the Church ! Just making plans for these final years and moving to somewhere we can receive help and support towards the end of our lives.
Of all places Norfolk is where we have been happiest.