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Sermon for the Funeral of Frances O'Neil

Sermon for the Funeral Mass of Frances O’Neil

Thursday 4th January 2023 – Fr Alan Moses

We have sung “St. Patrick’s Breastplate,”as Frances requested, for although she had spent the greatest part of her life here in London, she was a  daughter of County Wexford, and she remained devoted to the land of her birth; keeping her Irish passport –a useful thing to have these days – returning there for annual holidays and maintaining contact with her family.

It was her father’s ministry which brought her to this city which would be home and the place of her life’s work. When her mother was wondering what to do about her education after primary school, she made a pilgrimage to Walsingham in search of guidance.  Our Lady, speaking we might imagine as one mother to another, suggested that Frances should go to the school run by the Sisters of the Holy Paraclete at Whitby.

When I was a priest in Scotland, I knew some of the sisters who had come to be a praying presence at Scottish Churches House in Dunblane.  As a member of the Scottish Churches Council, I was a regular visitor. The sisters brought an atmosphere of prayerful contemplation to a place more given to animated conversation and spirited argument than quiet listening and reflection. They had that distinctive combination, found in many religious, of quiet calm and firm purpose. Looking back on Frances’ life I think she absorbed those qualities from them. They included the ability to make requests you could not say “no” to.

Not long after I came to All Saints. Frances asked if Fr. Ian Davies and I could help with the chaplaincy at St. Mary’ Bryanston Square school, where she was head teacher It was an offer we could not refuse! Nor did we regret accepting it.

Chatting one day in the staff room with a student who was on placement there, she told me how struck she had been by the atmosphere of quiet calm in the school. It being play time, we could hear the noisy chatter and excited squeals of primary school playgrounds the world over; so this had nothing of the cowed silence of Jane Eyre’s Lowood or Dickens’ Dotheboys Hall. (Given Frances’ love of reading and her post-retiral MA in Victorian studies, I thought I must get a literary reference or two into this sermon.) I said, I thought that the secret of this calm was in how the teachers spoke to the children. They did not raise their voices – so the children did not raise theirs. I’m sure that was due, in large degree, to what one woman of prayer had learned from a community of women whose vocation was prayer.

We have brought Frances to the place which has been her spiritual home for decades; longer than most of the people who worship here and she has seen five vicars and even more curates.  Having known Frances here for almost 25 years and seen her as member of the PCC and Churchwarden, I saw her bringing to the life of the parish the same calm and devotion to service that characterised her whole life. When she retired, she sold her flat in Ealing and moved to a tiny one in Cleveland Street, within sight of the spire of All Saints.  It was an exercise in downsizing and compact living many of us might learn from.

Here, in the midst of a busy city centre, this house of prayer is for many an island of peace – a refuge from the stress and strain of the world outside. But that does not mean that everyone who comes here is calm and peaceful. Places like this, by their very nature, draw people who are often anything but. That is just as it should be – as Pope Francis has said, churches are meant to be field hospitals for the wounded of this world, not clubs for the perfect, much less those who think themselves so. People come here wounded in mind and spirit.

The cure of souls and their healing can be a long-term business, and it can take its toll on those who work and worship here. Frances loved this place and the people who worshipped here – for all there were sometimes too-thin skins and too-short fuses, jagged edges and sharp tongues. It was not an uncritical love. Even her patience could be tried at times  –  but never to the point of despair. She could always laugh at the silliness – and while you do not have to be mad to work here, you do need a sense of humour.  I know that I am not alone among the clergy who have ministered here in being grateful for her wise counsel and firm support in good times and bad.

Even in retirement, Frances would not be idle. Her long experience of teaching in them led to her being recruited by the Diocesan Board of Schools to train teachers to work in church schools. She became a governor of a school in difficulties – a job you might think anyone who had spent their working life in education would run a mile from.

Her reputation for wise discernment led to her being asked to interview prospective candidates for ordination.  She would see them in the Vicarage sitting room, rather than in her tiny flat. I would provide the tea and biscuits before leaving them to it. I suspect that the properly nervous ones would be put at ease, while the over-confident would find their certainties being probed relentlessly by this soft-spoken lady whose winning smile and a warm laugh disguised a perceptive and penetrating mind. Some probably went away thinking they had just been interrogated by the Church of England’s equivalent of Miss Marple.

Of course, the Frances we knew was not all work and seriousness. She enjoyed good food and a glass of wine in the company of friends. She loved reading, art and theatre and music and travel.

One side of her concern for others was the care she took in selecting gifts for special occasions. As a regular at the Vicarage table on Christmas Day, with others who were on their own, she would produce a selection of gifts for the other guests. Even the bags in which they were packed were carefully crafted works of art. We still have a collection of them as mementos. I have a cassock pocket-sized selection of John Donne’s poems and sermons, and a miniature of Christ washing the feet of his disciples given to mark the 40th anniversary of my ordination: a reminder of what priesthood is really about.

When Frances asked me to preach at this service, I was, of course, honoured, – especially as on more than one occasion she had said my sermons were rather too long! Well, this one will have to be longer than she would have approved of if I am to do her justice. If she wants to complain, she will have to wait until we meet in the next life.

I arranged to visit her to discuss the service and I saw her calm and business-like approach to her impending death as she put her affairs in order and disposed of her possessions. One of the points I made from time to time in sermons and in the Parish Paper was to urge people to put their affairs in order, to make a will and to let the clergy know what they wanted at their funeral service. Frances had clearly been listening – and she set about doing all these things.

Later, when I had come to London for a preaching engagement, some intuition or pastoral instinct prompted me to go directly from King’s Cross to UCH. No sooner had I got into the lift to go up to the ward than I was joined by Janet Drake who was on the same errand.  It turned out that I had arrived as Frances was about to be moved to a nursing home, where she could have more peace and quiet than amidst the bustle of a busy ward.

Of the business of moving, uncomfortable and wearisome as it must have been to someone in the final stages of a pancreatic cancer, she simply said that it was, “Just one more river to cross.”  She seemed to face her dying with the same calm and determination as she had lived.

She was grateful, as we all are, for the care and loving kindness of her dear friends Janet and Christine and Ursula, for the pastoral ministrations of the parish clergy, and for the prayers and concern of so many others.

This is not an obituary but a sermon at the funeral of a Christian, in a celebration of the Eucharist, the foretaste of heaven, the sacrament of the bread of life, which sustained Frances’ faith in death as in life. I have tried to suggest how much Frances’s life, her gifts of character, her good deeds, her compassion and loving kindness, her devotion to duty, were rooted in the faith she learned as a child from her parents and from the sisters at school and had practiced to her life’s end.

How much that faith was manifested in a life of undemonstrative and untiring service to others! She saw it as a vocation in which in service to others she served her Lord. Ours is a society which takes such service too much for granted, which measures achievement and success in monetary terms. It is not so in the kingdom of heaven and we can be confident that the Lord whom she served so faithfully will greet Frances with, “Well done, good and faithful servant, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from before the foundation of the world.”

To paraphrase George Eliot’s words on Dorothea at the end of “Middlemarch,” “Her finely touched spirit has still its fine issues…. the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive; for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who live faithfully a hidden life….”

This church which was her spiritual home for so many years is dedicated to All Saints. The Communion of Saints is not just a collection of super-Christians we cannot hope to emulate –   although that does not mean that we should not – with God’s grace – try – as Frances did.  It speaks to us, too, of the bond which transcends time and space, in that “mystical communion and fellowship” of which the Collect for All Saints Day speaks.

Another of Frances’s gifts to me was a framed extract from a sermon of John Donne on that Communion, a typically well-considered one for a Vicar of All Saints who was also a Prebendary of Donne’s St. Paul’s.  (Incidentally, Donne’s sermons were an hour or so – which make mine seem a model of brevity.) Let me read a little of it to you.

“How many times go we to Comedies, to Masques, to places of great and noble resort, nay even to Church onely to see the company? If I had no other errand to heaven, but the communion of Saints, the fellowship of the faithfull, to see…Princes, and Subjects crowned all with one crowne, and rich and poore inherit one portion; to see this scene, this Court, this Church, this Catholique Church, not onely Easterne and Westerne, but Militant and Triumphant Church, all in one roome together, to see this Communion of Saints, this fellowship of the faithfull, is worth all the paynes, that that sight costs us in this world.”

Dear Frances, you have crossed the last river, your pains are now past and you are at peace. Our prayer, as we commend you to God, “in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life,” is that, in the company of heaven you will enjoy the fellowship of the saints and the perfect vision of the glory of God.

Beloved friend, companion on our earthly pilgrimage, you were a gift and blessing to us, and to so many others. We give you back to the God who gave you to us, thankful for having known you. As you prayed for us in this mortal  life, pray for us in that which is immortal, as we will pray for you, “that we may merrily meet in heaven.”