Believing in the Christian vocation to go out to all nations and spread the good news, and challenged by the call of her religious order to reach out to the poor, Jackie radically altered her lifestyle to embark on a mission to the women working in a factory in Nottingham.
“With the support of my congregation leadership and community I made basic decisions about my lifestyle. In what I hoped would help me to be more authentic and congruent I moved, on my own, to a high-rise tenement block in inner-city Nottingham after finding a job as a machinist in a local textile factory, making leisurewear and underwear for Marks and Spencer.
Vatican II had suggested that the faithful ‘should live in the closest contact with others of their time, and should work for a perfect understanding of their modes of thought and feelings as expressed in their culture’ (Gaudium et Spes 62). In order to best do this I needed to remove some of the trappings of religious life, for example, title, dress and status. I also decided, after careful thought, not to tell the women that I was a nun. In fact, I didn’t tell them for four years. My intention was to relate an incarnational God. Extraordinary dress, status and even language could suggest that God is not found in the ordinary. My attempt was to help the women find God in the ordinariness of their lives.
I attempted to inculturate myself into the frightening yet fascinating factory world, a world full of passion, agony and good fun. From the outset I was in awe of the women. They were good, proud, courageous folk carrying out an incredible and complicated routine of work, that mesmerised me, coming as I was, out of a much easier, professional world that, in significant ways, had de-skilled me. I found that although I had trained in needlework it was more suited to the activity of a lady of middle-class life-style than the hard-hitting context of piece-work where speed and accuracy were of monetary importance. These women then went home to cook, clean and manage a family, struggling with little support and few material means.
In my decision to stay anonymous I knew that I needed time to learn how to communicate on all levels, to unlearn what I described as ‘church talk’, to learn a new language that spoke to the un-churched of my experience of the meaning of life which was my faith and allowing them to express in an atmosphere of safety and neutrality their own experience of faith or their meaning of life.
To avoid being absorbed by the culture of the factory, and so failing in my intention to effect a spiritual encounter, meant being prepared to use a new language in order to express the truths concerning my beliefs in a fresh and non-hackneyed manner. This also helped the women to speak of important matters in their own way.
I experienced the culture in the factory as humanly, physically and spiritually oppressive. During my time working there I stuck close to and had to completely rely on an hour’s personal prayer on the Gospels at 5.30am before getting ready to start work at 7.45am. It was a gruelling 8hr shift, with two short breaks and a 30min. dinner break, finishing at 5.45pm. As well as a personal prayer life focussed on the Gospel and deep intimate friendships including family, it was also essential to have the support of a discerning community and a dedicated spiritual director.
Significantly, during the first four years at the factory, and before the women knew that I was a nun, there was a sharing of experiences of oppression, the give and take of affection, of listening with great care and attention, being sensitive and compassionate, building relationships of trust without judgement or moralising, forgiving and being forgiven.
The sacrament of penance became real after a misunderstanding between myself and a powerful woman who had much influence in the factory. When I apologised to her for my behaviour it had an extraordinary effect on the shop-floor which was significant in their acceptance of me. I had a sense that this was the first time that anyone had apologised to her and it had a profound effect. There was truly a sense of release from captivity. I also experienced eucharist by including in our sharing of food those who until then had been excluded for pathetic reasons such as being smelly or having greasy hair!
I became the Union Representative in 1995 until I left. Another story! I worked at the factory from 1989 – 1998, and have remained friends with many of the women. The factory has now sadly been closed and the business out-sourced to Morocco.
Throughout this challenging time I was affirmed and inspired by Mary Ward, the foundress of our congregation, and her charism of freedom, justice and integrity”.