Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Leonard Cheshire and Sue Ryder - Saints of our time

Welcome to all members and friends of the 'Pro Papa League', and may God bless, protect, and guide our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI.

Leonard Cheshire is a familiar name to many, particularly the older generation – my generation, whose childhood stretched over the wartime years 1939 -1945. Years which invoke memories of evacuation to strange surroundings, absent parents, mysterious ‘aunties’ and ‘uncles’, imminent air-raids with the sinister rise and fall of the ‘warning’ siren , and the relief occasioned by the monotone sound of the ‘all-clear’. The air-raid shelters, prefabricated metal structures about 10’ x 6’, sunk well into the garden and covered with a somewhat illusory protective layer of earth, or a form of reinforced metal/timber structure placed under a table or similar place indoors, or the large public shelters accommodating perhaps 100 people or more- which included those deep down in the London Underground system, literally in the bowels of the earth, these I can still vaguely remember.
Gas masks, food rationing, clothing coupons, black-outs, were all the norm. Military personnel from all Services, armoured vehicles, even tanks, were commonplace in towns, villages and countryside, particularly as the war progressed and troops prepared for D-day, with Army camps springing up everywhere, especially in the South of England. Many are the times that we children watched huge numbers of bombers in formation, heading south towards central Europe, many destined never to return. Unbeknown to us, we might even have been watching Leonard Cheshire leading his RAF bomber squadron on one of his 100 plus sorties over enemy territory.
It is quite impossible to even think of doing justice to the life and achievements of Group Captain Geoffrey Leonard Cheshire VC, DSO, OM. Many books have been written about him, and ‘CHESHIRE. Biography of Leonard Cheshire VC.OM.’ by Richard Morris, published by Penguin in 2001, is one I strongly recommend. For the benefit of those who may know little of Cheshire's life, and with acknowledgement to the above biography, I feel that the following details may be of interest.
He was born in 1917 and educated at Stowe public school. In 1936 he stayed for several weeks in Potsdam, Germany, with the ‘Von Reuter’ family returning later that year to England to spend the next three years at Merton College, Oxford, when he achieved a degree in Law. Whilst at Oxford he joined the Oxford University Air Squadron (OUAS), and by the time that war broke out in 1939, he had learnt to fly. Commissioned into the RAF he rapidly proved himself an excellent pilot and an exceptional leader.
He volunteered for Bomber Command, at that time the poor relation in the RAF hierarchy, and was posted to Driffield, Yorkshire, the home of 77 and 102 Squadrons of Whitley bombers. This marked the start of a wartime career during which he flew more than 100 sorties, in many different aircraft including the Whitley, Halifax, and Lancaster bombers, and the Mosquito fighter/bomber, on a wide variety of missions. His particular ‘achievement’ was the planning and ‘live’ testing of a system used to ‘spot mark’ specific targets in order to enable accurate, pin-point bombing by accompanying aircraft, a technique which was developed by the end of the war, to the level of an ‘art form’.
As the acknowledged expert, Cheshire was invariably the leader in all raids requiring this level of accuracy, and his courage, coolness and leadership in the face of acute danger, eventually led to the awards of the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) with three additional bars, and finally in 1944, the ultimate award for courage, ‘the ‘Victoria Cross’ with uniquely the ‘Date of Act of Bravery’ given as 1940-44: four years of sustained courage, rather than any specific deed’.
He was promoted through the commissioned ranks to Group Captain. His final major assignment in the war was as invited ‘observer’ representing the British Government, aboard the USAF B29 photographic aircraft, which recorded for posterity the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki, in August 1945, with the loss of some 40,000 Japanese lives. This was the second and last time that mankind was to experience the terrible carnage and destruction resulting from the use of the atomic bomb, the previous occasion being Hiroshima a few days earlier. Many believe that for Cheshire, this 'apocalyptic' experience was akin to that of St Paul on his way to Damascus, and was effectively the catalyst for his subsequent religious conversion and lifetime humanitarian work.

In January 1946 Cheshire was medically discharged from the RAF suffering from ‘psychoneurosis’, a result of the emotional and physical stress of the war as a whole, rather than the experience of Nagasaki. Cheshire, like many ex-service personnel, found it difficult to adapt to civilian life. As a famous wartime celebrity he was not short of invitations for meetings, political discussions, press columns, memoirs, sponsorships, etc and he found himself reasonably affluent and in great public demand. However this lifestyle left him dissatisfied and unfulfilled, with his innate ‘social conscience’ leading him to publicly promote the provision of rehabilitation training centres for ex-servicemen. He wrote regularly for the 'Daily Graphic' in which he promoted his ideas, which fitted in well with the new political concept of the ‘Welfare State’. He visualised the roles of Britain, America and the Dominions, as ‘agents of enlightenment’, with the unified aim of peace worldwide, and the grave responsibility to deal with the real threat to mankind posed by the existence of the ‘bomb’. He founded an association called ‘Vade in Pacem’ (VIP), intended for the mutual support of ex-servicemen and their families, specifically by means of training courses in various trades and skills, business and marketing skills, etc., intended to eventually enable them to run their own businesses. The association was offered a mansion - Gumley Hall, nr Market Harborough, Leicestershire, with 45 bedrooms and 2000 acres, which included a market garden and pig farm, rent free for the first year, which was accepted. Soon people moved in and VIP was in business, literally so, however funds were limited and suitable trainers and instructors even more limited. By this time Cheshire had become deeply interested in Christianity: –

I can see no final solution to the problem of the world, except by establishing a Christian fellowship of mankind…. The forces of good both active and passive, must be mobilised and encouraged to fight the forces of evil’.

At this time he suffered several bouts of illness necessitating a six months period of convalescence in British Columbia, Canada. On his return, he found the VIP organisation administratively and financially bankrupt, necessitating its formal closure and the sale of the estate. He still had use of the house and immediate grounds, with a number of the original ‘colonists’ still living there.

Then entered a certain Mr Arthur Dyke into his life, a man who was to be the ‘cause celebre’ and ‘compass’ for Cheshire’s future life. Dyke was suffering from advanced TB, had nowhere to live and no-one to care for him. By this time Cheshire had moved to ‘Le Court’, at Liss, Hampshire, which had been purchased with financial help from family and friends, and he invited Arthur Dyke to live there, where he was personally nursed and cared for by Cheshire himself. Additionally some fifty or so men, women, and children had moved in, mostly from Gumley Hall.

Dyke was a Roman Catholic and he and Cheshire often discussed matters of religion. After only a few months, Dyke was dying, and Cheshire called Fr Clarke, the Catholic priest from Petersfield, who administered the ‘Last Rites’. This experience had a profound influence on Cheshire, who on Christmas Eve 1948, was received into the Roman Catholic Church by Fr Clarke, at Petersfield Catholic Church.

An increasing number of people were moving into 'Le Court', many sick and virtually dying, which in turn attracted many helpers. Local authorities, charities and trusts, individuals, tradesmen, all joined in their own way in the successful running and maintenance of 'Le Court'. This project was to be the first of many similar ventures around the world, planned and implemented by Cheshire and financed, aided and supported by friends of all nationalities and creeds.

Cheshire was a devout Catholic, with a particular devotion to the ‘Holy Shroud’ of Turin, and he had great trust in God’s providence, particularly with regard to financial matters, a trust which was invariably justified by events, but which was not always shared by those working with him. At one stage he considered joining a religious Order - he favoured the Cistercians, but ultimately decided against it.

On 20th August 1952, the fourth anniversary of the death of Arthur Dykes, Cheshire was diagnosed with TB, and transferred to the King Edward VII sanatorium at Midhurst, Sussex, where he was to spend the next two years, and during which in a series of operations, surgeons removed most of one lung and several ribs. During this period Cheshire still retained control of his various projects, mainly through a system of delegation and personal contact and letter. After leaving Midhurst, his plans included the establishment of houses in India:-

“To take those that are unwanted, and to make them wanted. Not to say to them: ‘Now just lie back and be comfortably sick for the rest of your life’, but to give them a purpose to live for, to give them the means of rising above their infirmity, to turn them into active members of the family, active helpers in the work that still has far to go, so many countries to reach …”
By mid 1957, five homes had been opened in India, including one for those suffering from leprosy; one was planned for Singapore.

From 1955 onwards, Cheshire's path crossed with that of
Susan Ryder whose life pattern shared remarkable similarities with his own. Born in 1923 in Yorkshire, Sue Ryder had worked in Special Operations Executive (SOE) during the war, based in London her main work had been with Polish units, assisting in the dispatch of Polish agents. In 1943 she was sent abroad, first to N Africa then to Italy. At war end she worked tirelessly for the displaced and homeless in France and Central Europe. She took on herself the role of friend, mediator, lawyer, visitor and provider, for those in need, especially the most abandoned. She kept a record of all these, her ‘Boys’, which by 1950 numbered 1,400. With help from local people, she set up homes and projects for her ‘Boys’ throughout Europe.
Early in 1959 having known each other for some five years, Cheshire and Ryder became engaged, marrying in April in a private chapel in Bombay’s Catholic Cathedral, with Cardinal Gracias officiating. Both Cheshire and Ryder were converts to Catholicism, and before their wedding they had jointly composed a beautiful prayer – too long to show here, but will try to include in a future post.
After their marriage their lives continued as hectic as ever, with each one remaining fully committed to their respective charitable foundations. They continued to live frugally in a small flat in Suffolk, - part of one of the Homes of the Sue Ryder Foundation, both regularly travelling the world visiting the Homes, forever seeking material support, help, and financial backing for their work.
In 1978 Sue Ryder accepted a life peerage from HM the Queen, which she envisaged would be useful in promoting her work. In memory of her many Polish friends, living and dead, she adopted the title of ‘Baroness Ryder of Warsaw.’ For both herself and her husband, their Catholic faith determined the pattern of their lives, and on their Silver Wedding anniversary they travelled with close friends to Rome for a special celebration Mass in St Peter’s, where they enjoyed a personal meeting with Pope John Paul II.
They had two children, a son and a daughter, the latter ultimately becoming a doctor. In 1981 Cheshire was awarded the Order of Merit (OM), the recipients of which award are personally chosen by Her Majesty the Queen. After his visit to Africa in 1988, Cheshire's health began to noticeably deteriorate.
On doctor’s orders he was advised to ‘slow down’, but eventually in February 1992 he was diagnosed with motor-neurone disease. His condition deteriorated rapidly and on 31st July 1992 he died during the night, as a result of a heart attack. His wife carried on overseeing the Sue Ryder charities and assisting whenever possible the Trustees of the Cheshire charities. Her own health deteriorated, and early in 2000 as a result of policy disagreement, she split with the Trustees of the 'Sue Ryder Foundation' (now called 'Sue Ryder Care') and set up a new body, the 'Bouverie Foundation', to ‘sustain the original principles of frugality, compassion and humility’. By now she was very ill, and on the 2nd November 2000 she died. For a full account of Sue Ryder's life, I recommend her autobiography 'Child Of My Love' published in 1986 by Collins Harvill, a fascinating account of the faith, aspirations and achievements of a truly remarkable woman.

This totally inadequate synopsis of the lives of surely two of the greatest English lay Catholics of the 20th century, is a ‘mere crumb’, a very tiny offering dedicated to their memory. The fact that they were husband and wife, effectively offering up their lives in a practical way, for the relief of suffering throughout the world, reflects true charity in which ‘God was loved above all things, and our neighbour was loved as ourselves for His sake’, a charity in which words were translated into deeds, in a spirit of absolute trust in Divine providence. Their lives reflect the Beatitudes taught by Jesus.

'In the year 2000 in Britain alone, the Leonard Cheshire Foundation administered some 140 homes, respite units, day centres, home carers, and other projects, helping over 10,000 disabled people to lead lives of their own choosing. Internationally, it provides a framework, training and support for a further 240 services in 51 countries.'
The Sue Ryder Foundation has some 17 Care Centres in Britain, which comprises 6 Hospices and 11 Neurological Centres, also a home-care service. It also supports 30 projects in 11 European countries and Malawi. ( Wikipedia)

The courageous. devout and inspiring lives, and the truly ‘humanitarian’ achievements, of these two extraordinary people, surely rank alongside such great and holy lives as that of ‘Mother Teresa of Calcutta’. Certainly they had human weaknesses and failings, but the Saints had these. Above everything, they had tremendous trust in Divine Providence, which trust was more than amply rewarded, as is clear from all that was achieved, for ‘by their fruits you shall know them’. They are surely now together in God's presence, and we ask for their intercession for our once Christian and indeed Catholic country, that we may honour and obey God's Commandments, that His Laws may be reflected in our laws, that the Kingship of Christ and the authority of His Church be recognised, and that the God-given dignity of all mankind be acknowledged and respected. We also ask for their intercession for the conversion of England to the one, true Catholic faith, the faith of our forefathers for hundreds of years, when England was known as the ‘Dowry of Mary’.

"Holy Mary, Mother of Christ, we humbly ask your intercession for our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI, for our Church and for our Country"

Thoughts from St Alphonsus' by Rev C McNeiry CSSR.

"At death we must leave all things. The brother of Thomas a Kempis took delight in speaking of a beautiful house which he had built for himself. A friend told him it had one great defect. "What is it?" said he. "It is," answered the other, "that you have made a door in it." "What!" rejoined the brother of a Kempis, "Is a door a defect?" "Yes" answered the friend; "for through this door you must one day be carried out dead, and must leave the house and all things." (February 19th)