Reflections of Sr Ishbel MacPherson SND

Reflections of Sr Ishbel MacPherson SND



“Where’s my nun?” The year was 1977, Monsignor Edward Dunderdale was the questioner and I was the nun! I was doing the diploma in Pastoral Theology at Heythrop and one of the requirements was a weekly placement of a practical nature. I had intimated that I would like to work with adults and Father Theodore Davey, course director, said that they had usually sent someone to the Westminster Tribunal but it had always been a priest; he did not know whether I would be acceptable. Monsignor Dunderdale had just returned from giving a talk at the Canadian Canon Law Convention and had lost no time in getting in touch with Heythrop.

We need not have worried. There is a true story that, when Mons (as we affectionately knew him) was Chancellor, a new auxiliary Bishop was being shown round all the offices in Archbishop’s House except his. When asked why Mons’ office had been omitted, the Vicar General said “there is a woman in there!” No such problems existed in the Westminster Tribunal offices. And, thus, it was that I began there.

Before long I was writing Advocate’s pleadings under the guidance of the late Father Pius Smart and it began to emerge that I was now starting my third career. This is where the Canon Law Society came in. When I discovered that the Society existed, I wanted to join. But it seemed there were no female members and it would never do to be the only woman at the Conference which, I must admit, held no fears for me! But what about the priests? Providence stepped in in the person of Sister Enid Williamson who was doing her doctorate in Canon Law in Rome. It emerged later that Sister Enid had actually joined the Society in 1974 when she began her canonical studies but she had never been able to attend a conference.

So, for a few years, Sister Enid and I took part in the annual conference at Ilkley. It was fortunate that, at that time, my congregation had a house in Ilkley so we were able to stay there and go over to Myddleton Lodge for the talks, etc. Soon, we were to be joined by the late Sister Marta Hoeren, JCD and the Society was to have its first woman Conference Secretary, Sister Paula Costello, in 1981. She was followed by Mrs Clare Pearce who, in time, was to be Administrative Secretary alongside the General Secretary.

The promulgation of the New Code of Canon Law was to mark a significant change in the participation of women in the Church’s tribunals. Enid, Marta and I now had our Canon Law qualifications and we were appointed Judges at Westminster. For a number of years, we were the only women Judges in the British Tribunals and we worked for other dioceses also. In the mid 90s, we were joined by our first lay Judge, Mrs Mary Alicia Sloan who continues to minister at Westminster.

The appearance of the New Code of Canon Law also saw the need for a Commentary and over the following years, many members, including Sister Enid, participated in this great work. In more recent years, Sister Martine has been a member of the Society’s working party dealing with the response to the Nolan Report on clerical abuse.

With the New Code and the training course established by the Society, canonical work was opened to many more women who then became part of the Canon Law Society of Great Britain and Ireland. From being the only two ladies – and we were always accepted with courtesy, kindness and respect – the Society now counts a growing number of women in its ranks. At present there are some 49 women out of a total of approximately 500 members.

It is not for me to assess how they have contributed but it must be very clear that much of the organisation of Conferences, publications and correspondence has been in the hands of women. In 1992,the Research Sub-committee had its first female member and in 1994, Canon Law Abstracts had its first woman editor. In the last ten years or so, the Executive has twice had a female member and there have been two women general Secretaries.

Much has happened in these thirty years and it is no longer strange to see women at the Conferences. We are able to share our gifts with one another for the glory of God and the benefit of the Church. After all, we belong to the Canon Law Society of Great Britain and Ireland in order to bring about the Kingdom of God.


9 September 2007                                          Sister Ishbel MacPherson, SND