All my children and many others loved Sister Pamela Hussey. Pamela would have been 100 on 7 January 2022. She died peacefully on 13 December in Cornelia House, in the Harrogate care home of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus. She made up for missing the traditional letter from the Queen by receiving one from each of two Popes, Benedict XVI and Francis, congratulating her on her Diamond Jubilee as a nun. An Anglo-Argentinian, Pamela grew up in Buenos Aires which makes the occasion being noticed for a second time, and by Pope Francis, seem more fitting.
Pamela wanted to join the war effort and sailed in 1942 from Argentina on one of the perilous Atlantic crossings to the Bay of Biscay and, hugging the French coast, northwards to wartime Britain. She joined the Women’s Royal Naval Services (WRNS). For three years she worked in Scarborough as a wireless telegraphist in an offshoot of GCHQ Bletchley – where she is on the Roll of honour - and returned in 2014 to open a new centre through the good offices of Prince Charles. In 2018 she was awarded the Légion d’Honneur for her service during the Second World War presented in person at her care home by a representative of the French Government. As a special operator she learnt Morse Code spending hours on end waiting for German U-boats to break cover and surface to communicate with their base revealing their location. It was hardly the most effective use of a woman who was a fluent Spanish speaker, who would take a degree in modern languages at St. Anne’s Oxford and, having joined the SHCJs in 1950, teach languages for ten years.
The first time I met Pamela was in 1981 when she became a volunteer administrative assistant in the Latin America department of the Catholic Institute for International Relations (CIIR) where I had also just started working. It was a critical and intense period in the Cold War. Dictatorships and oligarchies, backed by the CIA, ruled many of the Latin American States with appalling human rights violations as a consequence. Pamela gravitated to the El Salvador desk at CIIR, making several field trips, sharing the department’s admiration for the Archbishop of San Salvador, St. Oscar Romero, his courage, work for justice and his theology and after his assassination publicising his life. Pamela had the advantage of looking frail and conservative when she wasn’t. She was the scourge of US Foreign Service personnel who were entirely unprepared for the passion and anger of this diminutive and well-spoken woman when they tried to defend the indefensible. To her great pleasure her work was first recognised in 2000. She was awarded an MBE for her tireless defence of human rights.
The last time we met I asked Pamela what training as a Woman Religious was like in the strict self-effacing convent discipline of the 1950s for someone like her. “Well”, she said, “I complained to the novice mistress that my personality was being crushed. She replied: ‘Pamela, your personality is oozing out of every pore’”. And anyone who knew Pamela would agree. In a quiet sort of a way Pamela had style. Decidedly not the dressy kind but more her old fashioned politeness which set her at ease with a huge spectrum of people whom she would address as ‘dearest’. One of my happiest memories of Pamela was her 70th birthday party in 1992. We had a lovely meal in the upper room of the now defunct Gay Hussar. Jon Snow and George Foulkes MP, later Baron Foulkes of Cumnock, were there. She was in her element. So was everyone else though sadly the number of empty bottles arrayed on the table in front of the group meant a photographic record of the event for the CIIR Annual Review had to be censored. Even at Apley Grange she would take a daily walk to the local hotel for morning coffee with her copy of Le Monde or La Croix to keep up with international and Church affairs. The last time I saw her she confided that she had Alzheimer’s then promptly recited a long poem word perfect from memory.
Pamela was a feminist. Books she wrote, Freedom From Fear: Women in El Salvador’s Church and, with Marigold Best, Life Out of Death, the Feminine Spirit in El Salvador and Women Making a Difference bear witness to that. She felt deeply the betrayal of women who had fought against the Latin American dictatorships and who were expected after victory to return to traditional roles. Her life offered yet another example of the extraordinary range of Women Religious’ gifts to the Church. Her death brings down the curtain on a period when the witness of many Women Religious was within the struggle for liberation against tyranny, justice against repression, life against death. There will never be another Pamela.
She leaves a younger brother, now aged 96.
May She Rest in Peace.