There are many servites (friars, sisters and lay people) around the world who are exemplary witnesses of our work among the poor. In line with the theme fo this year on Evangelical Poverty, I wish to share the life and spirituality of Joan Bartlett.
The Servite Secular Institute was founded in London, England by Joan Bartlett OBE DSG who lived this life from 1947 and invited others to join her in 1952.
During the 2nd World War, Joan was working in European broadcasting for the BBC. At night she was a Red Cross volunteer. Her compassion was aroused by the many homeless, frail, elderly people who had lost their homes, families and possessions during the blitz. They literally had nowhere to go. As the war ended, she felt called to provide housing for such people. Joan belonged to the parish of Our Lady of Dolours, Fulham Road. This parish had been founded by the friars of the Order of Servants of Mary (Servites) in 1864 and they had been in charge of it ever since. It was to the friars that Joan turned for help. With the financial help that they gave her, in 1946, Joan was able to open the first Servite House to give at least some of these elderly people a home and restore a sense of family to those who had had very little hope. The friars continued to give help and encouragement through the years as Joan’s work developed. She also received assistance from the Servite Sisters as she constantly sought and found new solutions to the housing needs of other vulnerable people. In the sixty years since that first foundation, more and more people have found a home in Servite Houses which is now a national organisation providing a wide range of homes and care for people in need.
Joan’s dedicated work for Servite Houses can be seen as the outward expression of her inner dedication. From an early age she had wanted to give herself totally to God and enjoy that freedom which comes from living selflessly in His service. She was helped in the search for her personal vocation by Fr Gerard Corr OSM, one of the friars at Fulham Road, who had received her into the Church. Joan was particularly inspired by the image of Mary standing at the foot of the cross. She reflected on the fact that we tend to take it for granted that Mary, like mothers the world over, was there for Jesus when he needed her. She asked herself, “But what if you haven’t got a mother?”. Joan considered that Mary, like Jesus, must also have a human form today and she sought to take Mary’s place beside those who suffer. This was the inspiration behind her work in housing, her search for her personal vocation and her wish to inspire others.
The pioneering spirit which set out in faith to house the homeless drew Joan to Secular Institute living, a way of life which Pope Pius XII defined in 1947 in Provida Mater Ecclesia. In this document, the Church recognised the growth in the Church of groups of lay people who wanted to live a single life of vowed service to God, but not in a monastery or convent. Holiness in the world was their aim.
As foundress of the Servite Secular Institute, Joan had not only to live this new way of life but to clarify for others how they would live it in their own circumstances. Constitutions – the legal documentation which supports an institute and outlines its way of life – had to be lived, written and approved by the Church. Joan wanted her Institute to be Servite, so it had to share the charisms of the Servite Order: compassion, sharing, service, a simple and joyful family spirit and a reverence for and imitation of Our Lady as we see her throughout the gospels, but especially on Calvary. Initial formation for would-be members of the Servite Secular Institute takes about four years and has to be fitted in with normal commitments. If called to make vows, then members, whether employed or unemployed, in sickness or in health, alone or with others, offer the whole of the rest of their lives to God to do with as He wishes.
The first group of would be members met with Joan in 1952. Some were associated with her in her housing work in London, others worked in various parts of the country in a variety of jobs and professions. Some stayed and some left but others came and gradually the Institute grew. During the 1960s the members in the UK were joined by members of other embryo Secular Institutes with a Servite charism from Italy and Germany. To Joan’s great joy, the Servite Secular Institute was officially aggregated to the Servite Order in 1964 under the Generalship of Fr. Alphonsus M. Montà. In the same year it was granted official Church recognition by Cardinal Heenan. In 1979 it was granted the status of an Institute of Pontifical Right.
The most recent version of our Constitutions was approved by the Sacred Congregation for Religious and Secular Institutes in 1994. Members are now found in Argentina, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, France, Germany, Italy, South Africa, Spain and the United States of America, as well as in the United Kingdom.
For her outstanding contributions to community life in Britain, Joan was awarded the OBE in 1984 and papal recognition followed in 1995 when Joan became a Dame of the Order of St. Gregory.
Joan died on 9 September 2002. Her vision and the work she founded live on in the Servite Secular Institute and in Servite Houses.