Our story began on 3 October 1921 in Aberdeenshire, with the birth of Mary Sunniva Garson, the eldest child of four, and only daughter of David and Jessie Garson who were both from the Orkney Islands. Mary was educated at various schools in Scotland and she completed her studies at the University of Aberdeen where she gained an M.A. in Psychology.
During the Second World War she served as an officer in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and later worked as an educational psychologist in Brighton. In 1946, under the guidance of Fr. Bernard Basset, a Jesuit, Mary became a Catholic and at his suggestion she joined the Cell Movement, first in London and then in Brighton. This involved weekly meetings of active Catholics, discussions on the Gospel and apostolic work.
In Mary’s own words, “Slowly I came to realise God’s goodness and my need. Fr Gillespie, the chaplain of the Brighton Cell wanted something done for old people and in December 1953 I visited a house on Brighton sea-front, where a partially sighted lady in her seventies was trying to look after her blind sister and a 90 year old friend, both of whom were bedridden. I was appalled at their circumstances and when I went on Retreat over Christmas I began to think that perhaps God wanted me to do something about it – fine – but not yet, not until I could save enough money to raise a mortgage.”
When asked by Fr Gillespie how much money she would need Mary made a wild guess and said £800. On 2 January 1954, Father was offered that exact sum by a lady who knew nothing of these aspirations. So, convinced that this was God’s will, Mary Garson bought the first house in Preston Park Avenue, Brighton and so began the work of the Charity, House of Hospitality Ltd, dedicated to caring for the elderly and those in need.
As the work continued to expand, some of the helpers wanted to live a more dedicated life so they moved to a second house, St Mary’s Dower near Keymer. The early days were not without difficulties and helpers came and went and it was not until 1958 that Sister Pamela and Sister Christina joined the group and stayed. In 1959 Archbishop Cowderoy of Southwark advised them to form a Pious Union and so was laid the foundation of the Congregation of the Sisters of Our Lady of Grace and Compassion.
In 1978 the General Chapter adopted the Rule of St. Benedict and Mother Mary became the first Prioress General. A period of growth followed in England and overseas. In 1992 Bishop Cormac Murphy-O’Connor of Arundel and Brighton granted recognition as a Diocesan Congregation and in the same year the Sisters were admitted into full association with the world-wide Benedictine Confederation.
All this is only a glimpse of the life and vitality of the Grace and Compassion Benedictine Congregation which Mother Mary led until 2005. As she experienced the failing health of old age, she handed over the leadership to Sister Kathy Yeeles who was elected Prioress General that year. Mother Mary died peacefully on 8th March 2007 at the age of 85.