When I first reported that I was on my way to my mother’s funeral, I had many helpful words of condolence and support, for which I thank everyone. One message in particular has stayed in my thoughts as I have been reflecting on Mom’s life, and how although she was raised a Seventh Day Adventist, she came to be in my mind, a true Catholic in the fullest sense. This observation was that because we are formed by our parents, they never leave us. This has led me to consider how Mom was indeed shaped by her parents, Clarence and Sarah Sussens.
Both, but Clarence especially, were devout and strict Seventh Day Adventists. Doreen grew up SDA, but converted in 1947, aged 18, in order to marry my father, Patrick, who was unshakeable in his loyalty to the Catholic faith – even though he seldom attended Mass except for Christmas, weddings and funerals. She went through the obligatory instruction classes, and proceeded to live as best she could within the rules she had been taught. Typically for her generation, she bore a large family, and in spite of the obvious financial difficulties that ensued, she and Patrick did their best to ensure that all of us were educated in Catholic schools. She personally shepherded her growing brood to Mass and the sacraments, including regular confession.
Yet while I was growing up, I was always puzzled by references to “Catholic identity”. Our home was not adorned with pictures of the pope or the saints, there were no religious statues, and few books on religion beyond the obligatory Sunday Missals, a family Bible, and the Catechisms among our school books. Other than our attendance at Catholic schools, there was little visible sign to distinguish our home as a Catholic one. Yet looking back, I can now see how it embodied what I would regard as true Catholicism – and much of this came from her SDA parents.
Towards the end of my schooling, I lived for two years with my grandparents, to avoid disrupting my schooling at the end of my high school education, when the family transferred from Johannesburg to Cape Town. What I observed in them, characterized my mother’s life.
When I joined the Sussens household, both Sarah and Clarence were over 70 years old, but willingly took on a teenager in their household to simply a difficult position for their daughter, Doreen. This was not the first time they had done something like this. Also living with them was another daughter, my Aunt Evelyn and her daughter Dawn, my cousin Graham (son of a different aunt) – and later Graham’s brother Kenneth, after Graham had left the household. At an age when most people would expect a gentle and peaceful retirement, Clarence and Sarah demonstrated unbounding love and hospitality to any waifs and strays in their extended family, for anything from a cup of tea or meal, to a bed for a night, a week or – as in my case – two years.
So it was, later, for Doreen, who repeated in her own life the hospitality she had observed in her own parents. After bearing seven children of her own, she and Patrick fostered and later adopted a 12 year old boy. With the family now living in Cape Town and her own family of origin in Johannesburg, my cousins and aunts from up-country well knew that they would always be assured of the same hospitality from Doreen that Sarah had displayed before her. Cousin Graham was a regular visitor during his national service in the SA Navy, several others dropped in from time to time. Even with her seven children at home, she could always find room for one or two more. Later, the family moved to Durban, where she even found space for her sister and Evelyn and Evelyn’s daughter Dawn.
As her children grew and became parents themselves, she gave of herself to the grandchildren quite as freely as her mother Sarah had done before. Going beyond the standard babysitting and taxi services, she too provided emergency accommodation for sundry adult children, and their offspring, in time of need. My own two daughters benefited in this way once when their mother was in hospital for a two month period. Doreen first came to visit me in Cape Town, to help out for a week, then simply took the young girls home to Port Elizabeth, until their mother had been discharged.
Her generosity was not limited to family. One of my abiding memories of my grandfather Clarence Sussens was how, well into his seventies, hard of hearing and unsteady on his feet, he would walk the hilly streets of his neighbourhood for what the SDA Church called “Harvest Ingathering” – knocking on doors and ringing doorbells, to appeal to total strangers for money for church charities.
In the same way, Doreen instinctively gave of herself to endless fundraising activities for a long line of Catholic schools around the country, to my scout troop’s parent association, to the Catholic Womens’ League and to the Society of St Vincent de Paul. In earlier years, when not cooking to feed her large family, she was baking endless cakes for cake sales. When not sewing or knitting to clothe her brood, she was sewing dolls clothes’ for school fetes. She was never one to lead or take any limelight in any of the organizations she helped – but could always be relied on to man a stall or table, or to hold a collection box on Saturday morning.
In her last years, she was forced to give up her active charity work – but only after her daughters in PE virtually insisted, pointing out that she simply no longer had the physical strength. (In her youth, she had suffered double pneumonia. Her treatment included the surgical removal of most of one lung, and part of the other. She spent most of her life with the equivalent of just one lung). When she could no longer participate actively in charitable works, she continued as long as she could as a loyal member of a bible study group, and when even attending meetings became too much, with extensive private reading and study. This too, mirrored her father Clarence’s commitment to constantly extending his faith, attending regular lectures on religion, and regular reading.
Doreen, then, took the unbounding love and commitment to service that she absorbed from her parents, and married it to the formal practice and sacramental life of the Catholic faith she adopted on marriage. She adhered closely to the teaching of her adopted Catholic Church, and constantly sought to understand it better. She ensured that her children were raised in the faith, but differed sharply from the rule-book Catholics in one important respect. She never, ever, allowed her own deep commitment to Catholic teaching to lead her to pass judgement on another.
Within the family, on the many occasions when her adolescent or adult children made mistakes or found themselves in trouble (sometimes serious), Doreen’s response was never one of recrimination or point-scoring, but always an attempt to help. Outside the family, I have never heard her indulge in gossip, or criticism of another’s moral standards or judgements.
Doreen’s life was characterised by unfailing love, unstinting service, a continued search for religious truth, and deep respect for the autonomy and independence of others. These virtues correspond closely to Archbishop Vincent Nichols’ recent observations on the nature of authentic Catholicism, and so I commend to your prayers – Doreen Weldon, raised a Seventh Day Adventist, lived and died a true Catholic.