Digby Stuart


Crystal Palace

We were there

Digby Stuart College
Meeting with Religious

Saturday, 29th May 1982

More than 4,500 religious gathered at Digby Stuart Training College, Roehampton, to hear
the Pope's address and to renew their religious vows. The number included 300 contemplatives
who had not been away from their enclosures for many years.

Sister Dorothy Bell’s Reflections on Pope John Paul II's Visit
to Digby Stuart College

It was Friday, 19th February that, while having supper with me at Digby Stuart, Archbishop Michael stopped in the middle of the meal and said ‘What would you say if I asked you if you would have the Pope at the college? You’ll have to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ now and you can’t ask anyone else!’  I thought quickly and knew that I would never be able to face Sr Madeleine Sophie Barat, Foundress of the Society of the Sacred Heart, if I turned away Christ’s Vicar on earth!. The answer was ‘yes of course’ - I wasn’t to tell anyone until I heard officially from Westminster. Archbishop Michael phoned the next morning to say it was fixed.

On Monday, 22nd February I had to be at a meeting all morning, telling my secretary to take any messages (she would in any case of course!). On my return she said that Monsignor Ralph Brown had phoned ‘about a postgraduate student’ maybe. I thought this was being used as a nom de plume! With great difficulty I got through to Monsignor Brown, he was at a meeting and was not to be disturbed. I said I thought he would want to be disturbed! So he did. I said ‘a post graduate student’- he laughed and said ‘I distinctly said ‘the Papal Visit’.

From then on it was all go - my 1982 diary says Wednesday, 24th, meeting at Archbishop’s House, Westminster and Thursday, 25th a meeting at Digby Stuart with a buffet lunch for 15 people. I remember putting a notice outside my study saying it was likely that the Pope would come to the college - one student was overheard saying ‘She’s having us on’!

The reason for the last discussion was that it had been thought that the Holy Father would stay with Cardinal Hume at Westminster and that the meeting with the Religious men and women would be in the Cathedral on the morning of the 29th May before the Pope went on to Canterbury. However, protocol demanded that he would stay with the Nuncio in Wimbledon Parkside, which meant looking for a nearer venue than Westminster Cathedral.  I believe it was between Digby Stuart College and the Jesuit school in Wimbledon itself.  Digby won, we had more flat space and were near a hospital, Queen Mary’s, in case of another assassination attempt. (My diary: 28th April 7pm meeting at Digby about medical arrangements for Papal Visit - there was to be an ambulance at the lower site with his blood group etc.)

Three months was a short time to organise the visit- we could have 5000 plus people on 28th May. Resident students could stay if they wished (some were going to the Youth Rally at Cardiff) and invite a friend overnight. Some invited a parent, grandparent or a sibling – non-residents could help with stewarding etc.

I can’t remember how many chairs (folding ones) were available  - 4000 or more? - set out on the lawn and on either side of the podium which was erected in a small area in front of the lake.

The Podium was an imposing white structure, a stage for some 15 or so people with a canopy – we had to get planning permission thinking it might be permanent but it got very dirty and after about 6 months was taken down.

The Holy Father was due at Digby at about 7.30am (I am not certain of times but it was early) – he was to conduct a short service and speak to the Religious (as well as going on to Canterbury, he was also going to Wembley in the evening for one of the major gatherings - what a schedule for someone who had been shot the pervious year!). Visitors had to arrive by 5am - walking up or down Roehampton Lane from wherever they had parked or got the train to - no traffic was allowed on the lane. Tickets had to be checked, places found (the college had noting to do with the seating arrangements only actually hiring of the chairs). Fortunately it was fine, in fact turning out to be one of the hottest days of the year, even at that early hour.

The sea of people on the front lawns (seated on blue chairs) - nuns in a variety of habits including some Anglicans, must have been quite a sight from the Podium looking on to the college buildings.

I was standing on the carpet leading to the podium; the popemobile went around all four sides of the top lawn. Father Matthews, a Franciscan, was there with me and we were introduced by Cardinal Hume - it was an extraordinary moment.

The visit itself lasted about half an hour and then he was gone. But a fantastic occasion. The visit was commemorated at Digby by a bronze plaque which was unveiled by Archbishop Runcie, who was Archbishop of Canterbury in 1982.

Digby Stuart College and grounds
(recent photos)

Pope John Paul II's address at the Vatican website


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