A much-loved nun died at the Bermondsey youth centre she set up 30 years ago and to which she dedicated her life, in the early hours of Tuesday morning, writes Emma Finamore…
Sister Cecily Dunn was diagnosed with aggressive cancer just three weeks ago, and spent her final days at the Bosco Centre in Jamaica Road – a convent with a nursery and youth club, as well as a school and college set up to help those who have experienced challenges in the mainstream education system.
Sr. Cecily, the college director, worked at the Bosco for over 30 years as part of the Salesian Sisters, a Catholic order following the principles of St Don Bosco, a 19th century priest who dedicated his life to improving the lot of disadvantaged children in Italy.
“Sr. Cecily touched a lot of lives around here, of all ages and all backgrounds,” said Romaine Shilling, who has worked at the centre for 20 years, and described the staff at the Bosco Centre as “heartbroken and devastated”.
“She always worked with deprived children,” Romaine said. “She even took in three kids for two years after their mum died. The phrase she always used was: ‘You are young, you are precious, you are loved’.” The phrase is written on the walls of the Bosco Centre nursery.
According to Sr. Norma Kirkby, another nun at the centre, Sr. Cecily grew up in a happy family – one of nine children – in Glasgow. Her Catholic father had a big influence on her thinking and eventually her decision to join the Salesian order in Scotland.
“From the minute she left home her one thought was living and working for young people,” said Sr. Norma. “She did nothing for herself – only for young people. She fought for them.”
This fight took Sr. Cecily to Liverpool in the early 1980s, combatting the city’s youth drugs problem. “She received threats one day from some criminals, saying they were going to kneecap her,” said Sr. Norma. “So overnight she had to leave – she turned up in London with just a bag of her belongings.”
Sr. Cecily joined the Bosco convent and began working at the centre, soon noticing the local young people’s need for training and skills – and founded the college using money collected from donation jars she left in local pubs.
“She died here, she wanted to be surrounded by everyone,” said Romaine. “She loved this place, even though there are teenagers stomping around making noise. She loved them and she loved Bermondsey. She was inspiring, she wasn’t a saint though – she would hate to be ‘sainted’.”
Sr. Cecily was definitely not a ‘typical’ nun, according to her colleagues and friends. “When she first came to London she used to whizz around on a moped, when she still wore a habit – it was quite a sight.,” said Sr. Norma. “They used to call her ‘The Flying Nun’!
“One time she was in the post office on Jamaica Road when some men walked in wearing balaclavas, carrying sawn-off shotguns. They told everyone to get on the floor, but she refused so one of them pointed a gun at her chest. She calmly pushed it away, saying ‘Excuse me”, and looked straight into the man’s eyes – and he walked right out.”
The Bosco Centre is determined to do Sr. Cecily’s memory justice. “It is business as usual here,” said Romaine. “Sister’s legacy is now our responsibility and we will carry on her Salesian ethos and way of working for the good of all young people.”
Funeral arrangements for Sr. Cecily will be confirmed at a later date. Any enquiries should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org