Obituary: Patty Burgess, nun

Patty Burgess. Picture: Contributed
Patty Burgess. Picture: Contributed
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Born: 12 June, 1916, in Edinburgh. Died: 27 March, 2014, in Loanhead, aged 97

Sister Patty Burgess, who died aged 97, was a highly respected nun whose life influenced the many hundreds she helped directly and the many thousands she helped indirectly through her work with her mentor, Canon Roland Walls.

The Rev. Patty Burgess. Picture: Contributed

The Rev. Patty Burgess. Picture: Contributed

The first half of Patty’s adult life was largely spent as a single mother who brought up four fine children, but in her latter years she was to live an extraordinary life as a deacon and sister nun at a tiny tin shed religious community established by Canon Walls in a rough garden near to Rosslyn Chapel.

Sister Patty was born at the family’s large mansion house which now serves as the Warriston Crematorium. A proud Campbell she came from a revered branch of the clan that owned land in Argyll and indeed at one stage her family lived on the small island of Eilean Righ,

Her father was a keen botanist, who inspired his daughter, and after her education at St Oran’s in Edinburgh she graduated with honours in botany from Edinburgh University .

Her mother arranged for her daughter to worship at a number of different denominations of the church, leaving her with a strong commitment to ecumenicity.

Patty’s strength of faith was extraordinary. Although an intelligent and objective scientist she was none the less blessed with an absolute faith in the existence of a higher power, a belief that constantly drove her.

At university she was to meet and then marry in 1939 Hugh Burgess, who held a similarly positive and cheerful approach to life and the couple were to enjoy several years work in Africa where she gained a reputation as a feisty wife who loved to travel in the wild places inhabited by the tribes living simply, in manner she and her husband respected.

It was therefore a matter of considerable challenge to her when Hugh died in 1959 leaving her a young widow in Scotland with four children.

In her early 50s she found herself drawn to attend worship at Rosslyn where Canon Walls had taken up the position as priest. Their convictions and cheerful attitude to adversity were very similar and they soon started to work in close harmony.

As part of his witness Roland set up a tiny religious order of three monks in some old metal buildings near to the chapel.

It was just Patty’s style. The monks, one of whom was a former miner, treated their problems with more laughter than long faces.

Worship was daily and the community was often almost overrun with the poor, vulnerable and needy with Patty usually in their midst, sorting a few things out.

At first Patty’s association with the order was informal. Although still a struggling single mother, who would grow the family’s vegetables, she also chose to volunteer with a huge number of charities.

She would visit the local mental asylum, work with the Red Cross and for 15 years would take all the smelly laundry from the local home for the homeless down to the steamie to wash it by hand..

Soon she had also found time to qualify as a deaconess (she had heard it might make her prison visiting easier to arrange) and was becoming so integrated into Roland’s fraternity that they even changed their name into a community, so anxious were the not to lose her, and she was often left in charge when Roland was away.

She will be buried with a pomp and ceremony that would probably have appalled her, but will be wearing her nun’s habit, made out of an old army blanket.

That at least she would have liked.

She leaves four children, twelve grandchildren and seven great grandchildren.

She has also left us huge wealth, though virtually none of it material.