Obituary: Sister Margaret Duncan, nun of the Holy Family order

Sister Margaret Duncan: Convert to Catholicism whose benevolent works won the hearts of all she encountered
Sister Margaret Duncan: Convert to Catholicism whose benevolent works won the hearts of all she encountered
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Born: 29 June, 1917, in Stoneyburn, West Lothian. Died: 28 November 2013, in Rock Ferry, Birkenhead, aged 96

SISTER Margaret Duncan had no real concept of her age. Not long before her death at 96, she told me how upset she was about another nun who had died at 83. When I expressed my condolences, she said, quick as a flash: “It’s alright, hen, she was very elderly.”

Anyone who knew this extraordinary woman will be aware of the high regard in which she was held – and by an astonishing range of people - from Kwik Fit’s Sir Tom Farmer through to the poorest, homeless person on the streets of Edinburgh when she lived at the Holy Family Convent in Leith. She addressed everyone as “hen” or “son”, even Cardinal Keith O’Brien who wrote to her a week before he resigned amid scandal earlier this year. When informed of his fall from grace, her response was: “I don’t care what he’s done, hen, I love him anyway.”

Born in 1917, in Stoneyburn, West Lothian, as Jean Henderson, to parents Alison Paton and James Henderson, Sister Margaret was one of three siblings, with an older sister, Grace, and a younger brother, George. ­Tragedy struck early. In February 1926, when she was nine, her mother died of blood poisoning. On her 15th birthday, her ­father died in the local Foulshiels Colliery. Grace had already left home and it fell to the newly orphaned Margaret to care for her brother by working at a farm shawing turnips. 

At the start of the Second World War, Margaret trained as a welder. She met and married George Duncan, a sergeant in the Seaforth Highlanders. They had a son, James. But tragedy continued to stalk Margaret. Her beloved husband was killed in Normandy, in 1944, at the Battle for Caen and baby James died of meningitis, aged 18 months. For the second time, Margaret found herself bereaved and abandoned. She became a Roman Catholic then a nun. As a result her Protestant family disowned her. Margaret’s main memory of the journey to the novitiate at the age of 32 was of two priests seeing her off at Waverley Station in Edinburgh, each bearing a packet of cigarettes for her journey. “I smoked the whole way to Liverpool,” she told me, “It was dreadful, never again. It’s a disgusting habit.”

Many will have read about Margaret over the years. She hit the headlines in 1995 at the funeral of union leader Sam McCluskie when she plucked a red ribbon from a wreath and handed it to Tony Blair, then Labour leader. She said to Mr Blair: “Wear this ribbon on election day and when you become Prime Minister don’t forget the Scots who put you there.”

Never one to miss a photo opportunity, Mr Blair was all over her like a rash.

She was also known for her many trips to the French pilgrimage centre of Lourdes in a “jumbulance”. She loved to recount the story of how, somewhat perversely, she had a heart attack on the way into Lourdes – known among the faithful for its miracle cures – and had to be rushed to hospital, sirens blaring and lights flashing.

Nicknamed Scotland’s Mother Teresa – after the blessed nun – she lived solely for the benefit of others, frequently fundraising, anything from knitathons to riding pillion on a Harley Davidson aged 86. The philosophy of Holy Family founder, Pierre Bienvenu Noailles, demands its nuns adapt to the needs of the times. Poverty was Margaret’s main concern. Unlike most of us, she had no comprehension of terms like “chancer” or “scrounger”.

For 17 years, Sister Margaret worked tirelessly for Bosnia and visited that war-torn country 12 times until she was no longer able. She raised funds for children there, orphaned and disabled as a result of the war. The convent in Leith was always awash with cardboard boxes. More than 250 tons of aid passed through this convent to the charity, Edinburgh Direct Aid. In terms of what most people achieve in a lifetime, it was staggering achievement.

People in Bosnia were so bowled over by the convent’s efforts they invited Sister Margaret out there to meet some of those she had helped. In 1998, I accompanied her to Sarajevo and watched her interact with people who had lost everything: their homes, husbands, brothers, fathers, towns, even their graveyards; people caught up in this latter-day Holocaust, not so much traumatised by war but seriously neglected in its aftermath.

We travelled to Bakovici, a psychiatric unit north of Sarajevo. On the wards, some of the patients grabbed her by the hand. Others threw their arms around her. At times she was overwhelmed – especially when one patient admired her white cardigan. Immediately Margaret took it off and gave it to her.

She said: “Being here is like a dream come true. It’s fantastic to see people actually wearing the clothes we sent out. The people of Bosnia said we had brought them hope when the rest of the world had forgotten them.”

Margaret cared deeply about those who struggled to survive. They had no electricity, no gas, no phones and very little water. Some 30,000 women were raped in the war. There was an unwanted baby boom for which nobody was prepared. Margaret did not judge those women the way they judged themselves but did her best to understand their “shame” as she supplied them with soap, nappies, bottles and blankets. This year many of those children she helped turned 21. They will never forget the nun who made them feel wanted.

On 6 September 2013, Sister Margaret celebrated her diamond jubilee at Rock Ferry Convent, Birkenhead. She was delighted to receive a letter of congratulations from the Queen and a certificate of apostolic blessing from Pope Francis.

Everyone I have spoken to since her death has floated the belief that if ever there were a modern candidate for canonisation by the Catholic Church, it was this compassionate woman who did so much for so many from her humble home in the Port of Leith.