An Heroic Woman

November 18, 2019 at 5:43 pm | Posted in feminism, Global justice,, women | Leave a comment
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This is a review of the biography of Anne Hope, a South African leader of the International Grail whom I was blessed to know. The review appears in recent issues of Gumbo, the newsletter of the Grail in the United States, and EqualwRites, the newsletter of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference.


Anne Hope: The Struggle for Freedom: the life of the visionary co-founder of Training for Transformation. By Stephanie Kilroe. Darton, Longman and Todd. 139 pp.  $17,99

Feminist scholars have been documenting for some time now that women are consistently left out of historical narratives. One of the books that brought that home to me was Katherine Harmon’s There Were Also Many Women There, which explains in detail how my ecumenical women’s community, the Grail, had been excluded from the history of the liturgical movement.

Some of us—my co-author, Mary O’Brien and I, for example, in our 2017 volume on sixteen founders of the International Grail–have been trying to undo this injustice. Now South African writer Stephanie Kilroe has joined the effort with her splendid new life of South African anti-apartheid activist and Grail member Anne Hope: Anne Hope: The Struggle for Freedom.

The story begins with Anne’s birth, the middle of three children, in 1930 Johannesburg, South Africa, and traces her lineage back through her distinguished forebears. I personally was astounded to learn that someone who had spent much of her life working and fighting for the poor was descended from so many members of the British peerage and widely respected South African professionals. Anne continued these traditions, raised as she was with flawless manners and morality, and educated at a distinguished boarding school and eventually Oxford University.

Yet the suffering and loss that marked Anne’s life also began early with her father’s death in battle at the very end of World War II, when she was fifteen. And her horror at the poverty of a black South African township even before her father’s death went on to shape her lifelong to commitment to justice, as did her early election to the steering committee of Pax Romana, the International Catholic Student Movement.

It was, in fact, at a Pax Romana meeting in Montreal in 1952, that Anne met a group of young US Grail women, and then, back in Africa, the founder of the US Grail, Lydwine Van Kersbergen. Van Kersbergen arranged a scholarship for Anne to come to Grailville, the US Grail’s farm and national center near Cincinnati. Anne’s years there changed her life, or at least brought together many of the desires and commitments within her. After four years at Grailville, Anne spent four more years in Uganda at a Grail women’s secondary school. Her further work there starting women’s clubs in Ugandan villages was one of the foundations of her later work with Training for Transformation, an international education program for community organizers

Then, at the age of 32, Anne was named president of the Grail in South Africa where she spent seven years leading significant efforts with the Grail and other groups organizing against the apartheid government’s crack-down on the African National Congress and other liberation efforts. It was through some of these groups that Anne met Steve Biko; her collaboration with him later forced Anne to flee South Africa, not long before his murder by the South African government.

One of the most engaging plot threads in Kilroe’s carefully woven narrative of Anne Hope’s life and emotional/spiritual development is the story of her relationship with Sally Timmel. Initially, the celibacy requirement of the Grail leadership group, the nucleus, held little appeal for Anne; she had expected to marry and have children. But her engagement at Oxford ended over the Catholic/Protestant divide between her and her fiancé. And when a young South African man she had known wrote to propose to Anne during her time at Grailville, Lydwine Van Kersbergen, the head of the US Grail, blocked her from receiving the letter, because she believed Anne was called to nucleus leadership. And Anne did, eventually, join the nucleus.

But soon after leaving the South African Grail presidency, in a scholarship-funded master’s program in adult education at Boston University in 1969, Anne met and fell in love with Sally. Their work together developing adult training programs, including DELTA (Development Education and Leadership Teams in Action) and Training for Transformation, based in the pedagogy of Paulo Freire, transformed the lives of countless people in diverse African countries and elsewhere. The story of their years of collaboration, and the strains on their relationship as they were sometimes stranded on different continents, as well as their struggle over Anne’s nucleus commitment in her other family, the Grail, comprises a galvanizing trajectory through the second half of the book.

Some, however, will find the final chapters of Anne Hope equally absorbing. Here Kilroe describes with considerable nuance Anne’s retirement, during which, through prayer, psychotherapy, and deep encounters with the earth itself, she come to terms with her own deepest identity. I was especially moved by the details of Anne’s death at the age of 85 at Pilgrim Place in California where she and Sally had retired, and the burial of her ashes back in South Africa.

Of course, writing a book, especially a non-fiction book, is hard work. A few errors always slip though, as when Kilroe states that Anne’s dear friend, Eva Fleischner, was a convert from Judaism when it was her father who converted. Or when she refers to the theologian of the cosmos, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, whose work influenced Anne enormously, as “de Chardin,” when the proper shortened version of his name is “Teilhard.”

Of perhaps more concern is the genre, so to speak of Kilroe’s work. As she explains in her afterword, the initial primary source for her research was Anne’s self-published 2013 autobiography, A Life of Hope: The Story of My Life. But Kilroe found the autobiography too objective, even stilted in parts. When Sally shared with her Anne’s “morning papers,” the journals Anne had kept over the years, as well as many of Sally’s own memories, Kilroe was able to focus on the “transforming struggle of Anne’s inner life…” As valuable as the results of such a focus may be, this means that Anne Hope is more a spiritual narrative, or even a mediated memoir, than a biography.

We see some of the implications of this focus in Kilroe’s discussion of the “trouble” Anne and Sally experienced at the end of a 1979 six-week advanced training course for forty experienced Kenyan trainers they had worked with successfully for years. Suddenly we learn, “the group reacted against colonialism, against white leadership in the church, and against Anne and Sally…accusing them of domination (and) of imposing Western values.” These accusations devastated Anne in particular.

Kilroe introduces this conflict with a paragraph comparing it to a child who while becoming an independent young adult experiences hostility toward their otherwise good parents. She quotes one of Anne and Sally’s African “colleagues” to justify her use of the comparison, assuring us that she does not mean it to be condescending.

I leave it to you to decide whether a white writer comparing Africans to children when they protest white dominance is condescending, but it is also the case that a competent biographer would have interviewed some of the Kenyan trainers involved in the conflict before evaluating it.

These limitations, however, ought not to deter us from reading Anne Hope with enthusiasm and gratitude. It is a well-written and absorbing book. Rarely are we gifted with such a poignant and inspiring portrayal of the inner life and accomplishments of an heroic woman—a portrayal that strikes one more blow against the exclusion of women from history.



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