Discovering a relative!

Photo:Sister Margaret with some of her knitting.

Sister Margaret with some of her knitting.

Photo: Illustrative image for the 'Discovering a relative!' page

Sister Margaret Duncan

By Sandra Darling

Discovering a relative !

While in Australia visiting with family in January 2011, my aunt Margaret (Davidson) Foster, formerly of Addiewell, showed me a newspaper clipping which she said was found among my late Granny’s papers.

My Granny, the late Mrs Grace Davidson, was born in Addiewell in 1908 and spent most of her life there.  She had mentioned that the old nun photographed in the newspaper was in fact her cousin. My aunt knew nothing about her so she gave me the clipping to take home to see what I could find out.

The extract from the newspaper told the story of Sister Margaret Duncan, a nun, who had been involved in raising funds for children in Bosnia who had been orphaned and disabled as a result of the armed conflict which took place in that area from the early to mid 90s.

I began researching Sister Margaret Duncan online and was surprised to discover that she had been involved extensively in various fundraising activities from a knitathon (knitting for 24 hours straight) to riding pillion on a Harley Davidson.

Eventually, I managed to track Sister Margaret down to a convent in Yorkshire which provided accommodation for nuns who had retired. I contacted the convent by email to ask if she was still a resident there, and if I could contact her to find out if we were in fact related.

Several weeks passed with no response from the convent. Then out of the blue I received a letter from Sister Margaret. She wanted to know why I was looking for her and asked who I was. I told her that Grace Paton was my Granny and I believed that we may be related in some way.  She was astonished but also overjoyed that someone from her family had taken the trouble to find her. 

It turned out that her mother (Alison Paton) and my Granny’s mother (Agnes Paton) were sisters.  So she was in fact my Granny’s cousin. 

NB.Alison and Agnes Paton’s mother was Gracie Graham  (Grace Alison Scott Graham) who married William Paton in 1885.

Once the connection was established, Sister Margaret and I began corresponding on a regular basis.  I was hugely curious to find out how she became a nun as there was no Catholic connection to the ‘Patons’.  She was very happy to talk about her life and work and this account of her life turned out to be a very heart rending and inspirational story.

Sister Margaret’s birth name was Jean Henderson, she was born in 1917.  Her mother was Alison Paton and her father was James Henderson, they lived in Garden City, Bents.

Jean was the second of three children, she had an older sister called Grace and a younger brother called George.

Jean’s life was blighted with tragedy. One very early memory is of her mother who was busy working in the home carrying a kettle of boiling water - she accidentally tripped and fell over, dropped the kettle, and Jean, who happened to be in the way was hit by the boiling water and badly burned. 

On 27 February 1926, when Jean was 9 years old, her mother Alison died of blood poisoning aged only 39 years. She is buried in West Calder cemetery. The young family was left without their mother. 

Jean left school aged 11 after passing the qualifying exam. Her father, James Henderson, together with most of the men of that time and in that area, worked as a miner in the Foulshiels Colliery. On Jean’s 15th birthday, he was tragically killed in the mine. Jean and her younger brother George were now orphans, so she took over the care of George into adulthood.  Grace, her older sister, had left the village by this time and was working down south.

In order to keep the house going and earn a living, Jean worked at the local MacFarlane’s Farm where she shawed turnips.  She also turned her hand to dressmaking which she did locally and as well as that, she did some wallpapering for local residents.  She thanks God that she had her mother’s gift of turning her hand to anything – even at age 93, she continued to knit shawls.

Jean’s older sister Grace had become a nursery governess to a wealthy Jewish family in London.  She later married, and her husband, Dick, worked as a jeweller, also located in London.  Grace and Dick went on to have a baby daughter who they called Alison but soon after giving birth, Grace died, Alison was only 3 weeks old.

Dick approached Jean to find out if she would take the child and bring her up as her own, but at the same time, Dick’s sister Gladys, who could not have children of her own, offered to adopt her. Jean gave in because Gladys was in a much stronger financial position and would be able to provide much more for baby Alison. They have never lost touch and Jean still sees Alison from time to time today.

When the Second World War came, single women had to either go into the services or munitions factories.  Jean trained to be an electric welder and welded tank carriers at the Marine Gardens, Portobello. She spent the bulk of the war years working as an electric welder. 

It was also during the war years that Jean met her husband.  He was George Duncan, a Sergeant in the Seaforth Highlanders. They married during the war and went on to have a baby son.

While fighting at the battle for Caen, George was wounded while bringing in another wounded soldier, he later died. ( The Battle for Caen from June to August 1944 was a battle between Allied troops and German forces during the Battle of Normandy.)  George had a military funeral and was buried at Mount Vernon in Edinburgh.  Jean was left on her own with a young baby.

 Soon after George’s death, her baby son who was now 18 months old, contracted meningitis. Sadly, he died. Tragedy had visited Jean again and once again she was left on her own.

 After a while, Jean returned to using the skills she had learned earlier in the war, and as the first female welder in Britain, she was presented to the Lord Mayor who pinned wings on her uniform.  After the war she was involved in welding frames for prefabricated houses. 

Much later, she went on to work in a florist shop in Great Junction Street in Leith. One day an elderly disabled neighbour asked her if she would deliver some flowers for her.  She wanted them delivered to St Mary’s Star of the Sea in Leith which was a Catholic Church, and it was from there that she gradually got involved with the Church.

It was at this point in her life that she found her faith.

None of her family or her relations was Catholic and she felt as though she was betraying her parents who had brought her up Protestant. However, after a few years, on 8 December 1949, she was received into the Church. 

Jean says that she has received so many blessings from God.  She was so grateful to Him for the gift of faith that she felt the only way to thank Him was to give up her present life and hand it over to God in the service others who were more needy than her. So she resolved to give up her independence to serve Him.  She has never looked back.

She has had a wonderful religious life and has never regretted the day she entered the convent. Sister Margaret did not train to be a teacher or a nurse, but she has had a great variety of work especially charitable work.  She was a school chaplain for about 40 years and has worked with handicapped children in Bosnia for 17 years. 

 Sister Margaret has made 16 trips to Lourdes providing support and assistance to several disabled people. For the last 17 years, she has worked tirelessly assisting the poor people of Bosnia and has visited the country 12 times.

In 2012 she moved to Holy Family Convent in Rockferry, Birkenhead. She spent some of her early religious life there and is delighted to be back.

Sister Margaret has suffered several heart attacks and has had a stent fitted. At the moment she is in the convent care home and says that she is looked after better than a princess. She is now bedridden and her health has deteriorated although she still manages to write the odd card and letter. 

I visited with Sister Margaret in January 2013 – this was the first time we had met, and we spent about an hour chatting about her life and looking over some family photographs. She is completely bedridden now but remains extremely sharp, calling everyone ‘hen’ or ‘son’ and she can recount stories from her early life with the greatest of ease.

I remarked to her that she looks very like my late father and some of his sisters and she confirmed that this was the ‘Paton’ look (I think she was referring to the hook nose, which unfortunately, I also have).

Then when I showed her photos of my Granny, she immediately said ‘Gracie Graham’ who was in fact Sister Margaret’s grandmother, but apparently they look very alike.

Sister Margaret celebrated her diamond jubilee on 6th September 2013.

I am truly honoured to have met with Sister Margaret. I find it hard to believe that this person, who has achieved so much in her life, and brought so much happiness to others, despite having suffered appalling levels of personal tragedy and sadness, is my relative  - and until 2 years ago, I knew nothing about her.

Sandra Darling


This page was added by Sandra Darling on 02/10/2013.
Comments about this page

Hi Sandra, Enjoyed reading your article!(we spoke on telephone) Isn't she just remarkable! She's wonderfully inspiring, humorous, and witty... still! I'm honoured to have the pleasure, & joy, of her friendship, guidance, and love throughout my life... I am truly blessed!

By Lisa Henderson
On 06/10/2013

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