Sister Mary David Totah OSB Sister Mary David was born on March 26, 1957. She died of cancer on August 28, 2017, aged 60.
Obituary from the “Times” of 16th September 2017
Sister was one of the first female scholars to enter Christ Church when the Oxford college opened its doors to women students in 1980. In August 1984, after doctoral supervision, she decided to go on a retreat to St Cecilia’s Abbey, a Benedictine community on the Isle of Wight.
The enclosed Benedictines there normally left the abbey only for medical emergencies. “I was drawn to it like a magnet,” she said of the soaring Gregorian chant and community life at the abbey. Friends, noting the sparkle in her eyes when she returned to the US after the retreat, asked her if she had just got engaged. Nine months later she left a post teaching literature at America’s second-oldest university, the College of William & Mary, Virginia, and returned to England to join the nuns. Flying into Heathrow in May 1985 she was asked at passport control: “How long do you plan to remain in England?” “For ever, I hope,” she replied, only to be ushered into a group of suspected illegal passengers. “I said for ever,” she later explained, “not because I thought it would all work out, but because love is like that.”
Then 28 years old, Sister Mary David was sometimes fiery, often joyful and brought a zesty energy to the abbey. She later served as an inspiring novice mistress, encouraging a steady stream of young women to swap glittering careers for the cloister. Of the 30-strong community at St Cecilia’s, nine nuns and four novices are “Totah girls”, inspired by Sister Mary David’s tuition. Her classes on the early church and the rule of St Benedict made sense of monastic values of silence, charity and poverty. She would join her charges tobogganing in winter or on summer picnics, but never accepted the modern idea that nuns needed time off. “Saturdays are for cell cleaning. It is not optional,” she insisted. Mingling firmness with great compassion, she dispensed one-to-one counsel to the struggling.
Eager to dispel the idea that the Benedictine life of prayer, labour and study was irrelevant today, she prompted the abbey to launch a website. It quoted St Benedict, but showed photographs of novices tossing Frisbees. “It is a way of life that is very ancient, but is made new with each generation,” she told The Times, in a quick-paced Louisiana lilt.
A calligrapher who favoured quills, she was a prolific writer. Her lightly worn scholarship shone through in the anthology Walled About With God (2005). Using primary sources, she robustly challenged the theory that female religious enclosure was the construct of medieval male chauvinists.
She was appointed prioress in 2009, and even when she became gravely ill still interviewed candidates and taught novices from her sickbed. “North Korea has bombed the monastery. Lessons will continue as usual in the crater,” declared a jokey notice.
Michele Frieda Totah was born in Philadelphia in 1957. After studying English literature at Loyola University, New Orleans, she took an MA at the University of Virginia, graduating summa cum laude.
The next step was a DPhil on modernist writers at Oxford. Among the sophisticates of Oxford, she exuded friendliness and simplicity, with a large smile matching the warmth of her bespectacled eyes.
Her decision to join an enclosed order at first baffled her parents. Arab Catholics who had fled Ramallah in Palestine for America, they asked her to find a convent in the US. However, their daughter never favoured half-measures. Eventually they accepted her decision. “I have 35 daughters now,” declared her father when he arrived at St Cecilia’s opening suitcases bursting with Arab delicacies — stuffed vine leaves, lambs’ tongues and flaking honey pastries.
This generosity echoed the approach that Sister Mary David encouraged in her novices — she urged them to give generously to God. Without fuss, she led by example. In 2012 she was diagnosed with inoperable cancer. Asked by a New York stockbroker what she had learnt from her illness, she replied simply: “Acceptance, with joy.” Requiescat in pace.