Joan Bartlett

Joan Bartlett, OBE DSG
1911 - 2002

Foundress of the Servite Secular Institute

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History of the Institute

The Servite Secular Institute was founded in London, England by Joan Bartlett OBE DSG.

From an early age Joan had wanted to give herself totally to God and enjoy that freedom which comes from living selflessly in His service. Joan was particularly inspired by the image of Mary standing at the foot of the cross. She reflected on the fact that we tend to take it for granted that Mary, like mothers the world over, was there for Jesus when he needed her. She asked herself, "But what if you haven't got a mother?" Joan considered that Mary, like Jesus, must also have a human form today and she sought to take Mary's place beside those who suffer.

Joan was helped in the search for her personal vocation by Fr Gerard Corr OSM, one of the Friar Servants of Mary (Servites), who had received her into the Church. She had already been accepted to join the Congregation of the Servite sisters of London, when an urgent note came from Fr. Corr telling her that her vocation was to start something in the world.

During the 2nd World War, Joan was working in European broadcasting for the BBC. At night she was a Red Cross volunteer. Her compassion was aroused by the many homeless, frail, elderly people who had lost their homes, families and possessions during the blitz. They literally had nowhere to go. As the war ended, she felt called to provide housing for such people, and thus respond to her vocation 'to do something in the world'. With the financial help from the Servite Friars, in 1946, Joan was able to open the first Servite House to give at least some of these elderly people a home and restore a sense of family to those who had had very little hope. The Friars continued to give help and encouragement through the years as Joan's work developed. She also received assistance from the Servite Sisters as she constantly sought and found new solutions to the housing needs of other vulnerable people. Several members of the Institute also worked in the Homes. In the sixty years since that first foundation, more and more people have found a home in Servite Houses which is now a national organisation providing a wide range of homes and care for people in need. Sadly however in recent times the Housing Association has severed its links with the Servite Order and Institute. Joan's call to the consecrated life persisted. Pope Pius XII had just (1947) promulgated Provida Mater Ecclesia. In this document, the Church recognised the growth in the Church of groups of lay people who wanted to live a single life of vowed service to God, but not in a monastery or convent. They were to be known as Secular Institutes. From then on Joan began to live this way of life. .As foundress of a new Secular Institute, Joan had not only to live this new way of life but to clarify for others how they would live it in their own circumstances. Constitutions - the legal documentation which supports an institute and outlines its way of life - had to be lived, written and approved by the Church. Joan wanted her Institute to be Servite, so it had to share the charisms of the Servite Order: compassion, sharing, service, a simple and joyful family spirit and a reverence for and imitation of Our Lady as we see her throughout the gospels, but especially on Calvary.

The first group of would-be members met with Joan in 1952. Some were associated with her in her housing work in London, others worked in various parts of the country in a variety of jobs and professions. Some stayed and some left but others came and gradually the Institute grew. During the 1960s the members in the UK were joined by members of other embryo Secular Institutes with a Servite charism from Italy and Germany. To Joan's great joy, in 1964 the Servite Secular Institute was granted official Church recognition and was also officially aggregated to the Servite Order. In 1979 it was granted the status of an Institute of Pontifical Right.

The Constitutions were revised after the 2nd Vatican Council and this version was approved by the Sacred Congregation for Religious and Secular Institutes in 1994. The Congregation has since approved minor revisions.

Prospective members of the Institute follow a vocation discernment programme under the guidance of an experienced Institute member. This lasts about a year. After admission to the Institute initial formation takes about four years and has to be fitted in with normal commitments. If called to make the vows of chastity, poverty and obedience, members, whether employed or unemployed, in sickness or in health, alone or with others, offer the whole of the rest of their lives to God to do with as He wishes. After several years in temporary vows perpetual vows are made. For more information, see Membership.Members are now found in Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Colombia, France, Germany, Italy, South Africa, Spain and the United States of America, as well as in the United Kingdom.

Joan also wished a life of commitment to God to be available to married people and to those who do not wish to make vows, so the Institute also has a section for Associate Members.

Joan died on 9 September 2002. Her vision lives on in the Servite Secular Institute and in her pioneering work in the provision of housing for the elderly and other vulnerable groups. For her outstanding contributions to community life in Britain, Joan was awarded the OBE in 1984 and papal recognition followed in 1995 when Joan became a Dame of the Order of St. Gregory.