New City readers pay tribute to Jannie Sayer who did so much for the Focolare in Britain. She died in January 2021 aged 92.
[New City Magazine – April 2021 pages 14-15]
Jannie met the Focolare in November 1965 when she and her husband Robin, were invited by the Vicar of Walsingham, Alan Roe, to hear Chiara Lubich speak in Liverpool Cathedral. Robin took to the spirituality at once while Jannie said that she only got really involved in the early 1970s when she became, along with Robin, one of the Volunteers of God(1). Robin and Jannie did much to help purchase and develop the Focolare Centre for Unity in Welwyn Garden City. In fact, it would be fair to say that without their help, the Centre would not be here now!
Here are some tributes from those who knew Jannie well
Jannie and Robin’s home was a safe space for many over the years and though conscious of being one of the ‘many’, it never took away from feeling you were special for her. That was just one of Jannie’s extraordinary gifts. She made everyone feel they were special to her.
We didn’t always agree and when our discussions over lunch became too animated, Robin would silently fold up his newspaper, put it under his arm and retire to his office. He would later roll his eyes and mockingly refer to the fact that he was surrounded by strong women, which never ceased to amuse.
When we last spoke on the phone, about ten days before she died, we were conscious that it was a time to say goodbye. She reminded me in some detail of the incredible experience we lived through when I was staying with them in the weeks leading up to Robin’s death in June 2006, and that I had promised that when her time came, I would come to be with her. I assured her that I would give everything to be able to keep my promise but right now, with Covid, that was impossible so she would have to hang on a bit till I could come back to England. She laughingly replied that she would do just that. I thanked her and told her how much I loved her. We said we’d speak again, in that way people do, when they know that this is their last goodbye. When I put down the phone, I cried all my tears for the loss that Jannie’s passing would be for me and for so many and yet I felt strangely at peace. Our wonderful Jannie was going to God and somehow heaven felt very close.
Jannie’s generosity was enormous both in giving time to listen and offering hospitality to everyone who came her way. As has been said by others ‘She gave everything in the moment.’
An abiding memory that I have is when Jannie had to tell me of my mother’s death; we were staying with them at the time. I honestly think that there would have been no one better to give me that news. My sorrow was her sorrow and nothing more needed to be said. I think that I would just say about Jannie to anyone who had not the joy of knowing her: ‘she loved’.
As Jannie’s rare form of muscular dystrophy progressed, she lost her ability to walk and to move easily. She lived this ‘losing’ with typical courage and no trace of self-pity. And while she went from being the powerful woman who singlehandedly pulled a dinghy with several of us still in it, out of the muddy bank of the creek and along the stretch of water, she increasingly became a presence of powerful purified love. Her independence was seemingly taken from her, but I felt that she consciously gave it away with dignity and realism, day by day, while retaining the core of herself. In some ways, over the last few years of her life, Jannie appeared to me more and more free, more irrepressible and more alive than many of us could ever hope to be.
I had the honour of being asked to sing at her funeral and wrote this song for and about her.
A heart that’s as big as the ocean
a gaze that’s as wide as the sea
a soul that was ever in motion
reaching out for all that might be
A life of both passion and glory
a tale made of sorrow and joy
a friend always ready for laughter
a mother and sister to all
Now you race across fields, across meadows
and you jump over sand dunes and shores
and you reach out your arms to embrace us
from that Heaven which is certainly yours
And the light in our eyes is no dimmer
though for now many tears have to fall
but we know you are smiling here with us
and your voice finds its echo in ours…
A heart, such a heart, such a heart…
Their approach to life was all founded on Jannie and Robin’s strong faith and their belief in the unity of all peoples through their work with and membership of the Focolare Movement. The Focolare was and remained a huge influence in Jannie’s life and was something that once adopted, she maintained and developed to her death. This had a mindful impact on all about her…
(from the family eulogy read by Patrick Sayer, her son)
This love that Jannie experienced is the love that Jesus brought. She met him also in her pain. God is beneath all things but through Jesus’ death on the cross, he has taken on himself also all that is negative, all that is painful, all that is broken. And Jannie had plenty of chances to experience that in her illness. Because by taking these things to himself, Jesus achieved a transformation, and he achieved redemption. He brought his love to where there is no love. That could be an epitaph for Jannie. So many of us have so much to be grateful for to her.
Revd Callan Slipper
Jannie, a maverick, something of a mystic, and a woman who truly loved. As she said herself so often when hearing that others had reached the end of their own holy journey(2): ‘You made it! Well done!’
(1) ‘Volunteers of God’ are a branch of the Focolare movement made up of lay men and women who feel called to bring the Gospel into society and to live like the early Christians.
(2) Cf. Ps. 84 (83): 6 ‘Blessed is the one who finds in you their strength and decides in their heart the holy journey.’