Durham-born Swedish priest returns home to become freeman

SHE has worked alongside Mother Teresa on the streets of Calcutta, preaches to her flock in a clown’s uniform and is a dab hand at both decorating and joinery.

Durham-born Swedish Lutheran priest Joan Donkin
Durham-born Swedish Lutheran priest Joan Donkin

SHE has worked alongside Mother Teresa on the streets of Calcutta, preaches to her flock in a clown’s uniform and is a dab hand at both decorating and joinery.

Now Durham-born Swedish Lutheran priest Joan Donkin is returning to her home city today to be sworn in as a freeman.

The Reverend Joan, aged 65, who has served for the last decade in a parish some 70 miles west of Stockholm, will follow in the footsteps of her 94-year-old father Norman when she is installed as a member of the 400-year-old joiners’ guild.

As a girl, she helped her father in his cellar workshop at their home in the city. It was an experience that has stood her in good stead throughout her life.

She said: “I like to think that working with my dad helped me become the DIY enthusiast I am today.

“In addition to putting up all my shelves at home and tackling other woodworking jobs, I am also comfortable decorating and wallpapering, thanks to the influence of my mother Ada.

“All in all, becoming a member of the joiners’ guild seems very fitting, especially since my heavenly boss started his life alongside his father in a carpentry shop,” said the Rev Donkin, who insists on being addressed simply as Joan.

At the age of 21 she did voluntary service overseas, spending 18 months in Papua New Guinea before going to Australia.

That was followed by a year in a Liverpool school before teaching English at Stockholm University for two years.

In the 1970s she was an education officer at Coventry Cathedral and it was there she had her first contact with visiting members of the Swedish Lutheran Church.

She went to India with the Anglican Church, to help build up schools on the pavements of Calcutta for children of poor families living in cardboard homes, and it was there she first met Mother Teresa.

“Mother Teresa came to the cathedral and when she found out what I was doing, invited me help at a home for the dying where she was involved.

“There were no beds, it was always full and there was little money, but I worked there as a volunteer for a year in my spare time,” she added. When Joan returned from India, she renewed contact with the Scandinavian clergy and in 1980 agreed to work for a Swedish bishop as an advisor on using the arts in worship.

“I went initially for three years and 33 years later, I am still there,” she added.

Joan was ordained deacon in 1987 and continued her work in the parishes.

After taking a masters degree in theology at the University of Uppsala in Sweden, she was ordained 10 years ago and took up her present appointment.

For years she had worked as a clown, particularly with critically ill children in a Swedish hospital.

She has written a book on the subject and the use of humour in church.

“I think far too many of today’s clergy take themselves far too seriously.

“There is not a great deal of difference between a clown and a priest, they are both there to entertain,” added Joan, who retains her Durham accent despite not having lived permanently in the city for more than 40 years

“My dialect returns when I am back here chatting to my Dad,” she explained. Her father, a joiner all his life apart from war-time service, served as a member of the Mayor of Durham’s Bodyguard for 43 years.

It was a commitment that earned him an MBE.

Among five others being sworn in today are sisters Susan Lyle and June MacKay who will be following their brother, father, uncle and grandfather into the drapers’ guild.

Susan and husband John have worked as steward and stewardess at the Durham City Golf Club for the past 20 years, while June, who lives in Darlington, is a retired teacher.


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