Patricia St John

The hope of God’s encouragement – nursing in Morocco

Other themes: perseverance, feelings of failure

The Problem

Listen to this. What would you do in this situation?

The letters arrived just before going home time. Sarah opened hers quickly. The words jumped out at her: “I am sorry to tell you that you have failed your Cycling Proficiency Test. The points you failed on are listed – “ But then her eyes prickled with tears and it all went blurred.

Failed? But she…never failed at things. And she needed to pass the test, otherwise she couldn’t ride her bike to school. She jammed her eyes shut to keep the tears hidden.

She could still hear though. Around her the class was in uproar: “Look, I passed” – “Great, so did I” – “Phew, made it”. The noise seemed to be pressing down on her. Suddenly there was a quiet voice right by her ear. “Don’t worry, Sarah, you’re not the only one.” It was her teacher, Mrs Wilson, trying to be nice. “Dan didn’t pass, nor did Tina or Jonathan. And you can always take the test again.”

Yeah, she felt like saying, but they’re used to failing. It’s not the same for me. And as for taking it again, never, not ever. Her father would just have to keep bringing her to school, that was all there was to it.

Then there was another voice. Jackie, her best friend. “Didn’t fail, did you? Aah, hard luck.”

Sarah blinked her eyes open and managed a smile. “Aw, who cares?” But deep inside she felt hurt and sad.

Now think:

Should Sarah put this behind her and concentrate on the things she’s good at, the things she’s bound to succeed at? Or should she try again? Why doesn’t she want to take the test again, do you think?

(You could discuss this or pass on to the main story.)

The Story

Now a true story about someone who faced failure. Her name is Patricia St John.

Patricia guessed it could be the end of her nursing career when she saw the cat. There it sat, pleased to have found a place in the warm, not realising that it was the very place it shouldn’t be – on a trolley spread with medical equipment ready to be used in the hospital. Now it would all have to be sterilised again. What would Matron say about that?

And just because she’d left the door open. Of course, she could make the excuse it was war-time and she was rushed off her feet with all the bomb victims coming in. But it was her fault and she knew it.

So did Matron. “Do you think, Patricia, it might be better if you did something other than nursing? And look at your health record – you’ve been off sick so often. You’ve a good brain, there are other jobs you could do.”

Patricia decided to go for a long walk to make the decision – to keep going or to give up. As she walked she remembered how God had guided her into nursing – it was 1943 and the country needed nurses so much – and how she had felt him helping her during the three months of training.

But, now she was on the wards, it didn’t seem to be working out. The problem was she was so afraid of making mistakes – and of Matron seeing them, so afraid of being a failure. And these fears were making her ill. Really, for her own sake, for other people’s sake, it would be better…

Then she saw it. A huge hoarding outside a railway station with a Bible verse in big black letters: “Jesus said, ‘Do you believe that I am able to do this?’” She knew it was God speaking to her. He was saying, “Do you believe I am able to help you in your work, give you all the help you need, or do you, Patricia, believe I made a mistake when I chose this job for you?”

And then and there, Patricia accepted not only God’s help, but also the fact that the occasional failing at this or that or forgetting this and that was not the end of the world. God could give her the confidence to keep going.

And she went back on the wards with a different attitude – no longer living in fear of Matron, but able to accept that she was still learning, that she wouldn’t, couldn’t get everything right, make everyone better, or stop the war. But she could do what God sent her there to do. And after that day, she had no more time off sick. She felt great.

And she was willing to try new things. When the war was over she became a housemother in a boarding school, and, wanting a suitable book to read to children made unhappy by war, she decided to write it herself. You can still get it today, it’s called The Tanglewoods’ Secret. It’s even been made into a film.

Then her brother, who was in charge of a hospital in Morocco in North Africa, wrote to her: “There’s so much work out here. Can you come and help?”

So she went.

It was hard work though, very hard. It was a new country, a new language, a whole new way of doing things. But Patricia kept at it, communicating at first with just hands and eyebrows, pushing away the feelings of homesickness that threatened to wash over her.

Then she went on to do something even more difficult – to open and run a clinic in a little Moroccan mountain town. It was a lonely job – no one else spoke English and many were suspicious of her: “Who is she?”, “What’s she here for?”

But she kept on doing her best, and bit by bit the townspeople came to accept and love her. They even brought their animals to her – mules with sores on their backs would be squeezed protesting through the door of the tiny clinic. The tricky bit was pushing the mules back out again after treatment!

On particularly hard days there would come the feeling of failure and temptation to give up and go home. Then one day Patricia was walking back from a distant village when she saw a woman hurrying down a hillside calling to her. “The English nurse?” she asked.


The woman uncovered a bundle she held in her arms. It was a baby with infected eyes, its swollen eyelids stuck together. The woman told Patricia, “Last night I had a dream. Someone in white told me to take my baby to the English nurse on the main road at this time.” She did not know Patricia, could not have known she would be passing that spot at that time. Except that God had told her in her dream. For God knew Patricia had just the right treatment for the baby.

And Patricia felt happy, for she knew that she was doing what God had planned for her to do. If she had given up, what would have happened to that baby and the hundreds of other babies and children and adults she treated? Oh – and the mules, mustn’t forget those.

Patricia St John died in 1993, still caring for the poor of the world. And her stories, there are several set in Morocco – are still read and enjoyed today.

Time of Reflection

I’d like you to think what you want to do this year, what you want to achieve. I’m not talking about impossible things, but maybe learning a new skill, or doing better at something, reaching the next level. What if it isn’t so easy, what if it doesn’t seem to be working out straight away – will you give up? Are you willing to fail before you succeed? If you believe in God, what difference will that make?

Just a moment of silence while we think about these things.

Bible Bits

Listen to what the Bible says:

“Be determined and confident! Don’t be afraid or discouraged, for I, the Lord your God, am with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:9)

“Let us run with determination the race that lies before us. Let us keep our eyes fixed on Jesus….He did not give up…” (Hebrews 12:1-2)


Thank you, Father, that you have given me the ability to succeed, not in everything, but in many things. Help me to play my part by working hard and not giving up. And thank you that you will give me extra help if I ask for it and trust in you. May what I learn not just help me but others too. Amen

Variations on a Theme

The main story could be mimed by children as you read. Matron, brother, villagers and woman with baby could be speaking parts using the words in the story.

Quiz Questions

  1. Why was Patricia worried when she saw the cat on the trolley?
  2. What was making Patricia ill?
  3. Why were nurses needed so much at that time?
  4. What did the Bible verse on the hoarding say?
  5. Why did she write The Tanglewoods’ Secret?
  6. Where was her brother working?
  7. Then she went to a mountain town. What for?
  8. Why were mules brought to Patricia?
  9. What message did the woman get in her dream?
  10. Why was meeting the woman such an encouragement to Patricia?
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