Cloud of Witnesses: Caroline Irwin

Call her Miss Irwin, for in the nearly ten years she was my parish secretary I never heard anyone, save her brother, call her Caroline. It was as if “Miss” was the name bestowed with the lustral waters of the Methodist Church whose hymnodic fellowship she left in youth to embrace Anglicanism, which the Methodists had tried unsuccessfully to bring to a happier frame of mind. Agatha Christie might have formed Miss Marple fully from the brow of Miss Irwin, like a geriatric Athena. In the films Miss Marple was played incongruously by Gracie Fields and unrecognizably by Margaret Rutherford, but her veritable incarnation was Joan Hickson whom I cannot separate from Miss Irwin.

I was a very young rector in a venerable parish of her religion on the Main Line outside Philadelphia, and she was more than three times my age. Miss Marple said in several of the detective stories: “The young people think that the old people are fools, but the old people know that the young people are fools.” While Miss Irwin never patronized my occasional stabs at wisdom, I suspect that she did not overestimate them. When I was felled in an epidemic of pneumonia, she appeared sprightly saying that she had begun to feel unwell but had taken half an aspirin and woke up refreshed. Proverbs 31:27 says the wise woman “girds her loins with strength and makes her arms strong.” Miss Irwin was like that, although she would have avoided the oriental way of putting it.

She was born in the village where she would die, and her house was next to the building that had supplied ice to freshen the body of Lincoln on its funereal journey. For counting collections, she used an abacus and dutifully learned to use the electric adding machine I bought her, while checking its accuracy with the old device. She spoke English as a lady trained never to raise her voice or to let one’s spine touch the back of a chair. Though democratic in all her ways, she took as a revelation my suggestion that she might consult the telephone directory when the Social Register failed her. Her love for the parish garden was intense, and no one corrected her habit of pronouncing compost as “compote.” In the early 1970s when rioters filled the streets she continued to schedule vestry meetings for Thursdays because that was “everybody’s cook’s night out.”

Having set aside religious enthusiasm, it was not her nature to speak of prayer, but she did what she did not speak about, and whenever we finished praying to the Eternal Light, she was the last to turn off the electric light. It was easy to fall into the mistake of Miss Marple’s nephew who treated “his dear, pretty, old fluffy Jane…with an indulgent kindness as one who knew nothing of the world.” Miss Irwin left many well-thumbed books when she died, and they were classics. A Ford salesman offered “so kindly” to buy back her ten-year-old automobile with 1,800 miles on it. She did not sell. She once parked outside a circus pavilion and an elephant backed into her fender. Later she was stopped by a policeman who asked if she had been in a collision. When she told him that she had been struck by an elephant, she knew he wrote her off as dithery. Miss Marple thought that “intuition is like reading a word without having to spell it out.” Miss Irwin was intuitive. While there was never a murder in our vicarage, she solved a burglary and that was good enough.

Agatha Christie said of Miss Marple, “Though a cheerful person she always expected the worst of everyone and everything and was, with almost frightening accuracy, usually proved right.” Cheerful was Miss Irwin, but she never expected the worst, though she knew that everyone could be a bit better, and she seemed to know what that bit was. She lamented an aunt who had returned from a trip to California wearing make-up, smoking, and using the expression “darn.”

She dignified the title spinster, which in our day has become almost a title of denigration. St. Paul says that elderly women are “not to be slanderers or slaves to drink” (Titus 2:3). He would have approved of Miss Irwin. Only once did she take a sip of champagne: on the 200th birthday of the USA.

Miss Marple solved detective mysteries in her village of St. Mary Mead. In her village of Rosemont, Miss Irwin engaged another kind of mystery, The Mystery, which is not a puzzle, for the answer is provided to all those who have faith in divine providence. I hope that Miss Irwin hears a Voice now calling her, in rare fashion, Caroline.


Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael's church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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