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During WWII Joan Bartlett worked in the European Broadcasting division of the BBC and at night was a Commandant of the Red Cross. She converted from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism in 1941. She then became a Servite (Servant of Mary) Tertiary.
She opened a residential home for the elderly homeless, having been inspired by hearing Violet Markham speak at Caxton Hall about the plight of many elderly people who had been bombed out during The Blitz.
The Servite Order lent Joan £8000, and with this, and contributions from the Air Raid Distress Fund and the American Services Fund, she purchased a property for the home in The Boltons, London. It was registered as a Housing Association, then known as Hearth and Home, now Servite Housing, with financial help from Albert Oppenheimer (CBE).
Servite House Ealing followed. This was a home for disabled people run by Dr. Barbara Brosnan, a member of the Institute. Several Institute members also worked there and at the Boltons. Some of the Servite Sisters worked as wardens in the housing complexes. Residential homes gave way to sheltered housing schemes in London and other parts of the country such as Birkenhead, Surrey, Bognor Regis and Dundee; there was a project for the single homeless, one for those with Alzheimer's disease, another for students, and a scheme in Battersea where residents can remain in the complex progressing as necessary from sheltered housing to residential care and finally to nursing home care.
Bartlett remained involved in Servite Housing until her death, having devoted the years since her retirement as Director to fund-raising. The SSI continued to grow, being erected as a Secular Institute through the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Westminster; it spread to other countries and received Pontifical Recognition in March 1979, at which point she earned a Dame[hood] in the Order of St. Gregory the Great (she was not a Dame of Malta). The Constitutions received final approval in February 1994. Members make vows and live a life of prayer and service in the world.
Dame Joan wrote a book, Brushing Eternity, including the following excerpt (about death):
- Intensity, deepening in intensity.
- In the cool grey walls, silence.
- In the human heart
- Silence and adoration.
- Behold I have lost my being,
- I have brushed eternity.