A BIG surprise awaited a popular church figure on Portland.

Sister Maria Cooke arrived at parishioner Mary Vine’s house expecting a birthday party, but found it was a surprise event for her.

Catholics had arranged a gathering and presentation as Sister Maria is leaving the island to take up a new post with her order.

She has been pastoral assistant with the Catholic Parish of Our Lady Star of the Sea for four years, acting as a link between the parish and Portland residents.

The role has seen the retired teacher take communion to the sick and housebound, visit Catholics in their homes, drive people to mass in Weymouth and organise prayer meetings and social events.

The sale of the former Our Lady and St Andrew’s Church and adjoining presbytery at The Grove has prompted her move.

Following the closure of the church three years ago, Weymouth and Portland merged as a single Catholic parish which is overseen by Father Stephen Geddes.

Expressing her sadness at leaving her friends of all denominations on Portland, Sister Maria, 75, said: “The church, community and the religious life have fulfilled all my hopes in life and these have been multiplied on the Island, which has it all.

“The spirit of Christian fellowship is unique and I feel that I have been truly blessed with the privilege of sharing part of my life with this community.”

Born in Dublin, Sister Maria joined the Order of Les Filles de La Croix (Daughters of the Cross) 57 years ago.

She taught English and geography at St Genevieve’s Convent School in Dorchester for 18 years before taking up a headteacher role at Tremough Convent School in Penryn, Cornwall.

Sister Maria will be spending a holiday back in Ireland with her family before taking up her new post with a convent of her order in either Falmouth or Torquay.

Deacon Wilfred Westlake will be acting as a link between the Catholic church in Weymouth and people on Portland from next week when Sister Maria leaves.