Her robin's-egg blue habit, the errant locks of strawberry-blond hair escaping the wimple, and her upturned nose conspire to make her seem much younger than her 42 years, much more lighthearted than her life's work.

She is Mother Frances Dominica, mother superior of the relatively small band of Anglican nuns -- only 34 of them in England -- who, among other things, bake 3 million communion wafers a year to be distributed to the faithful worldwide.

Mother Frances is best known as the founder and chief advocate, fundraiser and administrator of Helen House, in Oxford, England, probably the world's first hospice for dying or acutely afflicted children and their families.

And in building Helen House, Mother Frances is widely considered to have written the book, as it were, on compassion.

Recently she was in town for the Washington Pediatric Hospice Conference of Children's Hospice International, an umbrella organization designed to spread the hospice-concept to children.

"Watch out for her," CHI executive director Ann A. Dailey said she had been warned, "She'll have you all opening your pocketbooks . . ."

By age 3, says Mother Frances Dominica, "I knew I was going to be a nurse. And by 5," she says, "I knew where I would be trained -- in London."

Joining the order was something else again. "I had always had some sort of relationship with God," she says, "But it hadn't always led me to church."

Born in Inverness, Scotland, and raised near London, she followed her call to nursing, and only as she was about to set out to practice her profession in "some Third World country," did she feel impelled towards the order.

"I was doing general nursing," she recalled, and "one of my patients was a vicar. Eventually I started going to his church. You know, at that time I didn't even know the Church of England had nuns at all. I thought they were all only in the Catholic Church."

Even though she met two Anglican nuns at the new church, and "got to know them and discovered with some surprise that they were really very nice ordinary human beings, I still didn't relate to them myself. I always thought I'd marry and have a family of my own after a stint in a Third World country."

But, she recalled, "just as I was completing my nurse's training, quite suddenly I realized there was something inside of me that was saying, 'No, you want to try this instead.' "

So at 23, she became a nun. That was 19 years ago and, although she says she has no regrets, in fact "couldn't have done it any other way," she thinks 23 might be "a little too young. Now I wouldn't allow people to enter before they're at least 25."

In 1977, she was elected superior of the community. In 1978, she met Helen and Helen's parents.

Helen House, in Oxford, England, is a respite center for children who are afflicted with catastrophic or fatal illnesses, including cancers and a host of genetic disorders for which there is no cure. The conditions have names such as Hurler's Disease, which was once called Gargoyle Disease because of the child's distorted features. Or there is Hunter's disease and San Filippo's disease.

Helen House is named for a 9-year-old girl who is still alive herself and still comes to Helen House for periods of time.

Until she was almost 3 years old, Helen was a normal, happy toddler. Then there were months of acute illness, in which doctors and nurses felt she could die at any moment.

The acute phase of Helen's illness -- unspecified -- leveled off, but Helen was left with "no means of communication and apparently unaware of her surroundings." There came a time when hospitals could be no more help, and Helen's parents took her home.

As Mother Frances described it recently to an audience of pediatric hospice workers, almost all of whom were in tears by the end, Helen's parents "suddenly found themselves essentially alone. The doctor and the nurses and the clergy were helpful and supportive," she said, "but they'd be there maybe up to 20 minutes a day, and the long hours of the night, where Helen would often not sleep, but cry piteously and inconsolably, took their toll.

"The worst thing, the most tiring thing," said Mother Frances, "was the prolonged grief. Friends, once sympathetic, began to lose interest. They almost wished she had died."

A friend of a friend brought them together with Mother Frances and, as she tells it, "One day I got the courage to ask them to lend her to me."

From that moment, the concept of Helen House was born. Mother Frances, with the help of British schoolchildren and their pence and their pictures, raised the funds -- about 1 1/2 million British pounds -- to build the tiny center, room enough for about eight children. "And they come with family, siblings, pets -- terrapins, for example, and even a tarantula."

The hospice runs with one or two professionals and a crew of "OBEs," which Mother Frances describes as "odd bods, extraordinaire." ("We'd never be able to do that in this country," sighs a pediatrician at one of her speeches.)

It gives parents a chance for a break, of course, but it is mostly for the children.

Mother Frances reads this letter from a child whose parents did not tell him he was dying, but who knew it anyway:

"I'm bored at home, and I'm fed up with my parents. Would you please book me into the Snoopy bedroom for the next week, please, and they won't be coming with me.

"They don't know I know,' " he confided to her later. " 'And it is so hard to keep them from finding out that I do."

The hospice's resources, limited though they are, are available to families even after the child has died. And this can be hard, Mother Frances concedes.

"I've never in my life experienced the depth of friendship that one does with the children and the families. I guess because the preliminaries that we normally have to go through just aren't relevant anymore, and differences in classes and races, intellect or religion just have no bearing when a sick child is involved.

"These friendships go so deep, you share in their grief very deeply, again and again. And however strong your belief is in some kind of life after death, it doesn't take the grief away."