In M Lavinia’s own words:
“There is a Rock under the foundations of our life which shifting circumstances do not affect.”
The names of certain sisters and others are known to all who knew CAH have stood out over the years. But we must remember that they are only part of a long line of sisters who have faithfully lived out their vows within this Community from the fledgling Sisterhood of three to its peak number of forty and its smaller number now.
They have played their part in giving substance to the vision of a 'cell' of the Kingdom of God expressed in one life under vows and our commitment to Christ in prayer, Eucharist, worship, and service.
HOUSE OF MERCY
Firstly homed at Shipmeadow penitentiary, near Beccles in 1854, and moving to the Ditchingham site in 1859; prostitutes and girls in need of care formed the early primary work of All Hallows Sisters. Drawn out of the slums of Norwich and other parishes in Norfolk and Suffolk, generations of girls stayed in our House of Mercy for a period of rescue, training and rehabilitation. All the girls were trained in domestic chores, and the stronger more intelligent ones worked in the Laundry. This was a large industrial laundry room providing a service to the local area, which helped fund the penitentiary.
Religion was the foundation of the work done in the House of Mercy. The girls attended a daily morning service, and at the end of their stay, each girl received a special service of blessing. Some of the girls wished to remain at All Hallows when their two years of training was complete, so a penitent Order grew from the House of Mercy inmates, called the Third, or Magdalen Order. A distinction needed to be made between these and the Sisters of All Hallows so they wore brown habits and a white bonnet, and the title ‘Faith’ was added to their baptismal names when entering the Sisterhood. The last member of the third order died in 1954.
The name ‘House of Mercy’ was changed to St Michael’s Home in 1930, and in the 1950s it was registered as St Michael's House, as a training house under the Home Office. Further developments for the care of young persons were introduced, and in 1965 the house officially became a community Home. Modern methods of group therapy and family meetings were introduced, and self-knowledge and self-expression through art helped the girls come to terms with their problems and accept their experiences of life. In 1980 it had to close as government funding was withdrawn.
The building now leased to Christian Conference Trust began life as an orphanage school founded in 1862, again by Lavinia. The girls who came were like the girls in Jane Eyre, orphaned of middle-class origin. Life was very strict: – Service of Prime at 6.55 am, 8.30 am drilling, lessons till 11.00 am, a break of bread and water, 3.00 pm – 5.30 pm. lessons and, at 6.00 pm Vespers. The Sisters and staff sought to give the orphans Christmas comforts and other simple entertainments. Funds were low in those days. Full orphans were received for as little as £25 for the year. The orphanage relied on the charity of the local area to provide clothes and funds to keep the place running.
An industrial school was incorporated into the orphanage, training the girls in domestic service, who were then employed to help in the main orphanage school.
After 50 years of service, it became clear that the Orphanage was not paying its way and so, in the early 20th century, it became a fee paying boarding school, and the name All Hallows School was adopted.
Under the leadership of Sister Jessie Mary, Sister Ruth and Margaret Barratt, the school grew to take up to 60 pupils. In 1947 the school was split and the lower age range attended the All Hallows junior school, under the control of Sister Maud and then Sister Winifred Edith. Miss Forster modernised the school and brought it into the 20th Century, both academically and socially.
When the school work came to an end in 1990, and the buildings became a guesthouse (St Mary’s Lodge) and conference centre (St Gabriel’s).
The agricultural depression of 1880 hit Norfolk very badly. There was acute poverty, low wages and sickness, causing under-nourished children and destitute mothers.
One of the poorest parishes was St James with Pockthorpe. Its reputation was so bad that no other voluntary organisation would visit or undertake relief work in the area. Our co-foundress Mother Adele, a gentle artistic lady, worked hard in this slum parish, where Sisters had to go out in twos for their own safety.
The Sisters opened a crèche to look after children to allow their mothers to work and earn a shilling or two to augment their meagre incomes. They taught carpentry skills to boys and they provided food to supplement the bad diets and helped to clothe both parents and children. All were funded by regular appeals for contributions, which were responded to well.
When possible, sick children were sent away to convalesce, but still, sadly many families were wiped out by typhoid, scarlet fever and influenza. In the 1912 floods, the Sisters rescued women and children, and many stayed in the Mission House with them until their own homes were habitable.
ALL HALLOWS HOSPITAL
In 1872 Mother Lavinia set up a cottage Hospital in Ditchingham but very soon the cottage proved to be too small and work began on the present building, which was opened a year later. All Hallows Sisters were trained as nurses and worked in the Hospital.
As the services were directed at the poor, not much income was received for the nursing provided. Although there were surgery and operations performed at the hospital attention was given to incurable diseases and those who needed constant nursing during the last few days of their life.
The First World War put a stop to much of the Hospital’s care for local people, whilst wounded and sick soldiers were looked after during a four year period.
Quite a different sphere of work developed when Sister Gwyneth took charge in 1933. The maternity section grew. Mothers from surrounding villages came to have their babies at the Hospital. After 35 years Sister Gwyneth retired and the Hospital was put in the care of Sister Frances in 1968. She was not a nurse, therefore Sister Joy became Matron. Her concern moved back to the terminally ill patients, and the maternity ward soon discontinued. Since the deaths of Sister Joy (1976) and Sister Frances (1984), the Sisters from the Community have continued to care for the patient's and relatives' pastoral needs.
In 1994 the Community took over the operation of a 38 bedded residential home now known as All Hallows Nursing Home, providing long-term nursing care with respite beds available. The Day Treatment and Therapy Centre was built and opened in May 2004 in the grounds of the Hospital.
In May 2007 it was announced that the Sisters were to promote an independent charity. A registered charity and a company limited by guarantee were then formed: All Hallows Healthcare Trust. The Sisters remained in close contact with the Hospital, Nursing Home and Day Care Centre, continuing to provide Pastoral Care with our Chaplains and Oblates. Alongside that, various Sisters attended Day Care and stayed at the Hospital and Nursing Home. Sister Winifred Mary and Sister Winifred both lived at the Nursing Home before their deaths, becoming part of the Community there, and regularly attending services. The Pastoral work was taken over by a local minister in 2018. In 2019, the Healthcare Trust announced its’ closure; all facilities have been taken on by different organisations.
While all this was going on, the call to go to the indigenous people in W Canada came in 1881 from a new Bishop of British Columbia, Bp Sillitoe. So, several Sisters travelled across Canada on the Canadian Pacific Railway to Yale. Recently, one of the descendants of a pupil in the school we set up wrote to say she had Sister Amy’s original trunk.
Althea Moody, a Canadian woman, returned to train as a Sister and created a sketchbook of her return journey from Labrador to Yale in British Columbia. Mission work among the indigenous people, a ‘Canadian and Indian School’, was built and recently, we have had a correspondence with Jennifer Iredale who found embroidered, falls and frontals in St John’s Church, Yale, and has recorded the work.
The Sisters withdrew in1920, but It is good to reconnect.
Here at home in the convent built in 1877, an embroidery school was at work. Some of our vestments are made by Sisters and they also trained women in this work.
We seem to have supplied frontals to a number of churches in East Anglia and we also worked one for Ottawa and for Truro Cathedrals. Again, in 1969 this work had to close.
DYING AND RISING
The theme of dying and rising is part and parcel of the Christian story and this is true of our Community. But there were stirrings abroad in the wider Church.
The Vatican II Council had a reverberating effect – not only in the R C Church but also in the Anglican Church. New liturgical texts, modernised Offices and a sense that there had been a seismic shift affected Anglican religious communities and the Community of All Hallows was not immune.
There was a questioning of and a restlessness with the old ways of doing things and perhaps, by our very geographical isolation, we were not fully equipped to meet the challenge. A number of Sisters had left the Community and some died, so adjustments had to be made. The administration of the hospital and school was handed over to a lay head and matron and gradually Sisters were withdrawn.
It was becoming obvious that the call for retreats and spiritual renewal from the laity was greater than the need to run institutions. So under Father Scott’s direction, Sisters were sent on Individual Guided Retreats and training courses and St Michael’s House became a centre for retreat work. Hospitality too for guests, lay and clergy, opened up.
As our work in Norwich shrank, the Community had to decide where our priorities lay and our future direction for All Hallows. Though St Michael’s work had closed, we were able to continue with girls and small children at Little Portion (once owned by two Franciscan Sisters). Numbers of women escaping domestic abuse, girls on probation or others waiting for a court sentence found a refuge there. This seemed to be going well so when a building development took place in the 1980s, three flats were bought as half-way homes for young women to gain home-making skills before leaving. The house closed in the late 1990s.
ROUEN ROAD GUESTHOUSE
The other focus in Norwich was our house in Rouen Road near St Julian’s. The hall became a Julian Centre and the influence of Robert Llewelyn and Michael McLean meant our house became a focus for those interested in Julian, from all over the world, continuing under the leadership of Sister Pamela until 2018.
Sometimes, the work of an individual Sister bears fruit in unexpected quarters. One of these was the prison work at Blundeston, a high-security prison, by Sister Winifred Mary. For 25 years, Sister visited the prisoners in the evenings. She was given a room to interview them, she helped in Chapel on Sundays and preparing for the Sacraments – she numbered among her acquaintances Ronald Kray and other notorious inmates. But she had no fear of any of the prisoners and so was respected by her ‘lads’. After she retired, she was awarded the MBE, also nicknamed Member of the Blundeston Elite. Right up to her death in 2009, her correspondence to lifers and ex-prisoners occupied most of her time.
21st CENTURY CAH
In the first decade of this century, much changed for the Community. In 2006, the Community decided to move from the old Convent into St Michael’s House. This was a difficult decision for many who loved coming to St Michael’s on retreat and saw it as their spiritual home; for some of the Sisters also, it meant leaving a much-loved home. However, the Convent was becoming too large for us, and St Michael’s proved to be a safe space for us to be at home together. The three Guesthouses remained open and were used as the base for Community-run retreats. This left the Convent empty for several years, although much was going on behind the scenes.
Emmaus, a group working with the homeless ‘giving a bed and a reason to get out of it’ had been offered the building, but as we moved out just as they were at the very beginning of the process of setting up in Norfolk, it took some years before they were able to move in. In September 2011, we were overjoyed to be able to hand the building over to them, together with St Mary’s, our quiet guesthouse, and the land in between. Nearly 10 years later, there is a flourishing Community with a second-hand shop, café and often upcycled furniture for sale. Meanwhile, the Community had been looking at various options for the future of St Gabriel’s; it was suggested that the Christian Conference Trust may be willing to advise us, which they were happy to do. The outcome of these discussions was that CCT took over St Gabriel’s, renaming it Belsey Bridge Conference Centre, after the bridge running over the nearby stream (the Belsey). CCT runs two other Conference Centres at Swanwick and High Leigh, and the Sisters felt that they were leaving the Centre in good hands. When CCT took over the centre, they also took on the land around it, including the old school buildings opposite, where Ditchingham Day Nursery is based. The Community had been running this nursery for several years, and as part of our restructuring, we looked around for another organisation to take the Day Nursery on. The Benjamin Foundation, a Norfolk based charity for young people, took it over in 2011.
All this meant that we had gone from living on a large site with a number of institutions, all of which we were responsible for and ran with the help of a large number of staff, to living on the same site, where a number of different organisations worked side by side, and where the official boundaries were not marked out by physical barriers. It worked well, with a sense of friendliness over the whole site.
It also meant that the guest houses run by the Sisters were reduced from 3 to one; Emmaus took over St Mary’s Lodge, and also Holy Cross House, which is attached to the Convent. Holy Cross House was the original home of our Third Order, and had been a Guest House for over 50 years; it is now home to the Emmaus Companions, and it is lovely that it is being used as a home again.
Managing a variety of guests with different needs in one house meant careful management, which was well done; but the house wasn’t designed for that purpose, and also needed updating to 21st century standards! In 2010, it was closed for a period, while it was overhauled. All the bedrooms are en-suite; new rooms created in the space where the garage was, including a Poustinia, where guests wanting silence could stay without going into the main house. There are now two disabled bedrooms, as well as a downstairs toilet. This meant that our guesthouse was much more flexible in whom it could take, with no reduction in numbers. We also changed its name from All Hallows to Lavinia House, honouring our Foundress, while distinguishing it from the Norwich house (also All Hallows).
Other work was ongoing: Sr Pamela running the Guesthouse in Norwich, as well as being involved elsewhere, especially the Julian centre alongside; Sisters, Oblates and Clergy were responsible for the Pastoral work at All Hallows Healthcare Trust; some of the Sisters gave Spiritual Direction, and regular Quiet days were run at St Michael’s. Our Oblates had a yearly retreat at Lavinia House, while there were regular days for our Associates and Contact members at St Michael’s. Having these events in our home meant some disruption, but it also meant we could all play a part in welcoming those attending. This was on top of maintaining our regular pattern of Offices, four prayer services during the day, and daily Communion; both Chapels were open for private prayer. Some of our older Sisters, being more infirm, were not able to do much physically, but were active in their prayer life, and being present to both visitors and those they met elsewhere. As time went on, some of the older Sisters died, and Sr Violet moved down to All Hallows Nursing Home. We were again living in a house that was too large for us. It was time for another look at the future, a process which ended with a very different outlook. It became clear that we were being called to live in a more separate manner while staying together as a Community. So it was announced that we were dispersing – NOT closing or finishing. We are still very much a Community, while living in different places. We keep in touch in a variety of ways and those who can meet once a year for a time of retreat, meetings and holiday together. The underlying structure of our prayer life, with its regular services throughout the day, as well as private prayer, continues wherever we are, and the Daily Office holds us together. What the future holds is far from certain, but the history of the Community continues to be made.
This left St Michael’s, Lavinia House and the land around them vacant at Ditchingham; we advertised for a group to use these, looking for a group which caught our imagination, taking these buildings onto the next step, while having the practical skills to carry it out. A new group called WITH (Be With Community) has taken on the remaining space at Ditchingham, to create an on-site Community plus retreat space and online resources for young people aged 10-25. This is a very exciting venture, which fits in ideally with our core values, and much of our work over the past 160 years and more. The guesthouse in Norwich has been taken over by the Julian Partnership, which will lead this precious space in the heart of Norwich to a new future.
GOD AT THE CENTRE
M Lavinia would rejoice to see the fruits of her vision but at the very centre for her, and for us, is God. We offered our lives to God as she did – and we are not many, and at times frail but here to be used. We are helped enormously by our Oblates and Associates and our staff, helpers and friends. It’s like a wagon wheel – God at the centre – the core Community reaching out to the rim along the spokes of our various works; and all returns to God from whom comes our strength.
In M Lavinia’s own words “There is a Rock under the foundations of our life which shifting circumstances do not affect.”