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Called by your Name

I have found Thomas Lawson! You probably didn’t know he was missing … his name came up when I was investigating the past of one of our Sisters, Sr Janet, who was a widow. Thomas was possibly her deceased husband, but I could find no trace of him beyond a possible marriage date in 1866. Nothing for either Thomas or Jenny Lawson in the 1871 census, no death record for Thomas at all. This may confuse you even more: why, if I am researching Sr Janet’s past, am I looking for the marriage of Thomas and Jenny? Well, basically, Sr Janet’s surname is Lawson, she was born in Bungay. The 1891 and 1901 Census have her as Janet Lawson. The 1881 Census has the same details but her name is Jenny. I am making an educated guess that this is the same person. It helped find the details of her past, because Lawson was her marital surname, not her maiden name. I ended up looking for all girls named Jenny, born in Bungay at the right time – and found Jenny Minns, who later married in 1866, when she would have been 17, to one of two people: either Thomas Scoggings or Thomas W. Lawson. Given her surname, I decided she married Thomas Lawson. But I then could find no trace of either, until Jenny turns up in the 1881 Census at the Community House [Convent]. She was professed [made her vows] in October 1881, and I am assuming that this is when her name changed to Janet, for reasons now lost to history.


It occurred to me, after I had finished looking, that one of the reasons I could find no trace of them was because they had moved out of the area. In order to narrow the number of possible matches down, I had been looking in Norfolk and Suffolk. So the next day, I went back, with the sole purpose of trying to find Thomas and Jenny Lawson in the 1871 Census – and found them! Living in London, no children, but Thomas’ brother was living with them, and a servant. Thomas was a clerk to a stone merchant. This gave me the information I needed to try and find Thomas’ date of death (he must have had one!). That was when I struck lucky: not only was there a death record for a Thomas Lawson, who died in 1874, but also a probate record, which gave his address (matches the 1871 Census) and his widow, Jenny, who I assume may have moved back to Suffolk, to her family, before joining our Community in the late 1870s. Thomas would have been in his early 30s when he died, and Jenny only in her 20s.


Behind these bare facts lies a history of emotional and practical living. Why did Thomas and Jenny have no children, and how did they feel about it? Why was Jenny married so young? Why did Thomas die, and was it sudden or long drawn out? How did Jenny manage, being widowed so early? What, eventually, drew her to our Community? She lived out the rest of her life, as a lay Sister, spending many years at the Norwich Mission House (where she is found in 1891 and 1901), before she died aged 61 in 1910.


What did she feel about the change of name? Names are important; several Sisters have had a change of name on joining the Community, although most use one of their baptismal names (indeed, we now have to). Some have preferred their middle name, other changes have more necessary reasons, the most common being another Sister with the same name. It is confusing enough to have two Sisters of the same name when one of them is dead, it is impossible if they are both still alive. (We have two Sisters, both now deceased, commonly referred to as ‘Tall’ Sr Jean and ‘Small’ Sr Jean in order to distinguish them). I started using my middle name on joining the Community, not because there was another Sister with the same first name, but because one of the Novices had a very similar (but trust me, completely different) first name. It was a name I had often been called, as people couldn’t distinguish between the two, so I could see the necessity of changing. It was such a relief! People occasionally spell Rachel incorrectly, but EVERYONE pronounces it properly.

I could have reverted to my first name, when the Novice concerned left soon after I was clothed, but I much preferred Rachel. There is something important about giving people the right name, or their preferred diminutive; it is very personal to us, and to refer to someone as ‘Phil’ if they choice is to be known as ‘Philip’, for example, can be quite distressing. It can almost be as though people are talking about a different person: some may not mind, but there is something respectful about ensuring we know how another person wishes to be known. It is about who we are.


I can only guess the reasons for Jenny’s change of name to Janet, just as we can only guess the details of Thomas and Jenny Lawson’s story: but God does know them, just as God also knows the details of our own stories, and calls each one of us by name. Read the early verses of Isaiah 43: this passage refers to Israel and Judah, to nations, not individuals, but it can be adapted – and can be just as true – to refer to each one of us. God calls us by our names. God calls me, Rachel. God calls you, by your name. For God knows who you are; God knows who you can be; God calls you, personally, by your name, to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. For God knows you, knows you can only be who you most deeply are in God’s own company.

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