At the end of November, I wrote a piece about our past sisters (imaginatively entitled ‘Past Sisters’); last week I had an email from Jennifer Iredale, a Canadian historian who has investigated our time in Canada, as well as some of the Sisters who worked there, including Sr Althea, who was mentioned in the piece. Jennifer provided a link to an article she wrote about Sr Althea, and in particular a beautiful watercolour journal Sr Althea produced, called ‘Across the Bright Continent’, about her journey across Canada. If anyone wishes to read the article, this is the link: https://abcbookworld.com/writer/moody-althea/
Sr Althea is one of the few early Sisters of whom we know quite a lot of detail, thanks mainly to the magazine produced by the Canadian schools ‘All Hallows in the West’. So we know that she worked with the Community as a teacher in Canada before joining, and presumably this was part of what led her to join the Community. Mostly, we have little information as to which Sisters worked where once they’d joined the Community, and even less as to their lives before joining, or what led them to CAH. Census information is giving me an idea of where Sisters worked, if not what they did there. It has also given me some insight into the lives of Sisters before they joined, rounding out our picture of them, and what might have drawn them into Community.
Lucy Hipkin, a future Reverend Mother, was working as a Governess, before joining the Community in the late 1870s. Did a Governesses life prompt her into thinking more about her future? The Wade Sisters, Sr Mary Rose (another future Reverend Mother) and Sister Alice were two of our very early Sisters, Sister Alice being professed a couple of years after her younger sister, Mary Rose. In 1851, the family are living at Boughton Hall in Suffolk, where their father is a farmer employing 13 labourers; in 1861, they have moved into the nearby village, and various members of the family are staying elsewhere as ‘visitors’. I have no way of telling if they just happened to be there when the census was taken, or if it was a more permanent way of life. What is clear from various newspaper reports is that the father, Mark Wade, had gone bankrupt. The family later moved to Canada. What is interesting, from our point of view, is the effect this change of circumstances may have had on their life prospects, and whether it prompted them to join the Community; and whether her family’s move to Canada was what prompted Sr Alice later to leave. It’s impossible to tell for certain. What we can assume is that all those who came to the Community had some sense of calling from God; may well have been looking for God’s call on their life; would have had some sense of testing their vocation to the Community, both those that stayed and those that left.
It is not just a question of their calling to the Community, but also smaller callings within that. For some it meant many years at the same place: Sr Augusta, who spent many years at the Hospital as Sister in Charge; Sr Margaret [not the current one], a lay Sister who also spent many years there; Sr Lenora, who worked in the Embroidery Room, although she was also at the House of Mercy in her early years. For others, it meant changing places, if not roles: Sr Constance spent many years at the Orphanage/School, but also spent time in between as Assistant Superior, and in Canada; Sr Jane spent time at the House of Mercy and the Community House, as well as at the Norwich Mission House in Colegate Street. For some, it may have meant giving up treasured roles: we have a letter from M. Lavinia to Sr Emmeline, whom the Community had arranged to go to London to train as a Nurse, but had to be recalled. M. Lavinia’s letter makes Sr Emmeline’s disappointment clear: ‘I quite know what you must feel about the training – but remember you are only gone to learn something’. Sr Emmeline goes to the Norwich Mission House, while retaining charge of the farm (which a lay Sister was running). She later spent time at both the Orphanage and House of Mercy.
Each of our Sisters followed a vocation to the Religious Life, within our Community, whatever smaller callings may have been bound up within that. Yet we all have a vocation, we are all called: ultimately, we are all called to live as children of God, the very basic vocation of us all, wherever our lives may lead us. For some, that may include a call to something obviously religious, but for others, a more ‘secular’ calling may be our path. In all our lives, our calling to live as children of God may take us in different directions, or smaller callings. For our most recent Sisters, life in the Community took a very different turn when we decided to disperse; for some, that meant giving up more than others, but it was a challenge we rose to, and has produced new life for us, as well as for the buildings we left at Ditchingham. Wherever we are in life, whatever we do, we are all called to become the children of God that we are. Whatever your life has held, whatever your calling has been, God rejoices over you, and calls you to journey closer.
That is true of you and me; it is true of M. Mary Rose, who spent over 60 years in Community, and it is true of Sr Alice, who spent less than 20 before her journey moved her on; it is true of Sr Martha, who died age 36, only a few months after she was Professed [took her vows] and it is true of Sr Matilda, who died in her 90s. It is true of those who worked with enjoyment, and it is true of those who struggled. It is true of those who followed deeply into God, and it is true of those who resisted or struggled more in that journey. Your God rejoices over you, and is calling you, now, in this moment. How will you respond?