The bell rang, summoning the Sisters to this special Eucharist. Everything was ready … the girdle and ring waiting to be blessed, cards and flowers waiting in the hall, and a sense of joy and expectation pervaded the Community. The Novice had been in retreat, now her family were arriving and the time had come. It was the 26th June 1890, and it was Sr Laura’s profession day.
The bell rang … two strokes every 2 minutes. The Passing Bell was ringing and Sisters gathered from all parts of the site, coming together in Chapel, to acknowledge and pray. A sense of sadness and loss surrounded them; preparations would have to be made, but for now they came together. It was the 26th June 1890, and M. Lavinia had died.
Now, in writing the above paragraphs there is a certain amount of guesswork, and reading back into the past from the present. What is fact is that Sr Laura was professed on the same day as M. Lavinia died; I’ve checked and double checked the Community register and both events happened on the 26th June 1890. Not just the same date, but the same year; the same day. What is also fact is that Sr Laura would have made her life vows on that day because temporary vows, as we make now, did not come in until later. I’m fairly sure that it would have been a Eucharist; for many years the Profession Eucharist was held separately from the actual making of the vows, and when they took place together in the 1960s the comment in the Chapel Diary was ‘for the first time since 1894’. I am therefore assuming – but do not know for sure – that all Professions prior to 1894 took place in the context of a Eucharist.
Usually, this is when the Novice would receive her girdle and ring, and I cannot think that it was anything but a joyful occasion – normally. The cards, flowers and retreat may or may not have happened. Likewise with M. Lavinia’s death: I do not know for certain when the Community first started ringing the passing bell after a death, or how news of a death was spread. If Sisters did gather together on hearing the news, it would not have been the present Convent Chapel, as that was built in memory of M. Lavinia after her death. What is known for certain is that she died in Aldeburgh, having suffered from cancer for some time. Whether her death was anticipated or not, I do not know – I think she went to Aldeburgh for rest and recuperation, so it may not have been expected for long before she died.
What the reaction to this was can only be imagined, but she was our Foundress, the Mother Superior of the Community, and I can only feel it must have been an occasion of great sorrow, however much they may also have felt grateful that she was at rest and that her suffering was ended. A letter from her older (blood) sister, written to M. Adele after her funeral states: ‘In a letter I had from Lavinia soon after Mr Scudamore’s death, she said “I rejoice with my whole heart that he is at rest”. I think that is how I now feel for her!’. Lucy Hansell, whose family was known to M. Lavinia and who corresponded with her regularly says, also to M. Adele, ‘If I feel as if something had gone out of my life, what must you feel.’ Neither comment is from her Sisters, but both must represent something of what they feeling; especially M. Adele, who had been with M. Lavinia since the beginning, and on whose shoulders the responsibility would now fall. Of course, it is entirely possible that M. Adele had been doing a certain amount of the work already, in support of M. Lavinia, and there may have come a certain clarity with her death. Nevertheless, M. Lavinia had been a spiritual mother to many, certainly to her Sisters, and it must have come as a real loss to them; to say nothing of the fact that the death of the foundress was, in a very real sense, the end of an era for the Community.
The two occasions – a Profession and a death – bring very different emotions, and how complicated it must have been when they both fell on the same day. Whenever they heard the news, there must have been a certain amount of anxiety, and unsettledness as (presumably) M. Adele took on M. Lavinia’s duties, especially in the Profession service itself. There may also have been some comfort from the fact that Sr Laura was still prepared to commit herself to the Community, despite M. Lavinia’s illness. What interests me more, though, is the effect it may have had on Sr Laura.
M. Lavinia and Sr Laura had a certain amount in common. Both were born and brought up in Norwich: M. Lavinia (born 1822) was the daughter of a local surgeon, John Greene Crosse, and lived on Orford Hill; Sr Laura (born 1855) was the daughter of a wine merchant, and lived on Thorpe Road. Both spent their lives mainly in the same work, as some Sisters did, but by no means all. Obviously, M. Lavinia, as foundress and M. Superior, had the formation and leadership of the Community, although she may also have participated in some of the Community’s works, especially in the earlier days. Sr Laura is at the House of Mercy just after her Profession, in 1891, but by 1901 is at the
Ditchingham Mission House. [For those who do not know Ditchingham, the Convent site, while part of the parish, is some distance from the actual village; the Mission House was in the centre of the village, and far better placed for work there]. She seems to have spent most of the next twenty years there. She died in July 1921, after 33 years in religion [dating from her clothing in 1888].
How might her life have been affected by the yearly reminder of M. Lavinia’s death and her own Profession day falling together? It could have rocked some people, or made them resent the fact. I’m not sure that was the case for Sr Laura; it would not lead to a healthy life in Community. It could also lead to a greater sense of dedication, a sense that to honour the commitment made to God on that day was also to follow M. Lavinia’s lead in her dedication to the Community’s life and work. Sr Laura seems to have been dedicated to the people of Ditchingham amongst whom she worked. To honour both M. Lavinia on the day of her death, and her own commitment on the anniversary of her Profession may have been helpful; as it can be for us to remember those who have helped us in the past, and to remember the anniversaries of our own commitments to God. But, primarily, for both these women, and for us, the primary commitment is to God. Whether a special day goes well or badly, whether it follows as planned or is struck by some unanticipated diversion is less important than in how we live out that commitment, how we follow and deepen our dedication to follow God. A dedication which can start on a specific day, which can be deepened and strengthened by specific commitments, must, for all of us, take place in our daily lives, and the regular commitments of our relationship to God, as both M. Lavinia and Sr Laura must have learned, and shared with those they worked with.