It stuck out like a sore thumb – that single word ‘Lavinia’. Not the name as such – those of you who know our history will realise that it’s the name of our foundress. It’s the name on its own without the prefix ‘Mother.’ Very rare. It came in some letters I had been typing up. Mostly they were letters from M. Lavinia, who would usually sign herself ‘Lavinia, Mother Superior’, but a few are to and from M. Adele, three of them letters of condolence after M. Lavinia’s death. So it’s not the use of the name which stands out, but the use of the name on its’ own with no title. As to why? Well, that was complicated as this particular letter must have lost its ending; at least, the typescript which I am copying does not have it. It was sent from Priory Cottage in Sudbury and the last line includes the words ‘Gertrude is writing to you’. Those are the only clues we have as to the sender. However, we have two letters sent from Priory Cottage, and the second is from Gertrude. This also intrigued me, as it is signed ‘Your always loving sister Gertrude’. Now this was not a Sister of the Community (as there would have been a capital S); did it mean that Gertrude and her unknown companion were blood relatives of M. Adele? I thought this needed following up. M. Adele was born in Switzerland, and whether for that reason or another, I have found little about her background. Could this be a way in?
Of course, finding a Gertrude living in Sudbury might prove difficult; it helped that M. Lavinia died in 1890, so I could be fairly hopeful that the letter writers might still be in Priory Cottage during the 1891 Census. Actually, I found them fairly quickly: living on Friar’s Lane, Gertrude C. E. Sparrow, a widow age 58 living on her own means and born in Norwich, could be anyone, as could the third member of the household, Emily Parish, a servant age 37 and born in Sudbury. However, the second member stood out: Dorothy A. Crosse, sister of Gertrude and a single women aged 72, living on her own means and also born in Norwich. For Dorothy was not M. Adele’s sister, but M. Lavinia’s. So a little research was required. Checking earlier census data about M. Lavinia’s family proved that she had indeed a younger sister called Gertrude. A quick internet search brought up Priory Cottage, now a listed building, and indeed on Friar’s Lane in Sudbury. I had found my first letter writer, which made that use of ‘Lavinia’ perfectly explicable: Dorothy was M. Lavinia’s older sister, and unlikely to call her ‘Mother’, whatever the rest of the family did. (I’m sure oldest siblings everywhere will sympathise). Interestingly, Gertrude never refers to M. Lavinia by name, simply using ‘her’, presumably knowing it would be explicable to M. Adele.
And the use of the word ‘sister’? Well, M. Adele was the first Sister in the Community, along with M. Lavinia: she was made a Novice when M. Lavinia took her vows, and had been in the Community since its’ foundation. I have no idea whether the two women knew each other before they came to the House of Mercy, or whether they met there, but they would have long years of working alongside each other (although not always in the same place; M. Adele spent many years in Norwich). Gertrude’s letter asks when M. Adele is coming to stay with them, and it seems clear that the Crosse family, or at least Dorothy and Gertrude, had taken M. Adele as their friend and sister. As, indeed, she was in a way, as a member of the same Community as their sister, Lavinia. (This does leave me with a lot still to find out about M. Adele). Further research showed that in 1901 all three women were in Great Yarmouth, and by 1911 Dorothy (age 93) was a boarder in the house of Emily Parish, back in Sudbury. It seems that Emily Parish had been a long and loyal servant to both sisters.
While Dorothy and Gertrude were M. Lavinia’s blood sisters, and while M. Adele was her Sister in Community, in fact all four women were part of the larger community of faith. We all have contacts we are closer to than others; but, still, we are all part of the same Christian family, one that transcends culture, denomination, gender, race or family ties. The Gospel of Luke says that we cannot be Jesus’ disciples unless we hate our family members (see Luke 14:26). I’m not sure that we are being encouraged to literally hate our parents etc, (although we might, but that’s a different story), but I do think it emphasises our priorities. Being one of Jesus’ disciples gives us a new family. Our fellow Christians are our family as well, whether we like them or not. That’s not really the point: just as in ordinary families, we are going to get along with some better than others. But we are still called to live as members of the same family, we are called to love one another as Jesus loves us (see John 15).
I really enjoyed the first lockdown: I’m happy in my own company, and it eliminated the stress I often feel when relating to others (how does one know what you’re supposed to do/say??). It was very tempting to stay in lockdown once it eased – and I suppose I could easily have said that was what I was called to do. Apart from two reasons: I’m not called to that sort of life, as some genuinely are, and I’ve always been certain that Christianity is a communal religion. As such, I need to be part of a worshipping community here in Norwich (as well as All Hallows); my faith is about me and God – that’s why I take personal prayer time, and that’s vital for everyone. But it’s also about us and God. It can’t just be me living in my own personal ‘God’ bubble, there has to be an ‘us’ as well, however that is expressed. I was once told that true hermits always have an outward focus: that while people are genuinely called to live a more contemplative, or hermit-style, life, it’s still about ‘us’ and God. For Gertrude and Dorothy that partly took the role of extending their love and care to M. Adele, as well as other Community members; what does it mean for you?