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Coincidences do happen, so when I saw that we had two Sisters with the same surname, I wondered vaguely if they could be related, but didn’t go any further. It wasn’t an unusual surname, and they weren’t in the Community at the same time. Sr Elizabeth Barter, the first Sr Elizabeth, died in 1882, and Sr Francisca Barter wasn’t professed until 1893. Sr Elizabeth was the daughter of the Revd Charles Barter of Sarsden, in Oxfordshire, whose sister, Mary, also became a Sister of Mercy in another order. Sr Francisca was a widow, who was born in China, and whom I first found in the 1871 Census, already a widow, and living in Hampshire with her daughter, Elizabeth Katherine Francesca Barter, aged 9 who was born in Natal, South Africa. At this point, Francisca was running a school, but in 1881 we find her with her daughter in London, living on the income from dividends etc. It is what happens next that made me re-think my earlier conclusion. In 1891, Elizabeth K. F. Barter is a Sister of Mercy with the same Community as Mary Barter. How likely is it that two of our Sisters, with the same surname, would both have close female relations who were Sisters of Mercy in the same Community? At that point, I went back to Charles Barter and his children. Could Francisca possibly the widow of one of his sons? Despite the difference in their time in Community, I realised that they were only nine years apart in age.

In 1841, the Reverend Charles Barter is already living in Sarsden with his wife, Elizabeth, and eight children; there was at least one more son, not there. That son, Henry. was later ordained and lived out his life in Oxfordshire with his family. The older two sons were more difficult to pin down. There seems to be no census data for the oldest son, also Charles, after 1841, nor for the second son, William, after 1851, when he is at Balliol College, Oxford. But if they were abroad – as Francisca’s husband was – then there wouldn’t be. The first possible clue actually came from Revd Charles oldest daughter, Catherine. Census data for her is patchy, too, but in 1871 she is in Oxfordshire running a school; living there is her ward Salome Welargo, who was born in Natal. (Salome has an interesting story of her own, if you want to google it). It is the first definite link between the Oxfordshire Barters and Natal. For the rest, I would have to search the newspapers; which produced the following information.

Catherine Barter went to Natal in 1852, where she seems to have been involved in missionary work; circumstances (not mentioned) brought her back to England in 1864, but she returned to Natal in 1880. Charles, the oldest son, seems to have spent most of his life in the colonies. I didn’t make notes of his career, but he was in Natal in 1852, when he published a book: ‘The Dorp and the Veldt, or six months in Natal’. That he settled there is definite, and he seems to have been closely involved in the development of the colony. (Colonisation, I am aware, is more controversial now, than it was then). He married twice, losing his first wife after only 3 months of marriage when she died after falling from a horse. But he wasn’t Francisca’s husband. William produced very little evidence at all, except one crucial bit: his death notice. William, the second son of the Revd Charles Barter of Sarsden, Oxfordshire, died in the February of 1862 after a fall from his horse while riding in dense fog. The date is appropriate: Elizabeth K. F. Barter was born in 1862, and we know that Francisca was a widow by 1871. Could the circumstances which brought Catherine Barter back to England in 1864 have been the need to support her widowed Sister in Law and niece on their journey to England? An England which I have no proof that Francisca had ever visited before then? That is pure conjecture. Although the death notice does not mention a wife and child, it is possible that, that William had married in Natal, and that Francesca was his widow. There is some confirming, but not definite, evidence of that. There is, also, the evidence of the names: the Reverend Charles Barter’s wife was called Elizabeth Catherine. Interestingly, Elizabeth K. F. was based both in 1891 and 1901 in an Orphanage run by her order in Christchurch, Hampshire, where her mother’s school had been based in 1871.

Be that as it may, by 1891, Francisca’s daughter is a Sister of Mercy, and in 1893, in her early 60s, Francisca made her vows in the Community of All Hallows. While I have not yet proved the link between our Sr Elizabeth and Sr Francisca beyond all reasonable doubt, I am certain that both Francisca and her daughter joined Religious Orders, although different ones. Why did Francisca come to us? I do not know; but I can speculate. It is possible that she had met her likely sister-in- law, our Elizabeth, and possibly attended her funeral in 1882. Did that start a process of thought? Moreover, I know that when M. Lavinia founded the Community, she wanted it to be available for women who were not strong enough to join stricter orders – which may or may not have included the order Mary and Elizabeth K. F. joined. But it does make it more likely that CAH would have looked sympathetically on a widow in her 60s, than some others might; and Francisca did have skills to bring to us. She had run her own school, and her own household, and had knowledge of life abroad. In the late 1890s, and in 1901, she is based in the Community House (later Convent). By 1904, she was the treasurer for the House of Mercy. She died in 1908, having spent 16 years in religion.

Francisca’s story brings us many conclusions. There is the linking of family relationships, and the priority of God’s call; there is the family we have by birth and marriage, but also the wider Christian family of which we are a part. But I want to concentrate on her life: she had been a wife and mother; she had run her own school; it wasn’t until her 60s that she joined CAH, and she spent her last years serving God in our Community. But only for 16 years. Many Sisters who joined younger, spent far longer with us. Indeed, the other two Sisters professed in 1893 were in religion for 56 and 61 years, an amazing amount of time and well worth honouring. But Francisca’s commitment is worth honouring too. She dedicated the last years of her life to God in our Community, which may well have been a struggle at times. The gifts she brought with her would have been different from those the other two Sisters brought, both in their mid-twenties when they joined. But those gifts would have been different, neither better nor worse. Maybe that is what we can take from Sr Francisca’s story: to simply honour the gifts of those who come to God, at whatever age or stage they come. Just as the owner of the vineyard paid all his workers the same, however long they had worked. (Matthew 20)

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Thank you so much for this which graced my inbox today and the lovely sepia photos of the Sisters - does anyone know when this was taken? I don’t think it’s as old as it seems. Blessings all xx

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