It always intrigues me when I come across a Sister who has left the Community, of whom there have been several since our foundation. When I first took over the archives, I found a photograph of Sr Sara – which was fine, except I’d never heard of a Sr Sara, and when I checked our ‘In Memoriam’ boards, she wasn’t on there either. Mentioning this to one of the older Sisters got the response ‘oh, she was Novice Mistress, her brother persuaded her to go to Rome’ [become a Roman Catholic]. Which does explain that one. She had been in the Community for over 30 years, and had spent much time at the House of Mercy. For other earlier Sisters who left, we have very little information. Sr Priscilla was professed in 1878, and in 1881 was at our farm. At one point, M. Lavinia’s letters place her in Norwich. I have a probable census record for her in 1891, boarding at a farm in Kent, which would imply she left between 1881 and 1891. I have even less information for Sr Emily, who was professed in 1877, and was at the House of Mercy in 1881, but I have (at the moment) nothing beyond that. Sr Elizabeth Ann was professed on the same day as Sr Emily, and also left. She, too, was at the House of Mercy in 1881, and was living at a house in Draper’s Lane [near the Convent] in 1891, as head of household but also as a Sister of Mercy, so still a member of the Community. I had no idea we had ever had a house on Draper’s Lane, nor is there any clue as to why, except that another Sister is there as a visitor, so I speculate that it may have been somewhere Sisters went for rest or retreat. Is it equally possible that it was somewhere that Sr Elizabeth Ann could be, part of Community, yet also apart from it?
There is no record (or none that I have yet found) as to why these Sisters left. In the 1901 Census, Sr Elizabeth Ann is at her sister and brother-in-law’s house, but by 1939 she is living with a family in Norwich, where she died in 1945. Sr Eleanor was professed in 1876, and again was at the House of Mercy in 1881, but subsequently left. I’ve only just realised, in typing this, that all three of these Sisters were at the House of Mercy in 1881, and then left. That may be coincidence, but it may not be. I can imagine any number of scenarios, but they would all be just speculation. However, one possibility may be to do with M. Lavinia’s aging and death (she died in 1890). These three Sisters would have been professed at a time of change for the Community. Initially, the House of Mercy served as our Community home as well as the work of the House. In 1876, building of the Community House (Convent) was started, and by 1881 only 7 Sisters are at the House of Mercy, under M. Lavinia, with a further 6 being at the Community House under M. Adele (more were elsewhere).
I don’t know the details of M. Lavinia’s illness – I believe she had cancer – although I know she wasn’t well before she died. But in the 1870’s, I can imagine her still being fairly fit, whereas this would have changed during the 1880s as her illness told on her. I’m not suggesting she wasn’t up to the job of leading the Community, but that leadership will have changed, and may well have engendered some uncertainty amongst the Sisters, especially those who may have been drawn in to Community through M. Lavinia. Many may well have worked through this; the death of the foundress was undoubtedly a marking point for CAH. But I wonder if others found themselves unable to manage the changing circumstances.
However that may be, it is certain that Sisters have always left our Community. The third Sister to be professed, Sr Frances, only stayed for about 7 years. Unfortunately, we have no surname for her, so I am unlikely to find out any more information about her. The reason these Sisters left the Community may be interesting, but it is not vital to the history of the Community. I suspect it was always inevitable that some Sisters would leave as the Community grew and established its character. What we cannot find out from the bare facts is what part the faith of these Sisters played in their decision. While at the time it may have been seen as a betrayal of their vows to God, it may also have been necessary to the development of their faith and their personalities that they moved on. Certainly it would not have been lightly undertaken. Yet there are always times in our lives when we need to move on, let go of what has gone in the past. For parents, this will happen as their children grow up and leave home. For the Community, there have been communal leavings as well: M. Lavinia’s death is an obvious one, and I suspect M. Adele’s was another. [M. Adele was her co-foundress].
There have been closures of work, and changes in our character. Most recently, our leaving of Ditchingham was a huge ‘moving on’, but a most necessary one. Moving on can be distressing, a time of grief, especially if some are readier to move on than others. Yet they can be a time of excitement and new life as well. It is a gift to be able to recognize when the time to move on has come; and it takes courage to persist in the face of possible criticism, as I suspect the Sisters mentioned above would have faced. Yet, ultimately, everyone suffers if the time is not seen, and the journey stalls. There is a quote from M. Lavinia, also found in a letter written after her death: ‘there is a Rock under the foundations of the life and work which changing circumstances cannot affect’. That is as true today as it was in 1890; and it is as true for all, as it is of our Community of All Hallows: for we are all part of the wider community of All Hallows, where those of us on earth are cheered on by those who have gone before; and underneath the changing circumstances of our lives, that Rock is there upholding us.