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Mother Adele Leading Onwards

I have been able to discover many details about the backgrounds of some Sisters; others I can find only a little about, or occasionally enough to spark interest, but nothing further; some I can find absolutely nothing about at all – or, at least, not so far. Of these, possibly the most frustrating is M. Adele, M. Lavinia’s co-founder [both pictured]. She was present in the Community from its’ beginning in the 1850s, and an important influence on the Community’s development, but the earliest information that I can find about her is in the 1851 Census, where she is living in London, age 20, as head of household, with a servant and an older visitor. Born in Orbe, Switzerland in 1831, she was a British subject, although the census never states whether this was through her parents or not. Whether she was living independently while still under the age of 21, because her parents both died young, I don’t know; or whether they were still abroad; whether either or both parents were Swiss, or why they were in Switzerland then, I haven’t yet found out, if indeed the information still exists; or even, yet, who her parents were.

Clothed as a Novice when M. Lavinia made her vows, she was professed on the feast of the Annunciation in 1858, and would have been a significant figure in its’ early years. Her story also shows the limit of census data. While it is helpful, in M. Adele’s case she is always registered at Ditchingham, although we know she also spent time in our Norwich Mission House. It is quite possible she wasn’t always resident in Norwich during this time; one of M. Lavinia’s letters states that Sr Emmeline is to be Sister in Charge of the Norwich Mission House, under M. Adele, who was presumably not in Norwich permanently. In both the 1861 and 1871 Census, M. Adele is at the House of Mercy; in 1881, at the Community House as head (M. Lavina, still the Superior of the Community, was at the House of Mercy); and in 1891, after M. Lavinia’s death, at the Community House as M. Superior. Yet, even as Superior, she is on the electoral register for Norwich during the 1890s.

But we know more about M. Adele than we do many other Sisters. A gentle, artistic woman, she painted the east wall of St Michael’s Chapel, behind the altar; we knew the Swiss link, and she was apparently responsible for the dress of School Choir, a fact for which generations of School choir girls may or may not have been grateful. (With capes and frilly veils, they would have been fine in the 19th Century, but maybe less so in the mid-20th). While M. Lavinia was our founder, we have always been clear as well that M. Adele was her co-founder, and she must have been an important source of support for M. Lavinia, as well as for the early Sisters. She presumably had an influence on the way the work in Norwich developed, and possibly also life in the Community House, if (as the census records suggest) M. Lavinia stayed to run the House of Mercy, leaving M. Adele in charge of the Community House.

It would be interesting to know more about M. Adele’s background, whether any of this brought her to the House of Mercy, and to the Community; to know whether she knew M. Lavinia before she arrived, or whether their close connection was formed in the early years at Ditchingham. It would be worth knowing more about her faith, and how that influenced our work. Yet, her most valuable work for the Community we really do know about. She became the Community’s second Mother Superior, after M. Lavinia’s death, and it is that work, continuing to shape the Community after the death of the foundress, that may have played a vital part in the Community’s continued existence. Indeed, given that M. Lavinia’s health had been poor for some time, M. Adele may have been carrying some of that burden for a few years before she officially took it on. Several Sisters were Professed during her time as Superior, including two future leaders (M. Ann Mary and M. Louisa). That difficult, fragile work of leading the Community on after the death of its foundress fell to M. Adele, and she did it well, as the Community continued to thrive. It is not an easy thing to take on a leadership role from a much-loved predecessor; it must be more complicated if you are grieving that predecessor yourself. In the case of taking on the role from a founder, it is vital work, and necessary to do well; the character of the founder is important here, and I suspect that M. Lavinia’s ill-health may have made the transition easier. Nevertheless, we have reason to be grateful to M. Adele for the foundations she laid once she took on the leadership of our Community, foundations which may have made life easier for those who succeeded her as Superior, after she herself died after only six years in office.

It is so easy to hang on to the past, to a former leader, to an earlier way of doing things. That M. Adele was so much M. Lavinia’s second, had been in the Community from its’ beginnings, may have helped her succeed as our second Superior; yet the attitude of her Sisters must also have been part of this. An acknowledgement that M. Lavinia was gone, and M. Adele was now Superior; a support for someone taking on a role, after losing the person she had worked closely with for over 30 years. It is not always easy, and the whole Community were mourning for their foundress; they may have felt a little lost without her. Yet still, part of that mourning – whether the one who is gone has died, or only moved on – is to let them go, as the Community had to let M. Lavinia go, that M. Adele might truly lead the Community, as the person she was, not as M. Lavinia might have done it.

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