It was quite exciting, getting back to the library to access one of those ancestry websites on their computers. For various reasons, I hadn’t done since this since before the Pandemic started. Yet that sense of searching for the stories of our past Sisters remains stimulating, and it never fails to move me to further research. Even basic information from the census can add to our picture of a Sister’s life; where and when was she born, what houses she lived in, who was head of household. Looking through the list, it is very varied: from well-known figures like M. Lavinia, M. Adele and Sr Amy, through others lesser known like Sr Constance and Sr Lucy, from previous Reverend Mothers, to lay Sisters such as Sr Rosanna and Sr Maria, others whose names attract attention as they replicate later Sisters, such as the first Sr Matilda and the first Sr Margaret.
The first Sr Margaret was born in Canada, professed in June 1881 and died in January of 1883, in her 50s. How she came to Ditchingham from Canada is unknown (I’m assuming it was a link with the houses we had in Canada at the time, but I may be wrong), or what she did when she was here. The 1881 census has her at the Community House [early name for the Convent], where she may or may not have stayed for the remainder of her life. In the Community House at the same time a Lilias Dickenson was staying as a visitor. She later joined the Community as a Choir Sister, being professed in 1884, and is listed at the Community House in the 1897 electoral register. She left in 1899; again we know no reasons. We do have a probable photograph of her in a group. (It’s labelled Sr Lilias? to which a more recent Sister has added ‘yes! look at her face, she left’ or words to that effect. The Sister concerned looked very miserable – see the middle seated Sister in the group photograph).
Others I have found more about. Sr Adeline was professed the year after Sr Lilias, also as a Choir Sister. [The distinction between Choir and Lay was later ended.] She was born in Westminster, and spent some time living in Holy Cross House as Sister in Charge of the Third Order, which she seems to have had two stints at. What is also intriguing is when I discover information about their lives prior to joining the Community. The second Sister Elizabeth was Professed in 1893. To my joy, I discovered her on the 1891 Orphanage census as a governess. She was only 21 at the time, and was one of two governesses listed, presumably employed by the Community to supplement the work of the Sisters, as only two Sisters worked there at the time. Sr Elizabeth was born in Llandough, Glamorgan, and I can only assume that it was her position as governess that drew her to join the Community. Or was it her desire to join the Community which led her to take the position as a governess first? She died in 1948, and Sr Violet can remember her as an elderly Sister (something about coming round the corridors rather fast, if I remember correctly).
Sr Constance, we knew, spent some years as Sister in Charge of the Orphanage, and, indeed, I find her listed as such in the 1891 census. She was also there in the 1881 Census, although not in charge but as a novice (presumably: she was professed in 1883), and is also found there in various electoral registers in the 1890s. Yet she also spent some time as Assistant Superior, an obviously capable Sister, whom there is more to discover. Sr Constance was a local woman, being born in Gorleston, and another local Sister was Sr Lucy, who was born in Gaywood, Norfolk in 1841. She was another leader, being elected Reverend Mother after M. Adele’s death in 1896. It may have been a shock when she died only three years later in 1899, while only in her 50s. Also local, being born at Framsden in Suffolk, is Sr Rosanna, who spent some time at the Orphanage; far from local, coming from Northumberland, is Sr Jane, who is found at the House of Mercy in 1881, and later at the Community House. She was also the recipient of three letters from M. Lavinia, while she was away nursing her mother.
There is Sr Emilie, born in London, who spent many years in Mission work, and as Parish Sister for St Julian’s and St Peter Parmentergate, who died in 1969 aged 96, having been professed in 1902; Sr Mary Katherine, who was Professed in 1905 and died in 1913, about whom I have discovered no information at all (yet). Then there is Sr Althea, working as a teacher at our school in Canada, from where she joined the Community, being professed in 1906. I believe she did go back to Yale to work at some point, although by 1918, shortly before the Canadian work closed, she is at the Community House. She later became Sister in Charge of the House of Mercy. In March 1930, she had a severe operation, having been ill since Christmas, from which she did not recover. She died on April 5th 1930, in the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital. The following appreciation of her was printed in the House of Mercy Annual Report, written by a member of the Council who oversaw the work:
[expressing] our heartfelt appreciation of the life and work of Sister Althea, and of all she has been to the House of Mercy and its successive inmates during the years she has been in charge. At our Council Meetings she was always a very real help to us in our decisions on matters of finance, etc., and her loving care for the great work entrusted to her was evident in all she said and did. The gap she leaves in the Community’s work for the master here will indeed be hard to fill, but we can all thank God in the sure and certain hope that she has joined that greater Community of blessed ones of whom it is written that ‘their works do follow them’.
While census information and the such like add to our knowledge of our past Sisters, and while we can read between the lines to a certain extent, it is comments like this which really round out our picture of them, their faith and their dedication to their work. There are similar passages about other Sisters elsewhere; the only early Sisters that we have personal reflections from are M. Lavinia and M. Adele, from whom we have several letters. Yet all these Sisters lived their lives serving their Lord – even, I suspect, Sr Lilias, who left. While I have no information as to her reasons for leaving, and while it would have distressed the Community at the time, there is no reason to think that leaving meant she couldn’t continue serving God in a different capacity. However much I do, or don’t discover about our former Sisters, it is a reason to rejoice that they served God as they could, and an encouragement to us to continue in the same.