It is 1952: at Ditchingham the Community is led by Mother Flora, who was Reverend Mother for over thirty years; there are many Novices, with Sr Barbara (who died in 1991) making her vows in 1953, and Sr Daphne and Sr Violet making theirs the year after. St Michael’s Home is settling down in its relatively recent change as a Home for girls under the care of Social Services, and the School is continuing its work of educating girls; Holy Cross House opened as a Guest House the year before, and the Convent Cemetery was blessed the same year. The Warden’s Lodge was still a home for the Convent priest, and the three smaller houses [Lavinia House, St Edmund’s and St Fursey] did not exist. In the Convent, the embroidery room was still used for Embroidery, and the Stranger’s Refectory still existed; the Sister’s Garden was dominated by a huge tree, and the Sisters themselves wore black habits with veils, including starched veil linings. The Convent Chapel was smaller, with wooden gates at the entrance to Choir. The Mission House in Norwich was at Ber House (on Ber Street).
Fast forward to the late 1990s: St Michael’s has become a retreat house, and the school a Conference Centre; there are still Novices, although fewer of them. Holy Cross House still functions as a Guest House (although female guests no longer have to wear veils), but it is now joined by All Hallows House (purpose built, later renamed Lavinia House) and St Mary’s Lodge, in what was the Warden’s Lodge. (It had been used as the Junior School in between these dates). We wore blue habits and veils that were much more comfortable and practical (she says, having never worn the older ones). The Embroidery room has ceased to be such and has become the library, although we still rejoice in the beautiful embroidery done for Chapel by previous generations; the Stranger’s Refectory had become the Wafer Room [for making Communion wafers] many years before, and guests could now join the Sisters at their main meal. We even had sinks in our bedrooms, and some of them had radiators. The tree in the Sister’s garden had been split in two many years before, and converted into a rockery. As Sr Winifred Mary told the story, she remarked that the space would make a good rockery, and was told to get on and make one! The Convent Chapel is larger and lighter, thanks to the extension added in the mid-1950s, and the wooden gates have been changed to wire ones, and the wire ones removed leaving no formal barrier at all. Computers exist in the Convent office, which we now employ someone to run on our behalf. We still have a presence in Norwich, although no longer on Ber Street.
Fast forward again to 2018, and the Conference Centre still exists, although run separately from the Community; the Convent and what was St Mary’s Lodge have been taken over by Emmaus, and the Sisters are due to leave St Michael’s, where they have been living. So now we are further spread: in Norwich, Bungay and Isle of Mull, in Scotland. Some similarities still remain: both houses in Bungay and Mull take guests, and we still have a Sister in Norwich. In some ways, we have come full circle: the Mission House used to be the base for Sisters working in different parishes, and now we are dispersed we are again worshipping in different parishes, although not as ‘Parish Sisters’ as such. We have had no Novices for several years, but there will be a Clothing in 2022. We still wear blue habits, but most of us no longer wear veils, and we can wear ordinary clothes at times. We now use Computers, and have mobile phones. Whatsapp becomes increasingly useful as a means of staying in touch, and sharing photographs.
Change happens. For whatever reason, or whether the change is good or bad, it will always happen. I am sure there were many who saw our dispersal in 2018 as sad, yet it has brought new life, not just to the individual Sisters, but potentially to the Community as well. However we view change, and however we manage it (and it is not always managed well), change comes. It is necessary for any community that is not just going to stagnate. I am sure we can all see ways in which our lives and our culture has changed. The Church changes too, of necessity. Yet here, change should maybe not just happen, and we should maybe not just drift with the tide. We are gifted with the Holy Spirit, who can guide our changes, and help us to navigate new ways of being. As repeated history (and current controversy) shows, that is easier said than done. It is easy to say – and believe – that the Spirit agrees with our own views; it is also easy to use the phrase ‘counter-cultural’ to resist moving in the same direction as our wider culture. Yet, while the Church does have to counter some of our cultural ways of being, it can also learn from it, and we should not resist an open and honest look at what the world is telling us about our own ways of being.
I do not have any answers as to how we navigate all this – it would be so much easier if I did! The truth is that change can be difficult, and navigating it tortuous, even with the Spirit’s help. Help I suspect we do not find it easy to access. Be that as it may, there is one way in which I would like to suggest that we can navigate change, and that comes directly from the Bible: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and love your neighbour as yourself’. Both/and. We should not neglect love of God, nor should we imagine that our love of God gives us direct access to God’s wishes; neither should we neglect love of neighbour, especially when tempted to denounce those we see as ‘sinners’, those who disagree with us. Love may not make navigating change any easier, or help us to see the ways we should change any more clearly. Yet it may help us to keep our focus, and it may help us to continue in community with those we differ from.