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Sister Priscilla Littlewood

“It will be a week tomorrow since I heard from you & I have had many anxious thoughts about you” writes M. Lavinia to an unknown Sister, who had decided to leave the Community. Having struggled with difficulties for a while, she had not been open about them with M. Lavinia, who might have been able to help. But as she says “what can I say now?” The letter continues “You have dismissed yourself from the Community – without any spiritual advice - & perhaps without any fear or realization, of there being two parties in the matter. If you really mean all you said, & now intend to act quite independently and unadvisedly – making your own plans etc. then I must desire you to send back your habit at once – you must not appear to be what you are not - & I cannot recognise you, nor allow you to be recognised, a day longer, as an All Hallows Sister…”. It seems this Sister had decided to leave, and not consulted M. Lavinia about how she was feeling. That M. Lavinia was concerned about her comes across in the letter; but she also cannot allow someone to be seen as a Sister of the Community who had put herself outside its’ structures. This would have been all the more necessary, as Sisterhoods were controversial in the nineteenth century.

Our records show seven Sisters left after profession while M. Lavinia was still alive (far more stayed) and this letter could have been written to any of them; there is no indication of a year on the letter. The comment about sending back the habit has made me wonder if it could have been Sr Priscilla, although there is only circumstantial evidence to support that. But let us start at the beginning of Priscilla’s story. Born in 1834, she was baptised in January 1835, where we are told her parents were Thomas Godden Littlewood and Emily Littlewood. In the 1841 census, Priscilla is at home in London with her parents and six siblings; she is the second youngest. Her father’s occupation is not readable, and he died later that year. This must have caused an upset, and I have no idea what the family’s income was like. The oldest siblings would have been 15, so old enough to work, although as Priscilla became a choir Sister, this is an indication of social status, and it is possible all the children were still at school. It is difficult to follow the family through the census years, but in 1851 both the younger children are away from home: Henry, the youngest, is in an Orphanage in London [he would have been eligible by having lost one parent], and would have been educated there; Priscilla is at Iveridge Hall in Yorkshire, as a scholar. I cannot find anything about this institution, but it appears from the census that it was a school; whether Priscilla was able to go as she had lost a parent, I am not sure. Be that as it may, at age 16, Priscilla was still in education. That she needed to earn her own living seems likely for she became a governess, and is working for a family in East Grinstead in 1861, and for the Frith family in Kensington in 1871. Another sister, Susannah, was living with an aunt in 1861 and in 1871 was living in Finchley, as a companion to a family there.

Whether Priscilla had no opportunity to marry, or whether she wasn’t interested, I do not know, but by 1871, in her mid-30s, it must have become clear that it was unlikely. However, she may have had thoughts in a different direction. I have no idea what the religious inclination of her family was, but the first Sisterhoods were founded in the 1840s, so the family may well have been aware of changes in the Church of England. Whether Priscilla had always had a wish to join a Sisterhood, or whether that possibility came as her life continued, I do not know. She may well have had no desire to spend the rest of her life as a governess, but she possibly also had a desire to serve God, and a call to join a Sisterhood. Be that as it may, she moved to rural Norfolk in the mid-1870s, possibly around the time of her 40th birthday, and became a Novice in the Community of All Hallows, making her vows in August 1878, and in 1881 is based at All Hallows farm (down the road from the Community House), with two other choir Sisters. At some point, she went to work in Norwich, which we know from M. Lavinia’s letters. (literally ‘S. Priscilla is at Norwich’). We do not know the year she left, but by 1891, she is a boarder in Kent, so some time in the 1880s seems likely. Her mother died in 1887, so it’s possible that prompted a change, or maybe Community life wasn’t working out as she thought.

It is clear from M. Lavinia’s letters that she truly cared about her Sisters, and was genuinely distressed when one left; especially when they left in the manner of the one the letter above is written to (who may or may not have been Priscilla). That she would have tried to help, had she been asked; and that, moreover, was clear that leaving CAH was a decision for both the Community and the individual. There may well have been circumstances when it was appropriate for a Sister to leave. But we have no knowledge of how, or why, Priscilla left. What did intrigue me was her occupation in the 1891 census: religious (crossed out). Religious is the term used for those who consecrate their lives to God, as Priscilla had done. Was she still part of the Community at this stage, but living apart? It appears probably not: in 1901, we find her boarding with another family in Hastings. Her occupation? ‘Sister of Mercy’ – as all CAH Sisters were (and still are). That she must have left by 1901 is certain; for some reason, she still saw herself as a Sister of Mercy, if no longer part of CAH. It is this that makes me wonder if the letter above was written to Priscilla: whether she had dismissed herself from the Community, but felt she was still a Sister, and therefore entitled to wear the habit. M. Lavinia was quite correct in asking for it back: Priscilla, if no longer a member of the Community, could not be identified with it in that way. How she lived as a Sister of Mercy, once she left, I have no idea. She may well have boarded with a local family, and worked in the local Church, and amongst the parishioners, and fulfilled her vocation in that way, or she may have felt freer to spend more time in prayer. Nowadays it would be possible for her to join the single consecrated life, but I do not know whether that was an option in the 1890s. Neither do I know for certain how Priscilla left the Community; it is entirely possible that the letter above was written to a different Sister.

The problem with this kind of research is seeing beyond what the facts express; we do have other resources, which give more of an insight into a Sister’s life, such as M. Lavinia’s letters – although they would be more helpful if she hadn’t had tended to address so many of them to ‘dear Sister’… How Priscilla saw her vocation, and how it developed are probably lost to history. That her identity changed as throughout her life is clear: from 20 or so years as a governess, to joining the Community of All Hallows, through leaving that Community but still – it is clear – seeing herself as a Sister of Mercy, one vowed to God, whether a member of a formal Community or not. Reading between the lines, it seems that Priscilla’s life was not easy. Her father’s death when she was still a child, her time as a governess (which may or may not have been work she was suited to; there would have been little choice), through whatever brought her to leave the Community. But we were never promised easy. Moreover, it is what lies beyond the facts that gives us life, makes us human; and what lies beyond the facts in Priscilla’s case may never be clear. But maybe that isn’t what is important. Priscilla left her own trace in history, but the trace she left in God’s story is more certain, and in God that will never be forgotten.

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