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Sr Rosanna - Status?

Labelling people by their occupation or apparent status in life can be very easy, but it can also falsely limit our understanding of them. Sr Rosanna’s story is a case where the usual labels do not fit. The distinction between lay and choir Sisters goes back to our foundations, as far as I am aware, and was ended in the 1940s. It is not always easy to work out why a Sister became lay or choir, though; there is some class distinction, but this is not always definite. Many choir Sisters were clergy daughters, which does confirm that these Sisters were of a certain social status. Sr Rosanna was the granddaughter of a clergyman, but she became a lay Sister. Why?


Well, I cannot be certain, but I can make some guesses. Rosanna Brereton was the daughter of Edward and Ann Brereton, of Framsden, Suffolk. Edward’s father, Thomas, was the vicar of Framsden; Ann was Edward’s second wife, his first wife Maria having died in 1847 aged 28. Edward had a number of children by both wives, although I am uncertain of the exact number, as some of Maria’s children appear to have lived mainly with their grandparents. In 1841, Edward and Maria and (probably) their children are living with his father; by 1851, he has moved out and is living elsewhere in Framsden with Ann, as well as some of his children by both marriages. His occupation is ‘clergyman’s son’, which I take to mean that Thomas was supporting him. Thomas’s death in the late 1850s would have changed this, and in 1861, Edward and Ann are living in Ipswich with 9 children, where Edward is working as a wool stapler’s assistant; the oldest 2 children are Maria’s. Rosanna is the second child of Edward and Ann, and was born in 1850. Ann Brereton died in 1867, aged 34; Edward, who was older than Ann, may have died in 1869, although I cannot confirm that. But it does explain what seems to have happened next.


The death of both parents, while some of the children were still quite young, would have caused problems, especially as Edward’s income seems to have been limited. Rosanna had joined the Community by then, having been clothed in 1868; this may have had some influence on the future of the others. Edward and Ann’s oldest daughter, also called Ann, applied for a marriage licence in 1869; her residence was Ditchingham. It is possible that the Community helped the family; one of the youngest children, Maria, is found in the 1871 census also resident at Ditchingham, as an Industrial pupil at the Orphanage. Industrial pupils were working class girls, who were educated and trained for domestic service; I cannot guarantee that this Maria is Rosanna’s sister Maria, but the age and place of birth fit, so it seems likely. Meanwhile Ann had married one George Heathcote, whom she may have known from Ipswich; he was much older than her, and in 1871, they are found in Ipswich with two servants: Maria J Brereton, aged 17, and Hannah Brereton, aged 12. Both were born in Framsden, and both may well have been Ann’s sisters. She had sisters by that name, but Hannah’s age in this census doesn’t fit with her age in 1861. I cannot trace most of the other children, although there were other family members who might have cared for them.  


So, did the family slide down the social scale? Or am I reading the facts wrongly? And why did Rosanna become a lay Sister, not a choir Sister? The latter question would be much easier to answer had we some documentary evidence for how these decisions were made, but the earliest I have found dates back to the twentieth century. It may well have been linked to education as well as class. But, for whatever reason, Rosanna was a lay Sister. As such, she had a four-year Novitiate, and was professed on St Matthew’s day in 1872. We have census data for her time in Community covering every year between 1871 and 1921. In 1871, as a novice, she was working at the Orphanage, where she may have been able to support her younger sister, Maria. With the exception of 1891, when she is at the Community House, Sr Rosanna is at the Orphanage (pictured, 1900s) in every census. Although by 1921, the Orphanage had become a school, it was the same institution. It seems she spent most of her life working there.


As a lay Sister, she would have said fewer Offices, and had less time for prayer than choir Sisters. Lay Sisters were not members of Chapter, although Sr Rosanna would have been one of those granted a vote in the election of the Reverend Mother in the 1920s (this fact is based on my memory). Sr Rosanna spent 66 years in religion, which is the time in Community taken from the date of her Clothing. She died on January 12th 1934, at 5am at All Hallows Hospital, run by the Community in the village of Ditchingham. Her funeral was four days later on the 16th. I know nothing about Sr Rosanna’s personality, nor the work she did at the Orphanage. Reading very much between the lines, she seems to have been a dedicated woman, who worked steadfastly for those girls in the Orphanage. There are other Sisters who were in the Community for over 60 years, but very few. Her near contemporary, M. Mary Rose, was also in religion for 66 years.


What is the truth of Sr Rosanna’s status in life? Does it matter? I don’t think I will ever know the answer for sure, not unless someone else knows more than I do. But I also do not think it is vitally important. The central fact is that Sr Rosanna served her God in the place to which she was called. I have no doubt that this brought its’ frustrations. But, ultimately, Sr Rosanna was a child of God; that is the only status which matters.

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