Walking through Norwich brings up regular links with our history; through streets where we had houses, past churches where we used to work, up Orford Hill, where there is a blue plaque on the house where John Greene Crosse, a Norwich surgeon, used to live. He was also the father of our foundress. Lavinia Crosse became Lady Superintendent of the Shipmeadow House of Mercy, a place where fallen women could come to be trained as Domestic Servants and taught to live Christian lives. Lavinia already had, I think, some thoughts of founding a Community, but also felt that this work was best done by dedicated Sisters, and she took her vows at New Year, at Midnight, 1855.
It must have been tough. Not only was the work at the House of Mercy hard, there was the Rule and life of the Community to form, and expansion in its work soon followed. What strikes me, going through our book of Professions, is how few Professed Sisters there were in the early years. M. Adele was made a Novice when M. Lavinia made her vows, so her Profession would have followed a year or two later. A Sister Frances was professed in 1862, but later left. The next Profession listed is Sr Mary Sophia in 1867, after which Professions follow regularly. But that is more than ten years after M. Lavinia founded the Community, and by which time the House of Mercy had moved to Ditchingham, and the Orphanage had been opened. These works were run in conjunction with paid staff, and there may well have been Novices coming and going, but it must have taken much faith to carry on with the Community, and grow its works, with so few Sisters.
That M. Lavinia was a woman of great faith is made clear in her letters, some of which survive, and which are full of spiritual and practical advice to her Sisters, as well as her friends. One letter advises on setting out accounts for the farm; some are letters of support and comfort after a Sister has lost a family member (‘God has you in His holy care & I know that His holy Arms are round about you’); others show the ability to be firm where necessary (‘you are not at the farm to please yourself’) and to give guidance in their work (‘God has called you to that work – partly no doubt to force you to rise up and meet all its requirements’). Some talk of the celebrations to come at Christmas, one suggests a trip out (‘it would brighten you up & I hope do a lot of good, both to mind, body & soul’); there is a plea to the Bishop to license their current Warden and a Chaplain for the Community, pointing out that he has the powers under the Private Chapel Act of 1871. [Originally our Warden was also Rector of the Parish; problems arose after his death, when services in the Sisters’ Chapel became very limited. M. Lavinia says that there is no discourtesy to the then Rector, but they didn’t feel able to appoint him as Warden.] They paint a picture not just of a woman of faith, but of a leader who cared for her Community, and for each Sister: one who was able to reprimand, but also to comfort; one who kept in touch with her Sisters when away, and who cared for them in their trials; who was able to be practical, and stand up for the Community where necessary.
Even the addresses add to that picture: many have nothing to say where they were written from but several are written from All Hallows, while one is written from Norwich, another from Cambridge and a third from Great Maplestead, both the latter being places where we worked for a short time; they give the impression that M. Lavinia didn’t just run the Community from Ditchingham but visited the places where the Community worked, supporting those Sisters who lived there.
M. Lavinia suffered illness in the last years of her life, although there is never a complaint in her letters, just an occasional comment (‘I am writing from the sofa – I sit up hardly at all & am still in my bedroom – but I am better – no pain at all – only so weak’). She died on the 26th June 1890. Maybe the last word should go to one of her correspondents, Lucy Hansell, written in a letter to M. Adele after M. Lavinia’s death: ‘I have been reading over many of the dear “Mother’s” letters to me. The same strain runs thro’ all of them –i.e. Love. Certainly “the Love of Christ” constraineth her’.