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Our first work started before the Community came into existence. The House of Mercy was founded by a group of Clergy in the Diocese (then including most of Norfolk and Suffolk); this was a place where fallen women could come to be trained in domestic service, and taught to live as Christians. [While some of the girls may have had illegitimate children, this was not the case for all of them; this was not a mother and baby home]. They were called ‘penitents’, not from any punitive motive, but because those who came were supposed to be penitent; sorry for what had gone wrong, and willing to change. I suspect that this was not always the case from the number of times the annual reports from our House of Mercy stress that it was not a reformatory, but a place where girls were willing to come. Some of the girls may well have done wrong; but, looking back with 21st century hindsight, I suspect that many of them were victims of their circumstances, or of abuse. Most were only in their teens, or early twenties, and the term ‘fallen women’ seems to stress a maturity which many of them may not yet have reached. But it was a place where they could come to find training, where they could find faith, where they could turn their lives around. It was not easy, and Lavinia Crosse, who took on the running of the House early on, felt it was best done by a group of dedicated women, and so she formed the Community of All Hallows, so the girls would be cared for by Sisters who had dedicated their lives to this work, although always alongside some paid members of staff. It was not easy work, and not all the girls made it through the two years they spent in the House. Those that did were found a position, and given a uniform that they could keep if they stayed in that job for a year. Some stayed in touch, and went on to live fulfilling lives, although not all could leave their pasts behind them. I wonder if there was a certain amount of shame attached to such a past as most of the girls came from, whether or not they were at fault, and however well or not they had transformed their lives, and I can only hope that many found forgiveness in the love of God, and did not need to carry such shame around with them for their whole life; shame that was unnecessary, for whatever they had or had not done when young, and however much they were or were not at fault, to completely change your life is hard work, and these girls deserve admiration for having done so.

These thoughts bring me to think of Mary, found to be pregnant before her marriage, and I wonder what her neighbours thought of the issue. Did they know, or did Joseph’s support cover up any possible scandal? But it must have taken a huge level of trust to say, as Mary did, ‘let it be to me according to your word’: before any discussion with Joseph, before any confirmation that she would be safe, before she had visited Elizabeth. She only had the angel’s word, and yet was still able to say ‘yes’ to something that could potentially have destroyed her life, and may well have involved a certain amount of gossip and shaming from her neighbours.

That trust would have continued throughout her life. The long journey to Egypt, escaping from Herod; the journey back again, trusting that the danger had gone. Indeed, trusting that this special son would come back to grow up in his own land. Were there long years of waiting, wondering whether Jesus would actually start his ministry, wondering what would happen? She had to trust herself, that God had chosen her wisely for this task. She had to trust throughout his ministry that Jesus knew what he was doing, although she may not always have succeeded (see that passage where they think he’s mad). She had, moreover, to trust that it wasn’t all coming to a bitter end, when her son died nailed to a cross. Did she at that point go back to those early years, and all that she had treasured in her heart? Did she feel the doubt and shame that may have followed her around? Was there gossip about her son’s origins, or about their long sojourn in Egypt? If so, she must have had to trust that she was going along the right path, that the angel had come to her; it must have been so easy so think she imagined it all. Those months she spent with Elizabeth may have been crucial.

M. Lavinia also had to trust in God. Our House of Mercy was helped by a group of subscribers who supported the work financially. After the Community was formed, a notice went out asking what the subscribers thought; thankfully, enough of them agreed, and one of the Clergy involved in the foundation became our first Warden. William Scudamore was Rector of Ditchingham, and he was a great support to M. Lavinia, whose early years in Community cannot have been easy. There was the move to Ditchingham to organise, when the first House proved to be unhealthy; there was money to raise, as the House was built in two stages due to lack of funds. Yet, at a time when all this was going on and there were still only two professed Sisters, M. Lavinia did not stand still, but reached out to start more work. An Orphanage for working class girls was founded in a cottage in Ditchingham; this grew to encompass an Orphanage for girls of the upper classes, and a cottage alongside it where working class girls could come. At a time when the House of Mercy was still unfinished, this building too was envisaged. In fact, the second part of the House of Mercy was dedicated at the same time as the Orphanage, in 1864. This is all the more impressive when you realise that, apart from one Sister who did not stay, the next Professions in the Community were not until 1867. She carried on, through all that, trusting that God was calling her to create this Community, trusting that he would support the work she was doing, at a time when Sisterhoods were still controversial.

For both Mary and M. Lavinia that trust in God may not have come fully formed but grown and developed as they started out in faith, and their trust may have deepened as God proved faithful. Not that it would have been easy for either of them. There may well have been moments when they wondered if God was faithful. One of our novices died in 1861, very early in our life, and several of our early Sisters died young; who can tell how M. Lavinia responded? Whether, as over the early years and professions didn’t come, she wondered as to the future? The girls in the House of Mercy may well have found the same: the faith that they were introduced to, or brought back to, during their time at the House may well have found a firm foundation there, but their subsequent lives would, I imagine, have given plenty of opportunities to continue in faith and trust and doubt in God. For doubt can also lead to a firmer faith. May we, too, learn to deepen our trust in God, wherever our lives lead us.

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