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Ascension Day 1869 would have been one of great rejoicing in our Community, for it was the day a Sister made her vows. Not only was Sr Martha only the eighth Sister to be Professed, she was also the first lay Sister to take her vows. It may have been all the more joyous as our records show that another Sister, Sr Frances, left that same year. Sr Martha had not been the first woman to offer herself as a lay Sister in the Community, as Sr Rachel, who died in 1861 while still a novice, had been a lay Sister; and there may well have been other women, who became novices who didn’t stay. But Sr Martha did stay; as the first Professed lay Sister, she may well have formed a path for those who followed her. The difference between lay Sisters and choir Sisters was largely one of class, although I gather there was some flexibility, and different Communities had different ways for deciding who became a lay or choir Sister. Whether the women themselves had any choice, I am uncertain. Being a lay Sister was not an easy option: it gave you no place in Chapter (the governing body of the Community), and lay Sisters did not even have a vote for who became the Reverend Mother until the 1920s. However, Sr Martha would never have the experience of any Mother except for M. Lavinia, our foundress, as she died on the 9th December 1869, only months after her Profession.


Apart from her surname, that is all the information we have about her: Sr Martha Rudd, professed on the feast of the Ascension 1869, died on 9th December 1869. I have since found her burial record, which shows that she was buried on December 14th 1869, age 36. The service was taken by William Scudamore, then Rector of Ditchingham, and also our Warden. It also states that she was one of the Sisters at the House of Mercy. This does not even tell us where she worked: while it is entirely possible that she did work in the House of Mercy, in the 1860s and early 1870s, the House of Mercy was also our Community Home. It was not until 1876 that a separate home for the Sisters was built, after which only Sisters working at the House of Mercy actually lived there. For a woman who may well have had some influence over how lay Sisters worked and lived within the Community, very little is known about her. I don’t even know where she was born, as she was not present in the Community during a Census year.


But I do know when she was born: aged 36 at her death in 1869, she must have been born in 1833, or later in December 1832. This does give me something to explore when trying to find out more about her past. How many women called Martha Rudd born in about 1833 were there in the 1861 Census? Well, there were a few. It is complicated by the fact that I do not know whether Sr Martha was single or a widow; however, I have managed to eliminate those women who were married in 1861. I have also eliminated Martha Rudd, born in Ince, Lancashire the daughter of William and Mary Rudd; I think she was still living there in 1871. That seems to reduce the possibilities to two: Martha Rudd, living in Edmonton, Middlesex, with her brother John W Rudd (assistant clerk in the vice Chancellor’s chambers) and her sister Emma S Rudd; or Martha Rudd domestic servant staying in Marylebone with Jane and Sarah Cox, both laundresses, along with Sarah Rudd, also a domestic servant and possibly Martha’s sister. Either Martha could be possible. The former was born in Bloomsbury, the latter in the City of London. But as I haven’t got our Martha’s place of birth, that is not helpful. What happened to them next?


Well, the short answer is, I don’t know. John W Rudd seems to have died in 1866, the year after Emma married John Higgs. Martha is not present with her sister in any census; Emma herself died in 1900. But I can find no definite trace of this Martha, nor of either Martha and Sarah Rudd, domestic servants. Their history is also much more ragged. A Martha and Sarah Rudd of about the right ages are living in St Giles in the Fields in 1841, with several others, many with different surnames. In 1851, a Martha Rudd is a servant with an ironmonger’s family. The history of the other Martha Rudd and her siblings is much easier to pin down. The children of James and Elizabeth Rudd, James was a barrister’s clerk, and they also had another sibling, Mary Ann Rudd, who I think married in the 1850s. James and Elizabeth had both died by 1861, which is why the three remaining siblings were living together.


But I can trace neither Martha Rudd in the 1871 Census; one of them was presumably our Martha, although even that I could not say for certain. Some Sisters used their middle names, for one reason or another, and if Sr Martha did the same, she may well be registered in the 1861 Census under her first name. It is extremely frustrating to admit, but unless there is further information hidden away somewhere, then I will never know for certain who exactly Sr Martha was. Not even her death certificate will help, as places of birth weren’t included until 1969. But while being able to know these facts for certain is useful, it strikes me that not knowing can also be helpful. Even knowing the bare facts gives us little insight as to what a person was like; and living a life of certainty, where we know and can predict our lives, may feel easier, but is also more limiting. To live our lives acknowledging the unknown and the uncertainties may be more stressful, but it also opens up more possibilities; it allows for changes of perspective when the unknown comes along and hits us. To live a life of faith in the living and loving God must be to live a life where unknowns are not only acknowledged but fully lived. For who can say they know the mind of God in its entirety? At the beginning of a new church year, and as we enter the season of waiting, maybe we can open ourselves up to the unknown and surprising and see where it takes us; allow our faith to dwell in the unknown-ness of our God, as well as in the certainty of God’s love, and see if the unknown will lead us deeper into faith.


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