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Priscilla Lydia Sellon

London: The Catholic Literature Association, 1933.

OF all the works of the Catholic Revival in the English Church, none is more wonderful than the growth of the religious orders. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, nothing could have seemed less likely than the recovery of the religious life of our Church. The nation as a whole was deeply submerged in the stupid superstition which supposes that a religious order is necessarily a plot against either liberty or morals. The removal of a prejudice so mountainous, the recovery of a tradition so lost and forgotten, involved high daring, saintly patience, and unswerving faith. It involved the endurance of scurrilous detraction and open attack. When we reflect upon the inestimable blessings bestowed upon England by the orders which have arisen since the Oxford Movement recalled our Church to a consciousness of her true nature and heritage, we are moved to sincere gratitude. But those who did the work have seldom filled the air with the sound of their names, and many Anglo-Catholics of this generation have little knowledge of those who laid the foundations. The name of Miss Sellon may convey little to the present generation, but no celebration of the centenary of the Oxford Movement would be complete unless some honour were paid to her memory. She was the one woman publicly associated with the Catholic Revival in its early years--for in those days there was little scope for the public expression of a woman's talents, and we have to recall the fact that an English Catholic was as bold and determined a pioneer in this field as Harriet Martineau. She was the true foundress of the women's orders which now grace and serve our Church. And her character shines with a beauty that, as we recover her story, awakens answering love in our hearts. It may be claimed without the least exaggeration that her work entitles her to a conspicuous place in the history of the English Church in the nineteenth century.

Priscilla Lydia Sellon was born in 1821, and grew to womanhood during the years in which the reverberations of Tracts for the Times were echoing in every English parish. Her father was Commander Richard Baker Sellon, R.N., the son of Thomas Smith, receiver general to the dean and chapter of St. Paul's (the name of Sellon was adopted in 1847 in connection with a family inheritance). Priscilla's mother died shortly after the child's birth, and her father married again. The household seems to have been happy. Priscilla, as we shall see, was a beloved member of the family, exercising a great influence in the home. Indeed, another daughter of Commander Sellon, a step-sister of Priscilla, joined the order which Miss Sellon founded in later years.

In the controversies which broke out in connection with her work, the Commander took up his daughter's defence with great spirit, and we owe to him a fine tribute to her character. 'She was' he says, 'from a child a most gentle and kind creature, most tractable, loving and engaging. In her own family these qualities endeared her to every member. It was to her that every little trouble was brought, it was with her that every little joy was shared; whilst persons many years her senior, friends and neighbours, consulted her in any difficulty because they found in her a mature judgment, a ready ear, and a sympathetic heart.'

In this testimony we see evidence of Miss Sellon's natural leadership, a gift that would not be gainsaid. But we see also a heart endowed with human sympathy, which, enriched by a passionate love of our Lord, was to prompt her in those works of heroic mercy which she performed in later days. But already, in her measure, she was blessed among women, and waited to know what service God required of her. Her father possessed a comfortable income. She was accustomed to circumstances of ease, but she had been trained in habits of independence, and behind her kindliness there was a growing desire for action, an urgent yearning for some service. And there was nothing to do. For a woman in her station there was no career, no profession, no way of going into the world and sharing the world's burden. She must either marry, or decline upon a sheltered and irrelevant spinsterhood. The second alternative was, at all events, obnoxious to her, and she was about to leave the country when she was arrested by Bishop Phillpotts' appeal for churches and workers in Plymouth. It was on New Year's Day, 1848, that she received, to quote her father's words, 'a genuine call from God.'

The bishop's appeal was specially for assistance in the education of poor children, and Miss Sellon prepared to devote herself to this work, offering her-services to Mr. Kilpack, the first incumbent of St. James', Plymouth. The conditions in the poorer quarters of Plymouth in the late ' forties ' of last century must have seemed appalling to this young lady newly come from a life of refined comfort; but she attacked her task with eager spirit. She established a free industrial school for girls, and a night school for boys from twelve to sixteen years of age. She opened a school for starving children, and a home for the orphans of sailors. To this work she added yet more, for she concerned herself with the needs of female emigrants. Certainly, a paid mistress might reasonably have refused to attempt the educational work which Miss Sellon actually did, instructing one hundred children during the day, teaching at night school, frequently from seven o'clock until ten o'clock, and preparing candidates for Baptism and Confirmation. Carried forward by the joyous fascination of her work, she regarded a sixteen hours' day as a light one.

She was not long left to labour alone. Other ladies joined her, and followed her leadership, and a Sisterhood was formed, living by a simple oral rule, wearing a plain black dress and a black wooden cross--necessary for safety in the stews of Devonport, where their work now chiefly lay. They called themselves ' The Society of the Sisters of Mercy of the Holy Trinity, of Devonport.' The simple story of these humble origins is surely as moving as that of St. Theresa and her discalced Carmelites. Here was a gentle wind of the Spirit stirring in a valley of dry bones, and a dead thing was being reborn; an impossible thing was becoming possible. And here, as in so many fields, the Catholic Revival arose in a pitying love for God's poor--for the battered and betrayed crowds of England who had found few friends or protectors in all the Protestant centuries. The existence and work of the Sisters of Mercy aroused the enthusiasm of Dr. Pusey. 'The works of mercy opened at Devonport,' he declared, 'embrace the whole range of which our Blessed Lord speaks relatively to the Day of Judgment. There are thousands of little ones to receive in his name--and with them to receive him; hungry and thirsty in whom to find him, and give him drink; strangers in whom to take him in, and sick in whom to visit him.' Upon these earnest and devoted women, doing work that few indeed would dare to do, storms of abuse were soon to break. But Dr. Pusey remained their firm friend. Upon the occasion of Miss Sellon's death, The Times published an obituary notice, recalling in mild words those angry assaults. 'This novel ex periment of a community of English Sisters,' said The Times correspondent, with rules . . . and certain outward peculiarities of dress, unavoidably bearing some relation to those of a conventual life, was at that time looked upon with suspicion, as having necessarily something to do with the Church of Rome.' But Pusey had long since defended the Sisters upon this score. 'Who,' he had asked, 'will grudge these Christian women their black wooden crosses, to assure the poor people that their visitors are not come curiously to pry into their distress, but on their Saviour's message of love?' After the Sisterhood was founded, the work proceeded upon the lines originally laid down by the foundress. Miss Sellon used her own money to purchase tenements which she let at a low rental, only requiring the elements of a moral life from her tenants. Intensely aware of the danger of a large number of idle women in a neighbourhood like Devonport, she sought to discover healthy employment for any woman who desired it, and she established a printing press run by women. This work of the Sisterhood was vitally necessary. At this time, seven priests were attempting to serve a population of forty thousand, apart from the ever-shifting population of the docks, with all its potentialities of vice and misery. Newman, in his Anglican days, had remarked upon Pusey's desire to establish Sisters of Mercy, and himself had expressed the opinion that 'such institutions are the only means of saving many of our best members from turning Roman Catholic.' The work of the Sisters in Devonport was a sign that the Catholic soul of the English Church was awaking to the reality that was England, and that works of Catholic charity were once again being done in the land.

Amongst the poor of Plymouth and Devon-port they met with an immediate and astonishing success, and they effected a real reformation. Pusey was told by one observer: 'I know Morice Town well--it is so changed that I would not say one word against the place for fear I should be fighting against God.' But their task was soon heavily increased and their courage tested to the utmost by the great cholera scourge of 1849. They immediately offered their services in the areas worst affected. The vicar whose parish was most sorely smitten was the Rev. G. R. Prynne, and he was at first inclined out of kindness to refuse their services. It seemed unthinkable that English ladies should be asked to deal at close grips with this horror.

But Miss Sellon was not easily to be turned from such work. 'We are no ordinary women,' she told the vicar. He pondered a moment, then said, 'Follow me.' They followed him into the midst of the plague. His curate, who shared in the work, and who, as a doctor, had seen the ravages of cholera in Bristol, London, and Paris, wrote later: 'I have beheld many acts of self-devotion to its sufferers and victims, yet never have I witnessed anything that surpassed or even approached that self-abandonment and self-sacrifice of these humble Sisters.' Teaching the children, making homes for the homeless, finding work for the workless, succouring the lost and fainting, facing brutality and squalor every day, and ministering to the victims of a foul disease at the imminent risk of their lives, the Sisters of Mercy asked for no praise; but they deserved at least freedom from abuse. This, however, they were not destined to receive.

It was not, indeed, to be expected, in face of the vast Protestant misconceptions and prejudices, that their splendid labours would remain unhampered. Soon the Sisterhood was not only fighting for the lives of others, but was compelled to contend for its own life. The ignorant and the mischievous were early at work. Many of the clergy were admirers of, and fellow-workers with, the Sisters; but the hatred conceived for them by the vicar of St. Andrew's led to a long battle. He had for allies a local solicitor and the proprietor of two local newspapers, and the opposition was thus possessed of powerful weapons. Statements concerning the private lives of the Sisters were extorted from three little girls of the orphanage, and the garbled version which was put before the public came to the notice of the bishop. The Sisters were also associated with the 'ritualistic excesses ' of Prynne, 'who,' said the militant, 'bowed at the name of Jesus, turned east, and preached in a surplice.' It was discovered that the Sisters addressed Dr. Pusey, their spiritual director, as 'father,' had a daily celebration in their chapel, on some occasions had provided for sick Communion, and practised confession. According to the evidence, 'Fridays and Wednesdays were called festival days,' when no work was done. Lastly, the Sisters had owned to saying Lauds. Full of righteous indignation at these enormities, the Press clamoured for the suppression of the Sisterhood.

This caused Bishop Phillpotts to hold an inquiry, the result of which was awaited by Pusey with great anxiety. The bishop, however, was quite unequivocal in his verdict. He rated the opposition, and went away, he said, 'with a feeling that he could not express--of admiration and reverence, of unmixed admiration.' Pusey was overjoyed. But the storm did not subside. Plymouth was filled with a pamphlet warfare, in the course of which scandalous though ludicrous suggestions were made about Dr. Pusey and Miss Sellon. Eventually, the bishop thought it tactful to resign his position as visitor, and an evil tongue secured the withdrawal of the Queen's patronage.

The fray was now entered by champions from distant places, foremost amongst whom was the Rev. Mr. Spurrell, vicar of Great Shelford, near Cambridge, whose pamphlet reveals the narrow-mindedness of the opposition, but is valuable as indicating the connection of Miss Sellon's workers with the Catholic Revival, and as testifying, in spite of everything, to the greatness of Miss Sellon herself. This much-scandalized vicar procured his evidence as to the Romanizing tendencies of the Sisters from an ex-novice, 'the daughter of a peeress' who had found life in the Devonport slums less rosily romantic than she had anticipated. Miss Sellon, as Spurrell admits, denied any enmity to the 'British Church'; she also pleaded ignorance of Roman orders and their ways of life, and her letters, which he quotes, show that she strenuously upheld the Anglican traditions. The 'nun-like' Sisters, however, seriously disturbed the peace of the vicar in his distant parish. He found that they advocated saying Hours, had a cross on their Communion table; they had pictures and candles, a daily celebration, a midnight Mass at Christmas. They used rosaries, and made their confessions to Dr. Pusey, who gave them penance and absolution. Much of his tirade is the mere rubbish of gossip; for example, he has heard that for a penance Dr. Pusey caused the Sisters to trace the sign of the Cross with their tongues on the chapel floor! He does concede some grudging praise for the work done by the Sisters, but he complains, upon the evidence of 'the daughter of a peeress' that 'these young ladies, brought up in the refinements of polite life, had to do menial work--the occupation of domestic servants.'

Even in this extravagant and partial account Miss Sellon appears in her dealings with the young lady as a courageous and single-minded person, with a good deal of kindness, tact, and common sense. But she never allowed her natural kindness to obscure her purpose, and the carping criticisms of Mr. Spurrell, though he had the advantage of the evidence of 'the daughter of a peeress,' will convince no fair-minded reader that Miss Sellon was other than perfectly straightforward.

She herself was a stranger to the spirit of bickering controversy, and bore these provoking attacks with true Christian charity. But the Bishop of Exeter insisted upon her replying to Spurrell's accusations, and she thereupon gave a categorical answer, denying the false, accepting the true, justifying her position and practices, and overwhelming Mr. Spurrell with a display of knowledge and an evidence of character beyond his power to refute or put down.

She explained the organization of the Sisters in three orders: (i) Those in community, working amongst the poor, in the active life; (2) those who through sickness were compelled to play the part of prayer and study; (3) a secular branch for those in the world. She defended her practice. Spurrell had asked, 'What know we of the sign of the Cross being a sacramental symbol in which lieth deep mystery?' She referred him to the Canons, St. Cyril, Tertullian, and Hooker. Spurrell had sneered at prayers for the dead. She quoted him the judgment in Breeks v. Woolfrey. She pointed out that there was nothing against having pictures and candles. She admitted the use of confession, but denied enforcing it, saying that she refused to forbid what was allowed by her Church. And 'it is not Popish,' she declared, 'to express the desire that a person may be guarded by the holy Angels.'

She reiterated her veneration for, and adhesion to, the English Church. 'I am ignorant,' she says, 'of the present divisions. The Church of England is my mother Church, and I love her with a pure and hearty love. What she has taught, that I have received. What she has allowed, that I have not refused. What she has forbidden, that I have not looked into.' She defends herself with fine dignity. She respects Mr. Spurrell's religious convictions, reserving her attack for his petty proprieties. She will not allow that it is 'awful mockery for her to wash her Sisters' feet, as Christ had himself done and enjoined. She told her father that 'menial work' was 'merrier and pleasanter work than writing.' She calls to Mr. Spurrell's mind the day when there will no longer be any 'refinements of polite life' when only the great realities of life will remain, and quotes Isaiah for his edification.

He had been witty upon the subject of the late hours kept by the Sisters; but Miss Sellon hushed his humorous tongue. 'I recollect' she says, 'passing through one of the very worst parts of a seaport town. It was midnight. I had had an urgent message from a dying woman. A person started forward and seized my dress. The dim lamplight fell upon my wooden cross. "You are a Sister of Mercy?" "Yes. Can I do anything for you?" "Promise me, if I am ill, you will come to me." "I do promise."'

'Our English poor' she continues--'and let it be recollected that they are the proper judges of what we do, since it is amongst them and for them that the Sisters live--our English poor do not think it strange to see us anywhere at any hour. ... I am sure they would protect us if necessary. I have often known the voice of the blasphemous hushed as we passed.'

An old sailor who heard of the attacks was indignant, and having vented his feelings, said to a Sister, ' Well, God bless you, and never mind what the world says of you.' And there can be no doubt that Miss Sellon's confident appeal to the verdict of the poor was justified.

She ends her pamphlet with a fine appeal for peace in which to carry on her work. 'When the fever of life has subsided, there is nothing worth a thought but the love of Jesus, and of each other; there is no room then for thoughts of dissension and disunion ... all is hushed, and the vision of the Church as she is, the body of Jesus, militant on earth, triumphant in heaven, with her glorious Head, fills the mental sight.'

This noble appeal failed to arrest a ferocious attack. The Rev. Hobart Seymour, suiting his language to his audience at Bath, called Miss Sellon 'unladylike,' 'a petty despot,' and represented her as a 'crafty old owl' having the Sisters, 'poor little mice,' in her claws. (All the Sisters were older than Miss Sellon, and had recently presented her with a glowing testimony of their devotion in a long address.) A Miss Campbell perpetrated a number of lies about the interior conditions of the Sisterhood. The Rev. William Colles, another enemy, declaimed, 'God forbid we should stop the flow of Christian charity; but we must protest against the system of drawing young ladies away from their homes.' These agitators, never themselves in the slums, paid men to perambulate Devonport with placards round their hats bearing the words 'Unheard-of cruelty.' They tried to incite the populace to break up the home. But even at this prospect Miss Sellon did not quail. 'Our work,' she said, 'is still before us, a work the greatest, the best, the sweetest--the work of alleviating suffering, of soothing pain, of speaking comfort to the aching heart. If the poor no longer come to us, we can still go to them, we can still help the desolate and speak to them in the name of Jesus.'

She could afford to be indifferent to small slanders. Her Sisters had just recorded for the world's eye their regard for her. 'We would express to you' said their address, 'our deep gratitude and unshaken confidence and affection towards yourself--gratitude for the laws and government which you have formed for the Society; confidence, because you have preserved those laws unchanged, whilst the government by which you maintain them is gentle and loving.' They paid a great tribute to her personal character. 'The wise and inflexible guardian of our laws, our tender and loving Superior and Mother, our guide and leader, our counsel and our help in difficulties, our comfort in trouble and our refreshment in toil, the sharer of our sorrows, our defence when attacked, ever self-sacrificing, ever self-forgetful. We speak as individuals, though we speak unanimously.'

Commander Sellon wished his daughter to reply to her maligners, but she had other and better work to do. He thereupon produced a pamphlet, and answered quite adequately the further outbursts of Spurrell and Hobart Seymour. He told them that they were 'unmanly.' His effort shows a wonderful admiration for his daughter and her work. Criticism, however, whether answered or not, was powerless to repress her purpose. Her work during the cholera plague in 1849 brought on a grave illness. She could, after that, sit up only for limited periods, and often took her meals in a reclining position. Eventually she had to be wheeled about. She became steadily worse, but her spirit did not fail, and she lived long enough to see her Sisterhood spread to many industrial centres. It was soon at work in London, in the sunless, airless streets. In connection with this London settlement a convalescent home was opened at Ascot, 'which sought no friends except among the poor,' and consequently found itself in financial straits, from which the interest and generosity of Dr. Pusey saved it. The London Sisters were conspicuous in the cholera outbreaks of 1866 and 1871.

Another important development was that of missionary work, which was undertaken for the first time by women acting upon their own initiative when the Sisters in 1864 opened a mission in the Pacific with their base at Honolulu. An interesting and insufficiently remembered fact is that Miss Sellon organized a band of nursing Sisters to accompany Florence Nightingale to the Crimean War, putting them under Miss Nightingale's authority, and refusing to go herself for fear of causing a division of authority. A few years later she was a paralytic, though her mental faculties were not impaired. She lived thus for fifteen years in so strange a calm after so eager a conflict with evil. She died at Malvern on November 20, 1876, at the age of fifty-five.

In thirteen years of active life she had accomplished a work of amazing extent and variety, containing the germs of many further developments, both social and devotional. She is the mother of our women's orders. Her practical ability was very great, her courage was wonderful, her wisdom and shrewdness unfailing. But her gifts were so richly fruitful because she was utterly given to her Lord, and because the Catholic Faith was her very life. In view of the story of Priscilla Sellon, what becomes of the idle complaint that the English Church produces no saints?

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